When Scholastic’s Dear Canada series began in 2001, its aim was to engage young female readers with Canadian history while providing useful resources for teachers and librarians. In the books, written in the form of fictional diaries, well-known Canadian writers like Jean Little and Kit Pearson examine pivotal historical events such as the Halifax Explosion or the Underground Railroad through the eyes of young girls. It worked: over the past decade, the series has drawn readers and awards from coast to coast.
Now Scholastic has taken the obvious next step of introducing I Am Canada, an historical fiction series aimed at boys and promising “adventure, duty, danger, fear.” Once again, each book is centred around a fictional child living through significant events in Canada’s history. And once again, the series is written by respected authors with well-established credentials. Though the diary format has been relaxed somewhat, the first-person approach remains.
The series appears to have everything going for it, but writing fiction about historical figures and events is nonetheless always tricky. How many factual details does the reader need to understand the story’s context? If the balance tips too far toward the setting’s research-derived details – fascinating as they may be – the tale gets sidetracked.
Paul Yee maintains the balance between story and history in the diary of Lee Heen-gwong, a Chinese teen who travels with his father to the mountains of B.C. in 1882 to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway. The number of Chinese workers killed while doing this work was appallingly high, and Yee doesn’t sugarcoat the effects of illness, injury, and terrible working conditions. Heen-gwong notes numerous maimings and accidents as he relates his own adventures.
Yee also shows the ability of Heen-gwong and his companions to work together, to share, and to do each other a good turn. In other words, he is able to balance the bleak facts of history with glimpses of humanity.
Some readers may find the story’s plethora of unusual character names challenging. Among the many people Heen-gwong encounters are Little Uncle, Bucktooth, Money God, Saltwater Crisp, and Blind Eye. Heen himself is known to some of his workmates as “Rock Brain.” The narrative offers a few details to explain the reasons behind each nickname, but their sheer volume might require some flipping back and forth to keep everyone straight.
Hugh Brewster’s Prisoner of Dieppe, an account of the failed raid on Dieppe in August 1942 and its cruel aftermath for the thousands of Canadian soldiers forced to endure the rest of the war in German and Polish POW camps, represents an equally strong opening for the series. Brewster is the perfect choice to tell this tale, given his previous books on Vimy Ridge and Juno Beach, and he skilfully evokes the tragedy of the war and the bravery and resilience of its young participants.
Prisoner of Dieppe is structured as the memoir of an aging veteran, written for a grandson who has shown an interest in the subject. Instead of steering clear of some of the more graphic or troubling details, Brewster has the grandfather reveal everything: the fear, the violence, the blood, even the mistakes. As well as describing the historical events, the book explores the notion of “brothers in arms” and offers a twist at the end that celebrates the idea without glorifying it.
As in Yee’s book, the historical research on display in Prisoner of Dieppe is impressive. In his acknowledgements, Brewster thanks the Dieppe veterans who provided first-person accounts, some of which made it into the story. Details such as the lyrics to morale-building songs and the many ways that prisoners fashioned tools and implements from their Red Cross packages provide not just colour, but glimpses of the realities of war. Brewster uses the fruits of this research to craft not just a history lesson, but compelling characters and stories.
Beyond the books’ main stories, there are ample resources provided for teachers, librarians, and curious readers. Each book concludes with a useful collection of historical notes and photographs, and a glossary of unfamiliar terms. The authors also provide some helpful and fascinating background on their research. Yee, for example, offers the disturbing story, told to him by his aunt, of Chinese workers who froze to death, while Brewster describes attending the 65th anniversary commemoration of the raid on Dieppe, calling it “the most moving experience I have ever had as a Canadian.”
Neither of these books is an easy read – the authors don’t shy away from the dark side of their sometimes difficult subjects. Both, however, make history come alive through an expert mix of fact and fiction. If future instalments adhere to these high standards, Scholastic will have another winning series on its hands.
Praise for I Am Canada
"... the chief characters are eminently likeable and quietly heroic, and their tales utterly engrossing." —The Globe and Mail
"... makes history come alive through an expert mix of fact and fiction." —Quill & Quire, starred review.
"... its lively writing style will maintain reader interest throughout." —CM Magazine, 3 1/2 stars out of 4
"I was riveted by the story... . It's very well written. The book is filled with the details of the life of a soldier and POW, but it never dragged. The pacing was quick and yet nothing is taken from the characterizations." — Chrisbookarama.com