Convictions (2016), by Judith Silverthorne

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 22.1.

Another obvious contender for the 2017 Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction For Young People, in my estimation. I really wish I were a juror again this year, as I have been in the past, as there are some really good historical novels for young readers out there this year.

Convictions (2016)

silverthorne-convictionsIt is 1842. Jennie’s family is starving, so she takes some mouldy oats from a milliner’s garbage. For that, she is convicted of theft and sentenced to 7 years transportation to the penal colony of Australia. She is one of 235 female convicts, including pregnant women and women with young children. Jennie is fourteen when she boards the convict ship Emily Anne; the youngest prisoner is ten-year-old Alice.

Judith Silverthorne’s account of Jennie’s life on board the Emily Anne is convincingly harsh; there is very little evasion of the horrors of the women’s lives at the hands of uncaring or even abusive guards. What helps Jennie survive are the relationships the women forge in their shared hardship. As Jennie discovers the gamut of “crimes” the women have been sentenced for, she comes to appreciate her fellow prisoners’ differences. Learned prejudices against the “doxies” Lizzie and Fanny, or the alcoholic Dottie, or the Irish-Catholic Kate, are eventually subsumed in the need to band together to survive the physical and psychological trauma of their situation. Seasickness and poor rations threaten their health. Crowded into small shared bunks or hammocks, they are afflicted by rodents, lice, and fleas. Women and children, most used to living simply but honorably, are treated like animals by the poorly paid crew and guards.

Not all the guards are as vile as “Red Bull” Chilcott, whose lecherous behaviour threatens the sexually innocent among the prisoners, and whose sexual appetites mark him as a target for Fanny’s manipulations on behalf of her friends. Some of the guards are cruel but not abusive, and some appear more sympathetic towards the women’s plight. We see a subtle connection growing between Jennie and a young crew-member, Nate, and when the ship is wrecked on a reef near Tenerife, we are not surprised that the intelligent Nate is instrumental in saving a small number of crew and prisoners.

Silverthorne does not stray from her excellent historical representation even in the romance that is beginning to grow between Jennie and Nate. The women’s ultimate fate after being saved by a passing Scottish vessel—whose Captain and crew are welcoming neither to the English nor to women—is logically supportable in terms of the political, financial, and cultural reality Silverthorne is recreating. Nate expresses his hope that his and Jennie’s lives will follow a similar path, and we are shown a narrative direction in which that could be true; but at the close of the novel, we are left with as much uncertainly as Jennie and the other survivors. As readers, we are convinced of the historical truth reflected in Convictions; Jennie’s story remains in our minds, her future pondered, long after the last page is read.

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Missing Nimâmâ (2015), by Melanie Florence

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 21.3.

On 17 November 2016, Missing Nimâmâ was awarded theTD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, the highest honour (and greatest monetary award) available for writers of children’s literature in Canada.

The intended age group for the picture book was listed in the competition literature as 9-12, which differs from my earlier assumptions in writing this review.

Missing Nimâmâ

Illustrated by François Thisdale.

Florence - Missing“Once upon a time there was a little girl, a little butterfly, who flew to the telephone every time it rang, hoping against hope that her mother was coming home.”

Missing Nimâmâ is a truly beautiful book. I’m not sure, though, who the audience is. François Thisdale’s illustrations enhance this poignant story of a young Aboriginal mother torn from her family in an unexplained way, like so many Aboriginal women in Canada have been. Kateri’s mother is lost; Kateri is being raised by her nôhkom, her grandmother, while her mother’s spirit watches over her.

The story is told in both voices. We hear the spirit of the young mother as she watches her daughter grow to womanhood. We watch as Kateri tells her own story as she matures under the loving care of her grandmother. We never learn what happened to Kateri’s mother; Kateri is a young woman, married, and expecting her first child when the call comes that they have found her mother. What happened is not the issue, though, so much as the years of not knowing, of growing up without a mother, or missing a daughter, a sister, a wife – and having no answers. The depth of this ongoing tragedy is hauntingly portrayed through Florence’s poetic words and Thisdale’s evocative illustrations.

But to return to my earlier question: who is this book for? It is truly beautiful, but perhaps too powerful for young readers, even if presented through the filter of an adult reader. But who am I to say? I have not lost a mother; I have not needed this story. And it is a story that needs to be both told and heard.

Walking Home (2014), by Eric Walters

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.2.

Walters - WalkinghomecoverWhen I first picked up Walking Home to review it, I was concerned. What do I know about Kenya? How could I possibly determine the authenticity of the social and cultural space Eric Walters is describing? Fortunately, Walters includes an “Author’s Note” at the back (should this be at the front?) which tells us about the Creation of Hope Orphanage he founded in Kenya after a 2007 visit to a friend there. “Accompanied by four children from the Creation of Hope Orphanage, four young Canadians and my good friend Henry Kyatha,” Walters tells us in his “Note,” “we walked the route traveled by my characters. … Over six days, we walked more than 150 kilometers so I could know Muchoki.” With such assurance about the author’s personal investment—material and emotional—in his subject, my own approach to the novel changed: what I was about to read was fiction, certainly, but with an underlying truth that elevates the novel from interesting fiction to a reflection of reality that cannot be ignored.

Muchoki, his mother, and his little sister Jata have lost everything. On January 1st, 2008, armed assailants attacked a church in Eloret, over 300 kilometres north west of Nairobi, and burnt it—and all inside—to ashes. Walter’s fictional characters escaped this massacre. When the story opens, they are living in a refugee camp near Nairobi. When his mother dies in the refugee camp, Muchoki makes the decision to escape with Jata rather than face separation. In far away Kikima, his mother’s people live. His only choice, then, is to take Jata and face the long walk through the dangers of war-torn Nairobi, and out the other side, south towards Machakos. From there, they would ask directions to Kikima, where they hope that the family who do not know of their existence will welcome them. Strong for his sister in this and many ways, Muchoki weaves a narrative of hope for Jata: their mother’s people are Kamba, “people of the string,” so they will follow the string of the legend that will lead them unerringly to their family.

Walking Home is more than the story of Muchoki and Jata’s journey. In keeping with this sort of survival story, it is about what Muchoki learns, how he grows, as they travel towards their destination. Before he leaves the refugee camp, a friendly sergeant tells him that Kalenjin or Kamba or Kikuyu, Luo or Maasi, they are all Kenyans: together they must build a stable country. The bitter hatred Muchoki feels for those who killed his father cannot be assuaged by words, and certainly not all who the children meet on their journey help to dissipate the anger and distrust. But the balance is in their favour, and aid comes from many hands: the sergeant is Kalenjin; a Maasi father and son watch over them for a span; they aid a Luo merchant passing through Kibera, a dangerous Narobi community; their experience—far more than the sergeants words—teaches them that there is a Kenya, encompassing all tribes.

Muchoki leads Jata along the invisible string of his mother’s Kamba heritage, and—as in the folktale—it leads them home.

Lily and Taylor (2013), by Elise Moser

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.1.

Lily and Taylor

Moser-Lily“They stuffed her brain inside her chest” (1). With an opening like that, readers are at odds to guess even the genre of Elise Moser’s novel: science fiction? fantasy? police drama? We soon learn that Taylor is watching an autopsy. A strange activity for a teen, so readers from a privileged world might assume that this is some sort of educational experience. For Taylor, it is not; Taylor is viewing the autopsy of her sister, Tannis, killed by her boyfriend in domestic abuse. The genre is now obvious: stark realism. Taylor’s life and experiences are not those of the average teen… or maybe they are. Maybe those of us living sheltered lives have no idea of what happens to far too many individuals living below the poverty line, or on the streets, or with drug or alcohol addicted guardians, or in abusive relationships that they just don’t know how to get out of.

Taylor’s story brings home the helplessness young women might feel when they do not have the strength, or more importantly the means, to escape. Lily’s life is different, but becomes intertwined with Taylor’s when Taylor is taken to live with her grandparents after Tannis’s death. Lily is alone, looking after her brain-damaged mother, who is nonetheless proclaimed capable enough to remain Lily’s legal guardian. Lily stands outside of normal teen society, but by choice. Taylor respects Lily’s strength, her individuality, and begins to stand up to those around her. The fly in the ointment is Taylor’s abusive boyfriend, Devon, who she has left behind. She is torn between fear of Devon’s unreasonable violence, and her own need to be loved by anyone. As her friendship with Lily grows, and she begins to create a normal life for herself, Devon’s telephone calls become more frequent and more threatening. When he finally appears, the girls find themselves in a very dangerous—even life-threatening—kidnapping situation. It is here that the realism of Moser’s novel comes to the fore, because it is in no way obvious which way she will take her plot. For the next 100 pages, we are fraught by the fear the girls face, the thin line between their survival and Devon’s abuse. How each of them deals with the threat they face almost tears them apart. In the end, their affection for and understanding of each other wins out, but Moser gives them—and us—nothing for free. Such is life, she tells us, when you have so few options. For Lily and Taylor, their friendship is all that is they can cling to: but they have learned that their respect, love, and loyalty might be enough.