We are happy to introduce our new Children's Books Editor, Jeffrey Canton. Jeffrey has been involved extensively in the Canadian Children's Lit community over the years, and was formerly with the Canadian Children's Book Centre. His reviews have appeared in a number of Canadian newspapers and magazines. He lives in Toronto.
The cover of Judi Coburn's first young adult novel, The Shacklands, features an arresting portrait of a young woman rising above a row of shacks. This is an actual family photograph of Coburn's grandmother, and although The Shacklands is not her story, the photo's presence is the first sign of the prodigious research Coburn has undertaken to write her book.
In 1908, sixteen-year-old Jessie Robertson emigrates with her family from London's slums to an area called "The Shacklands" in the West Toronto Junction. Details of early Toronto life abound: walking the plank takes on new meaning as Jessie and her friends struggle to walk along the narrow boards that cover the muddy streets; floods along the Humber River threaten to wipe out the Chinese market gardeners; the villages of Carlton and Davenport are still independent. A plethora of facts of time, place, and social history is woven seamlessly into the story.
School is a refuge for Jessie. Her English teacher, Miss Jensen, befriends her and introduces her to the cause of women's suffrage. Later, she helps Jessie prepare for exams and encourages her to train as a teacher. However, like many young women of the period, Jessie has to wait until she is eighteen before she can seek her own fortune and, in the interim, she takes a job at T.E. Braine Clothing Company, where she becomes involved in the 1910 strike. Jessie struggles with the role of women as she receives conflicting messages from her friends and family. Her uncertainy when she receives a marriage proposal is as pertinent to young women today as it was 100 years ago.
Family and community life are two other major themes. "Hospitals are places where folks with nothing, no money, and no family, go to die," says Jessie's Uncle Jack. When her father has a fall at work and fractures his hip, he is given morphine and taken home from the hospital the same day in the back of a wagon along miles of bumpy streets.
Readers could take a tour of the Shacklands following the footsteps of the Robertson family: the children walk along St. Clair Avenue and Keele and Annette streets and go skating on Grenadier Pond; Jesse's siblings attend Carlton School; Jesse's mother is buried in Prospect Cemetery. At the end of the novel, Jessie attends an air show at the Weston Fair Grounds that, an historical note tells readers, was the first demonstration of air flight in Ontario. Young readers will also find photographs of this event in a selection at the back of the novel.
The Shacklands is a rather traditional novel, but strong characterization, vivid detail, and varied plot lines will engage young readers. Teachers could use it in their classrooms when studying early Canadian social history. Many young readers are longing for a change from problem-fraught contemporary novels, and The Shacklands deserves a place on their bookshelves.
Julie Glazier is an English Consultant for the Toronto District School Board.