It's the turn of the century in Cape Breton, and young James is getting ready for his first day of working in a coal mine. His Da, himself a miner for twenty years, voices his confidence and pride in his son: "You have coal in your blood, same as me." His mother's pride though is mingled with worry. She warns him: "Take care, my son. You know the deeps is dangerous."
Those sentiments-pride coupled with acute consciousness of the many dangers-are carried by every miner, and are as much tools of the trade as their picks, shovels, and lanterns in Ian Wallace's Boy of the Deeps.
In direct, understated but powerful prose, Wallace relates how James experiences his first day in the mines. The story is loosely based on the tales told to him by his English miner grandfather, and is both a rite-of-initiation narrative and a day-in-the-life-styled documentary.
The story is complemented by Wallace's dark, somber, grainy pictures. They have the still quality of posed photographs and bring to mind the documentary photographs of American working children done by Lewis Hine in the early part of the twentieth century, which captured the individuality of young labourers and their harsh working conditions.
On their walk to work, James and his father are joined by the other miners and together they form a parade. At the entrance, James is stopped short by the sight of the mine, "a beast rising from the sea". Once inside, the muted golden hues of daybreak are replaced by the blue black perpetual night of the mine, a "darkness that was darker than a raven's eye," says James. He is amazed by the size of this "bustling city underground", and overwhelmed by the smell of coal and rock, and the sounds of dripping water and grinding metal. His Da tutors him to swing a pick, dig a trench, and blast coal loose from the tunnel walls.
The shock of the new heightens James' emotions and sensory awareness. Belonging to a community that prizes reticence, James never directly expresses what he is feeling; rather, Wallace indirectly communicates James' flaring excitement and fears through imaginative similes and analogies.
This first day will be one that James will never forget-both typical and eventful. It is marked by back-breaking work, the camaraderie of the other miners, and a potentially life-threatening accident in which Da, by his example, shows James that they must take such happenings in stride for "they were miners and that was their job". Their stoic acceptance of the ever-present risks and threats is made all the more impressive by Wallace's unsensationalized dramatization of it.
Boy of the Deeps is a moving testament and an initiation into the world of childhood labour and mining, so distant as to be unimaginable, but made vividly real in this excellent picture book.