The events in and around Toronto in the autumn of 1837 are seen through the experiences of a boy of fourteen years, recently arrived from England: not a partisan in this time of unrest but an observer.
He is Adam Wheeler, the son of poor agricultural labourers in Sussex. He emigrates to Toronto with the family of an uncle who has been lured by tales of land and dreams of becoming gentry. Adam understands better than he what ownership of land means in a country of forests. He strikes out on his own and finds work in the Skinner and Eastwood paper mill near Todmorden. Here he lives in the Skinner household, works in the mill, and runs errands that take him to King Street, to the Forks of the Don, along ravines, and up Yonge Street. He meets men and women from radicals to moderate reformers to Tories with much to lose from political change.
As unrest intensifies, the ravine trails become dangerous with rebels. His path is criss-crossed by the dashing and intrepid young De Grassi sisters, acting as couriers and observers for the Tories. His uncle, disappointed in his ambitions, joins the rebels, and Adam goes north to Montgomery's Tavern to try to bring him back. When tragedy strikes the family, he returns and witnesses the unequal clash of the militia and Mackenzie's untrained and often unarmed force.
Readers of Marianne Brandis's trilogy on Emma Anderson's youth in Upper Canada will know the very full picture she presents of her period, rich in details of everyday life and the implications of pioneer living. (The three parts are The Tinder Box, 1982, The Quarter-Pie Window, 1985, and The Sign of the Scales, 1990, all from The Porcupine's Quill.) Her subject in Rebellion is wider and more dramatic, but the sense of time and place evoked is as real and immediate. What Adam Wheeler meets in Toronto he understands in the light of his life in England, and this gives the book an insightful historical perspective. Moreover he knows from his own family, who were among agricultural workers fighting for their livelihood, the cost of insurrection, and he distrusts it.
It is the character of Adam Wheeler that is the backbone of Rebellion. Serious, hard-headed, and compassionate, he struggles with responsibilities sometimes too heavy for him-a coming-of-age with a vengeance. He has the reader's confidence and sympathy. The author has an easy way with the historical figures who appear briefly, from Colonel Fitzgibbon to Bishop Strachan; perhaps especially with the high-strung William Lyon Mackenzie, whose eccentricities so often overshadow his formidable role in the politics of Upper Canada. Oddly enough, the characters who do not sit easily in the book are Cornelia and Charlotte De Grassi, who did indeed serve as couriers and spies during the uprising, but are too close to being romantic heroines in this otherwise down-to-earth book.
The fine wood-engravings of Gerard Brender a Brandis, as the title page says, "embellish" it. Simple and dark, they are windows into the past. In something of the same way, Marianne Brandis's low-key style and simple, precise use of language create memorable scenes and descriptions: the marshes at the mouth of the Don; and Charlotte De Grassi on horseback, clear in the lamplight of the rebels who surround her.
High adventure is not Ms. Brandis's forte, and her title may suggest adventure to some young adult readers. They will find her book more rewarding and demanding than that. l
Ruth Osler was head of children's services for the Toronto Public Library System. She is now retired.