by Olga Stein
Winner of the 2005 Governor General Literary Award for Children's Literature, the book is 214 pages, though the narrative's actual length is perhaps a little over that of an average short story. It is typeset as verse, but it isn't poetry in any way other than arrangement of text on the page. However, there is something poetic and moving in the way it captures a period of crisis in a young girl's life, as well as the spirit of a small farming town in Saskatchewan of the 1960s, with all of its prejudices but also its communal attributes.
The narrator, eleven-year-old Emaline, suffers a terrible accident. In order to save her dog, she jumps off the back of a tractor that her father is driving to disc the field, and the tractor's end disc cuts through her leg, nearly severing her foot. Emaline's foot is saved, but her leg is damaged for life. The accident causes her father to undergo an emotional breakdown. He simply walks away from the farm, abandoning his wife and daughter without a word of explanation. Later we learn that this is his very drastic way of giving up on farming and its harsh vicissitudes. But this very act of amputating part of his life, with everything and everyone in it that remind him of the hardships he has endured for years, remains difficult for Emaline to understand and accept. She continues to nurse fond memories of her father, hoping that one day he'll simply reappear.
Emaline's mother is devastated by the utter desertion of her husband. Her daughter has been seriously injured, she's short on money, and the farm lacks a man to work the fields and sow the next crop, without which the family cannot earn enough cash to continue life on the farm. She must think and act quickly. The course of action she settles on upsets many of her neighbours. Emaline's mother arranges for a patient from the town's mental hospital, a giant of a man with orange hair, to stay at her farm and seed the fields. The man, Angus, is hard-working and good-natured. Emaline gradually befriends him, and begins to understand his idiosyncratic but benign way of looking at people and the world around him. At the same time, she observes other people's reactions to a man whose condition is misunderstood, and whose presence elicits fear and, occasionally, cruelty.
Mental illness, the author's note tells us, was poorly understood until very recently. One notes, in this story, that patients of an institution were automatically considered dangerous, outsiders whom 'normal' folks couldn't fathom contributing to town life. By contrast, Emaline's father, a man clearly traumatised by his bad luck on the farm, and, more severely, by his daughter's accident, is not seen as ill. Despite the strangeness of his defection from his family, he's left alone to live and work on the other side of the town. Today, his condition would likely have been diagnosed and treated as clinical depression.
Angus slowly wins his way into everyone's hearts, especially after saving a boy during a killer of a winter blizzard. Emaline, recovering from her own trauma, is a beutifully drawn witness to havoc in her own family, as well as to the transformation in a community's attitude towards the gentle giant from the mental hospital. ò