by Julie Birrell
I read my first chapter book in the backseat of the family station wagon on the way to a rented cottage when I was eight years old. At the end of the book, the protagonist's best friend dies of cancer. Confronted with one of my very first unhappy endings, I looked out the window of the car, the book clutched in my lap, and felt something visceral, dark and complicated that seemed just beyond my understanding. I was hooked.
Karen Autio's first novel, Second Watch, deals with tragedy as well. It tells the little-known story of The Empress of Ireland, which sank in the St. Lawrence River on May 29th, 1914. "Canada's worst maritime disaster during peacetime" is told from the perspective of Saara Maki, an eleven-year-old Finnish girl living in Port Arthur. Saara's voice is vivid and authentic, but her family's experience of the catastrophe seems a little too sanitised to elicit real emotion from its intended audience.
The story begins several months before the actual disaster, introducing the reader to the Maki family and Saara, who dreams desperately of a trip to Finland to visit her relatives. The trip is expensive, however, and when Saara's father loses his job, it seems unlikely they will be able to afford it. Although Saara does not blame her father directly, their relationship is tense, and strained further by the regular stresses of family life and growing up. Add to this problems with her best friend at school, and Saara's life seems quite bleak indeed. When it is finally decided that Mr. Maki will stay behind so that the rest of the family can go to Finland, Saara parts with her friend coldly, and refuses to say goodbye to her father at the train station. However, her home troubles soon pale in comparison to the ordeal she experiences on her journey.
This book is sincerely and clearly written, exploring a part of Canadian history that is little-known, as well as detailing the growth and learning of a likeable young girl. Saara returns after her experience with a new perspective on life; she values the people around her much more, and sees the goodness in the calm of her daily life. There is something a little too neat about the ending, however, and it seems that some greater, more untidy truth is missing.