Exploring Loss and Healing
- Paul Morin (Illustrator) and Maxine Trottier (Author)
Mr. Hiroshi's Garden. Fitzhenry & Whiteside (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Andrea Spalding (Author), Alfred Scow (Author), and Darlene Gait (Illustrator)
Secret of the Dance. Orca Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Veronika Martenova Charles (Author), Annouchka Gravel Galouchko (Illustrator), and Stéphan Daigle (Illustrator)
The Birdman. Tundra Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Judith Saltman
Three recent Canadian picturebooks address historical and contemporary social justice issues. Two of the titles are set in Canada, and are concerned with the Japanese-Canadian internment camps and the outlawing of the West Coast Potlatch. One is set in India. All of them implicitly consider cultural continuity through the passage of values from a generation of elders to children of their own culture or to outsiders who respect and value that culture.
Maxine Trottier’s Mr. Hiroshi’s Garden, a historical, West Coast picturebook, was originally published as Flags in 1999. Reissued in paperback under a different title and with a new cover, it is identical in text and illustrations to the earlier publication. Maxine Trottier has written many picturebooks with Canadian historical narratives, ranging from Laura Secord to Louis Riel. Here, she observes the internment of Canadian citizens of Japanese heritage during the Second World War as a childhood memory, told in the first person, from an outsider’s perspective. Mary, the prairie-born narrator, recalls the summer during World War II that she spent at her grandmother’s home overlooking the Pacific. She meets a neighbour, Mr. Hiroshi, and discovers his traditional sand-and-moss Japanese garden, the blue irises or flags, and the pond with koi fish. Her friendship with Mr. Hiroshi is disrupted when he is taken away to an internment camp. Although Mary cares for his abandoned garden, Mr. Hiroshi’s house is sold and his garden destroyed. Mary and her grandmother rescue the koi and transplant the flag bulbs in Mary’s prairie backyard. Mr. Hiroshi’s tranquil and beautiful garden is a symbol of peace, and its continuity through Mary’s attention and care into another location offers a glimmer of tolerance and understanding. The story’s tone is bittersweet, not sentimental or exploitative, but hopeful. Paul Morin’s expressionistic oil paintings on canvas are stunning in their realism, light, and texture. Figures and portraits are subtly emotional and the shimmering, fragmented light of the garden, on the water lilies, pond, and golden carp, evokes the magic of western-styled Monet garden paintings rather than traditional Japanese art.
British Columbia’s Orca Books has released a picturebook collaboration by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal creators. In Secret of the Dance, Andrea Spalding co-authors the text with Judge Alfred Scow, elder of the Kwakwa’wakw Nation. The narrative is described as “fiction but . . . based on an incident in the life of the child Watl’kina.” Scow’s fictionalized memoir is set in 1935, when, at age nine, he witnessed an illegal Potlatch, secretly held by his family at British Columbia’s Kingcome Inlet by his family as a memorial for his grandfather. The Potlatch is held when the children are sleeping, but the boy Alfred, Watl’kina, is awakened and drawn to the singing and drumming. Hidden in the shadows of the Big House, he observes masked dancers, drums, the family’s ceremonial regalia, and recognizes his father dancing. His personal sense of culture and identity is deeply affected by his bearing witness to this act, culturally powerful and bravely defiant. The voice of the adult recalling a profound and transformative childhood moment is more immediate and credible than that Trottier constructs in Mr. Hiroshi’s Garden. Unlike Mr. Hiroshi’s Garden, an afterword offers historical context and personal details of Scow’s experiences, including the imprisonment of his family members for refusal to give up the regalia to the government.
The illustrations by Darlene Gait, of Coast Salish heritage, strikingly reflect Aboriginal imagery drawn from button blankets, masks, and carvings, both in their realistic presence in their family’s life and ritualistically in the potlatch, and surrealistically, transformed in the sky and waters of the West Coast. Her use of black and white drawings juxtaposed with full-colour acrylic paintings contrasts images of the secular ordinary world with those of the ceremony’s sacred dimensions. By contrast, Gait shows a tentative, poignant naivety and even awkwardness in the handling of human figures.
The passage of loss through grief to healing is a theme in these picturebooks. Author-illustrator Veronika Martenova Charles’ The Birdman is, like Secret of the Dance and Mr. Hiroshi’s Garden, a picturebook narrative of generational change, loss, and healing. Like Secret of the Dance, it is based on a true story told from an adult perspective. Charles’ protagonist is Nobi, an adult tailor from Calcutta, who loses his life to despair after his children are killed in an accident. His grieving and healing begin with the act of buying caged birds from the market, nursing them to health, and releasing them to freedom. The allegory of suffering and redemption is beautifully backgrounded by the gouache paintings based on Indian folk art by Québécois illustrators Annouchka Gravel Galouchko and Stéphan Daigle. The heavily patterned and decorative imagery incorporates Hindu cultural artefacts and imagery of birds in flight.
All three of these works touch on the pain of human life and examine acts of grace, compassion, and courage in response to suffering and injustice. They are representative of a newer type of picturebook designed for the older school-aged child and adult reader, rather than the young pre-school child.
- Prairie Past, Prairie Present by R. Douglas Francis
Books reviewed: The Prairie West as Promised Land by R. Douglas Francis and Chris Kitzan and All This Town Remembers by Sean Johnston
- Engendering China by Lily Cho
Books reviewed: Chinese Femininities, Chinese Masculinities by Susan Brownell and Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Tales of a Chinese Grandmother by Frances Carpenter
- Diaspora and Indigeneity by Paul Lai
Books reviewed: Cultural Grammars of Nation, Diaspora, and Indigeneity in Canada by Christine Kim, Sophie McCall, and Melina Baum Singer
- A Treasure Trove for Theatre Lovers by Gordon Gamlin
Books reviewed: Love + Relasianships Volume 2: A Collection of Contemporary Asian-Canadian Drama by Nina Lee Aquino and Love + Relasianships Volume 1: A Collection of Contemporary Asian-Canadian Drama by Nina Lee Aquino
- Trauma by Analogy by Thomas Lamarre
Books reviewed: Tsubaki by Aki Shimazaki
MLA: Saltman, Judith. Exploring Loss and Healing. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #193 (Summer 2007), Canada Reads. (pg. 152 - 153)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.