When Morning Comes (2016), by Arushi Raina

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 22.2.

Having been a juror for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction For Young People for the past two years (it is a two-year appointment), I have to say that When Morning Comes stands a very good chance of being the winner for 2017. That cannot, of course, be reflected in my review for Resource Links, but I wanted to add that opinion to my appreciation of Raina’s excellent novel.

When Morning Comes (2016)

raina-when-morning-comesI am not an expert on African politics, but have been come increasingly interested through a number of fabulous young adult novels that have come my way. First there was

I am not an expert on African politics, but have been come increasingly interested through a number of fabulous young adult novels that have come my way. First there was Cape Town (2012), by Brenda Hammond; then Walking Home (2014), by Eric Walters; and now When Morning Comes, by Arushi Raina. They just keep getting better. Raina’s complex characterization and intricate plot kept me enthralled from my first meeting of Zanele and Jack and Meena through to the devastatingly inevitable conclusion. Raina does not capitulate to simplistic narrative expectations of some current YA genres, wherein the teen protagonists rise above the socio-political powers against which they struggle and succeed; this is perhaps because the novel is based on historical events, but it is nonetheless admirably handled. Raina’s characters are young: inexperienced yet passionate, afraid yet determined. They behave immaturely under pressure. They make mistakes. They—and more importantly those around them—suffer for those mistakes. And so they learn, but that learning sometimes comes too late. The bravery of some characters seems at times almost excessive, but it is always believable.

The story is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1976. We meet Zanele as she and her friends attempt to bomb a power station. The attempt fails; two of her friends are arrested; Zanele escapes. Theirs is but a small act of terrorism aimed at helping to overthrow the apartheid government. As the novel progresses, Zanele’s life becomes inextricably entwined with that of Jack, a naïve white boy who is entranced by Zanele; Meena, daughter of a South Asian shopkeeper who is being extorted by a local gang; and Thabo, one of the gang members and Zanele’s childhood friend. The intricate connections Raina constructs in her narrative all lead inexorably toward the tragedy that erupted on June 16th, 1976. The Soweto Uprising is infamous in South African history for the police brutality used against the 15,000 students in the protest that quickly became a riot. Raina’s novel traces the path from the government imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction, through the Soweto high school students’ growing dissatisfaction, to their cohesive plan of action. The short “historical intro”—significantly at the back of the novel—informs the reader of the real historical moment, but the novel itself is a far stronger exposition of the students’ anger and power than any historical commentary could be.

A Year of Borrowed Men (2015), by Michelle Barker

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.

A Year of Borrowed Men was deservedly short-listed for the 2016 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award.

A Year of Borrowed Men

Illustrated by Renné Benoit.

Barker - Borrowed MenA Year of Borrowed Men tells a story from World War Two that will be unfamiliar to many readers, but is nonetheless a moving part of the history of the German-Canadian community. The author writes from her mother Gerta’s recollections, bringing to life the engaging voice of the younger Gerta, whose family hosted three French prisoners-of-war on their German farm in 1944.

World War Two from the German perspective remains somewhat problematic: how do we reconcile decades of erroneous equation of “German” with evil, with the real experiences of many Germans during the war? While the topic is dealt with effectively in some textsT– Roberto Innocenti’s Rose Blanche (1985), Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2005), John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2006), among othersT– it will take so many more stories for truth to overcome the stereotypes. A Year of Borrowed Men contributes positively and significantly to our understanding of the compassion of some of the German populace, placed themselves in an almost untenable psychological and ideological situation.

Gerta’s father was “borrowed” by the German army, and in his place the government sent three French prisonersT– Gabriel, Fermaine, and AlbertT– to work the land. Gerta’s innocent narrative perspective ensures that the dark reality of Germany’s forced labour policy is not brought out. With the egalitarianism of young children, Gerta cannot understand why the three must live with the animals, and eat in the “pig’s kitchen,” where the slops were prepared. That was the rule though: these men were prisoners and were to be treated as such. Inviting them in to dinner one night almost sent Gerta’s mother to prison herself, yet the family could not deny their fundamental humanity. Despite regulations, in the face of threats, Gerta and her mother find little ways of making the Frenchmen’s lives more tolerable: extra butter on their bread, catalogues to cut into elicit decorations at Christmas, sneaking treats for them to eat. The men reciprocated with affection for their little German freunde: “I couldn’t keep the borrowed men here,” Gerta observes at the end of the war, “but we were friends– and I could keep that forever.” The story is made more powerful by the fact that Gerta did indeed keep that friendship alive: enough that her daughter has retold their story for her grandchildren’s generation to learn.

Uncertain Solider (2015), by Karen Bass

Bass - SoldierWhen I was young, I saw the 1978 movie version of Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier (1973). Until then, I hadn’t thought about what “our side” did with prisoners of war. It was more obvious with Allied prisoners in the European or Asian theatre: the prisoners were held there, where the battles were being waged. (Hogan’s Heroes, the comic TV series that ran from 1965 to 1971, was also a popular entertainment of my youth.) Less traumatic than the American Summer of My German Soldier, Uncertain Soldier tells the story of Erich Hofmeyer, a German prisoner of war held in Alberta in the winter of 1943-44.

The story begins, though, in the voice of young Max Schmidt, a Canadian lad born of German parents, who is persecuted for his heritage and understandably struggles with his identity as a result. His father is almost violently insistent that Max remain proud of and stand up for himself and his German heritage. What Max is subjected to is impossible to stand against, though: a systematic, targetted bullying that readers will recognize as being a pervasive response to otherness, not just the product of war-time Canadian prejudice. When the bullying becomes life threatening, Max runs away. Max’s flight is the impetus for an act of bravery by Erich on both a physical and an emotional level, a distillation of the uncertainty that has been tearing at Erich throughout the novel.

Erich’s uncertainty regarding his conflicted national and cultural identities gives rise to the novel’s title. While Max’s struggle is the weft of the fabric of Bass’s narrative, Erich’s is the warp. Max is persecuted by his classmates; Erich’s very life is threatened by his complex position as a German national with British relatives, who speaks English perfectly and who silently rejects Hitler’s insistence on the superiority of the Aryan “race.” In the prison camp outside of Lethbridge where Erich is initially held, the Nazi party members rule as strongly as within the German army. Beaten close to death by those in power, Erich is granted a transfer to a work camp for prisoners deemed to be less of an ideological threat. Here, too, though, the dynamics among the prisoners is infused with mistrust of each other and of the Canadians the men work with. Some of the Canadians are generous and kind; others are resentful; and at least one person is filled with a hatred that leads to murderous intent. As both linguistic and cultural interpreter between the German prisoners and their English-speaking boss and fellow lumberjacks, Erich sees both honour and mistrust on both sides, and his honest, empathetic perspective makes him an ideal negotiator but also puts him in an almost untenable situation.

Uncertain Soldier is a solid, intelligent interpretation of the politics of the time and the effect of opinion on morale. Through the richness of its characters, the novel gives voice to a gamut of attitudes, revealing the complexity of life during the 1940s far more thoroughly and effectively than what is taught in history classes. In contrast to the Canadian Sam’s violent insistence that “a few firing squads last war would’ve fixed it,” Erich’s British grandfather astutely notes that “more mercy by the Great War’s victors might have prevented the fight that loomed” (103). The parallel with history is made more powerful by its subtlety; most readers will not hear Sam’s vehemence as an echo of French military politician Ferdinand Foch, who noted at the time that the Treaty of Versailles was “not peace [but] an Armistice for twenty years,” asking for harsher restrictions to be place on the defeated Germany. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Erich’s grandfather’s position is reminiscent of John Maynard Keynes’s insistence that the conditions were too harsh, that the Treaty was a “Carthaginian peace,” a peace ensured by the complete annihilation of the vanquished, such as Rome’s conquering of Carthage. Historians still debate the political “what ifs” of the first half of the twentieth century, and this uncertainty, manifested at all levels of society, is brilliantly woven into the fabric of Bass’s text.

Small Bones (2015), by Vicki Grant

Grant - Small BonesSmall Bones is part of Orca Publishers Secrets series, a parallel series to Sevens, a set of seven novels by seven different authors, featuring seven male cousins each set on a quest to accomplish in order to claim their portion of their grandfather’s inheritance. The premise of Secrets is that seven self-proclaimed “sisters”—orphans in the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls in Hope, Ontario—are sent out into the world when the orphanage burns down. Each of the “sisters” is given $138 by their beloved headmistress, Mrs. Hazelton, along with often the most vague information about their backgrounds, providing tenuous paths for them to take towards their futures.

In Small Bones, timid, highly imaginative Dot feels like she has been abandoned by Mrs. Hazelton, sent out into a harsh, unwelcoming world when she would rather stay in the comfort of their familiar small town, however socially dead an end that might be. Dot’s insecurity is somewhat assuaged by the seeming simplicity of the clue to her identity, for the new-born Dot had “arrived wrapped in an expensive coat complete with the store label and the initials of the man who owned it” (20), along with an engraved silver mustard spoon hidden in its pocket. Dot travels down to the fictional Buckminster by train, only to discover—unsurprisingly, or we would have little plot—that the store, Howell’s of Buckminster, closed in 1944, three years before Dot had been born. Dot has a birth date: July 8th, 1947, but not even verification of the place.

After a brief prologue set in 1947, the story begins in media res, with Dot on the train, intimidated by a young man who winks at her: “A real wink. Not a there’s-a-little-something-in-my-eye type of flutter … a genuine hey-baby-how’s-it-going wink” (6). The whys and the wherefores of Dot being on the train are revealed in flashback. Again unsurprisingly, Eddie turns out to be the love interest in the story, insinuating himself effortlessly into Dot’s life. Small Bones, more than any of the other of the Secrets series (Innocence perhaps excepted), is centred on the romance; the search for Dot’s parentage slips into the background of her desire to help Eddie produce a good story for the newspaper. As she builds her knowledge of what happened in Buckminster on July 8th, 1947, Dot admits

I wanted to find my parents. I wanted to find out who I was, where I came from, all that stuff. But that was only part of it now and not even the best part.

I was in it now mostly for other reasons. The way Eddie’s face kind of lit up when I mentioned something he hadn’t thought of yet. The way we didn’t even have to look at each other to know we were both thinking the same thing. The way we could sit happily for hours… (168)

Initially in her own interests, Dot maneuvers Eddie into researching the local legend behind the “Bye-Bye Baby party” held every July 8th in the woods near the resort where Dot has found work. There is no question to the reader, once the legend is revealed, that it is real and that Dot is the baby who was spirited away that night. Part of the problem is that the reader really doesn’t’ change focus away from Dot’s mystery the way that she herself does. It’s rather difficult, then, to have patience with Dot continually failing to tell Eddie her own place in the story. Perhaps it is a little of a personal hang-up, but I really do not appreciate narratives founded on either intentional duplicitousness or characters making decisions that have no logical validity; Small Bones contains both. Eddie sees Dot dropped off at the train by Mrs. Welsh, her rich employer, whom he assumes is Dot’s mother. While we can understand why Dot initially sees no reason to dissuade him of this illusion, once she begins to establish a relationship with him, there seems to be no reason for the continued subterfuge. And once they start to try to determine the truth, and Dot’s overcoat and silver spoon become important evidence, her choices become not only ethically questionable but a narratively untenable weakness. This failure to reveal results in Dot’s outright lies to Eddie at the climax of the narrative. That is all works out in the end (again unsurprisingly) does not mitigate the annoyance the reader feels towards Dot’s choices throughout the story.

[spoiler follows]

Small Bones gives us is an almost unmitigatedly happy ending: Dot and Eddie’s relationship recovers from the lies and omissions; Dot’s father is discovered to not be Eddie’s father; and Dot’s mother sends a beautiful letter and meets her new-found daughter with hugs and tears at the end of the book. All in all, I think I prefer any of the other endings (again, Innocent excepted), where the secrets the seven sisters discover lead them into adulthood with a greater maturity and understanding, rather than just the security of love and family that Dot finds.