Award-winning authors Karleen Bradford and Carol Matas have written the latest in the Dear Canada series of fictional diaries, which began last year with Sarah Ellis's Prairie as Wide as the Sea and Jean Little's Orphan at My Door. Each of these beautiful imitation diaries includes a ribbon bookmark and historical notes and photos. In these new books, readers will discover the lives of Loyalist Mary MacDonald and Red River Settler Isobel Scott through intimate moments the girls share only with their diaries.
In With Nothing But Our Courage, Mary MacDonald feels "like a feather bed that's been shaken out, turned upside down and jumped on" when former Patriot friends in Albany, New York, publicly ridicule her father and violently force her family out of town. With only a few belongings, Mary leaves her home to travel with her family through hostile Patriot lands. She knows she is headed to a faraway place called QuTbec where families loyal to the king have been assured land. But Mary worries for her family's safety, her distraught mother, her brother Angus who is off fighting the Patriots, and baby Margaret who is not taking the journey well. The journey is difficult, yet Mary discovers true friendship with a girl her age named Hannah and in the community of escaped Loyalist families.
This book is an appealing combination of Mary's story and more practical insights into how Mary lived, through, for example, recipes and herbal remedies. Readers will mourn with Mary when her baby sister dies and feel her fierce loyalty to Hannah when her friend becomes ill. In Mary, Bradford has created a practical, capable character who takes us into the experiences of the fleeing Loyalists and their efforts to build a new home out of the wilderness.
If Mary embodies a fierce loyalty to family, friends, and eventually to the land, then Isobel Scott, in Footsteps in the Snow, personifies the perseverance of the Selkirk Settlers. Isobel and her family have left Scotland for the promise of their own land in Canada. She imagines them "living in a grand house in the New World, with servants to wait on me and young men coming to call." Yet the book opens dramatically with her mother's death before they even set sail. Only to her diary does Isobel confide the trials that she must now face: being mother to her younger brother, helping her listless father, and facing the hardships the settlers encounter. The harsh winter and threats of violence against the settlers from the North West Company mean that they cannot even begin to build or farm once they reach their promised land. However, with the help of the Cree people, the settlers survive their first winter and, in time, learn to adapt to life in Canada.
Matas' story focuses on Isobel's expectations for herself in the New World and her attempts to live up to her mother's memory. It addresses the cultural differences between the Cree and the Selkirk Settlers when Isobel's father marries a Cree woman. Yet this is also an historical record of the time, specifically, a record of the escalating rivalry between the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company as well as the struggle of the Selkirk Settlers to claim their land. Matas has found a welcome blend of story and history that will captivate young readers.
With the diary format of these books, one gets a delightful feeling of peeking over the shoulders of Mary and Isobel as they write. Readers share their private fears and hopes as the girls and their families negotiate the difficulties of life in early Canada. However, the format also has its limitations. Inevitably, we are told more than we have the opportunity to observe through dramatic scenes. Yet Matas and Bradford have worked within the diary form to truly involve us in the daily plight of both Mary and Isobel and to spur us into rooting for them as they pursue their dreams. Girls aged 9 to 12 will especially enjoy the intimate portrayal of Canadian history these books provide.
Karen Krossing is a children's book writer who lives in Toronto.