This autumn brings us four novels from the Regina-based Coteau Books. All four are seemingly directed at readers about twelve years of age. They are a meagre crop. The exception is a pleasant surprise, one that all children's librarians should arrange to get on their shelves.
The grim news first. Several years ago, the syndicated Bloom County comic strip had a sequence in which Opus the Penguin was doing a stint as a movie reviewer. His response to one cinematic effort he had to endure-"This film gives a new dimension of meaning to the word `bad'"-is readily applicable to Buddy Conrackle's Amazing Adventure. The "adventure" is framed thus: Buddy will be out of school for a week or so on a family vacation with Mom, Dad, and his sister Deedee; his teacher assigns him to do a photo-essay of the trip to Oregon. Through a series of mishaps, Buddy loses all his photos but is able to provide captions for them. He uses these captions for his assignment (we now have a photo-essay with no photos); the captions in turn become the chronicle of the family vacation adventure. (In comparison to the father-son team of Buddy and his old man Buzz, other duos like Bud and Al Bundy, or Bart and Homer Simpson, look like pairs of polished aristocrats.) If brevity is the soul of wit, this sorry attempt at slapstick humour has neither soul nor wit. What can we hope from a novel whose first bit of humour runs thus: "I thought the worst birthday present in the history of the world was the remote control banana my friend Michael got for his birthday. When Michael opened the remote control banana at his birthday party, we all laughed so hard our bums almost fell off." This novel may well qualify as the remote control banana of recent Canadian children's literature.
Marginally better is Who Took Henry & Mr. Z? The title characters are the two guinea-pigs who are stolen from Mrs. Whitestar's grade five classroom. Their recovery, and the identification of the thief, drive the plot. We are never quite sure who, among the students, is supposed to be the main character. Is it Donny? Winston? Caroline? Melissa? Melody? These Saskatoon grade-fivers are so faintly and interchangeably portrayed that, in the middle of a conversation among any of them, the reader often has to backtrack into the text to check which one is speaking. Only Kelvin, the outsider and suspected culprit, remotely has any force of character. The two guinea-pigs, a narrative of whose behaviour in captivity opens several of the chapters, are easily the two most compelling sentient beings in this novel.
Thunder Ice is a marked improvement on the other two. It shows some promise, but the reader sorely wishes that the author had done one more draft, or at least that the publisher had put a more discerning editorial pencil onto the manuscript. The story begins on New Year's Eve, 1879, and moves between what was then Prince Arthur's Landing (later Port Arthur) and the cross-bay town of Fort William. (As the afterword reminds us, that two communities merged in 1970 as the present-day Thunder Bay; much of the novel revolves on the rivalry of the two communities.) The chief protagonist is a Liverpool-born immigrant lad, Oliver; his foil is his cousin Bert. The fathers of the two boys have quarrelled; the sons get caught up in the fraternal strife of their dads. Down-and-out John of Fort William (father of Oliver) balks at taking up a job at his brother Will's store way over in Prince Arthur's Landing. So, to keep bread on the family table, John takes on the perilous job of transporting nitroglycerine for the local explosives factory. Oliver sets out in pursuit. Hence we get the dubious and awkward intersection of three "thunders": that of the Abel-Cain plot-conflict, that of the two towns' later name, and that of John's chemical consignment. Among the secondary characters of the novel, the local blacksmith Mr. Campbell stands out. The rough-hewn world-weariness of this oddly likeable old codger, with whom Oliver takes a part-time job, makes one picture Great Expectations' Joe Gargery turned curmudgeon. In the final analysis, however, the perplexing and fuzzy focus on the early Thunder Bay setting of this novel overwhelms whatever little there is of character, plot, or theme.
The good news last. Behold a strange brew of adolescent confrontation with mortality, pioneer life on the prairies, time travel, and family mystery. In less skilled hands, this odd mixture could have been a recipe for a disastrous novel. But in the first chapter of The Secret of Sentinel Rock, the reader is immediately curious; by the middle chapters, quite captivated; by the end of the novel, bittersweetly charmed. A Regina-bred twelve-year-old, Emily, is at the family's ancestral farm for her much-beloved grandmother's funeral. Sentinel Rock, on the edge of the property, becomes for Emily what the wardrobe was for the children in the Narnia series: a window of passage between two worlds. Emily repeatedly time-travels to a century earlier, always finding herself still on the farm. Her chief contact in the past is another twelve-year-old, Emma. At the risk of revealing too much of this enchanting novel, we'll let out that Emma is partly a mystery figure in Emily's old family photo albums, partly Emily's doppelganger.
Emily is squarely front-and-centre is this story. We live the story through her grief at the grandmother's death and through her search for the mystery of a century earlier that lies in Sentinel Rock. Not least among the strengths of the story is the depiction of rigours of pioneer life for Emily's Scottish forebears, a small history lesson skilfully woven into her time travels. The names of the two girls, their comportment and character, and even the occasionally lyrical passages in the story suggest an author thoroughly familiar with her Austen and Brontes. (What befalls Emma cannot fail to remind us a bit of Helen Burns in Jane Eyre.) But enough said; get out and read The Secret of Sentinel Rock for yourself.