Not Quite Sunnybrook Farm
- Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (Author)
Call Me Aram. Fitzhenry & Whiteside (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sarah Ellis (Author)
The Baby Project. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Rosa Jordan (Author)
The Last Wild Place. Fitzhenry & Whiteside (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Hilary Turner
Hardship, misfortune, and struggle often bring out the best in people; they also furnish the mainspring of some of the most satisfying plots in Western literature. In these three recent works for children, difficulties of various kinds are realistically presented. Some are overcome, while others (as adults know) must simply be lived with.
The most ambitious of the three is The Baby Project, in which the illustrious Sarah Ellis ventures into the sad terrain of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The story, however, does not wallow in grief nor call for boxes of Kleenex; rather, it focuses on the intertwining lives of members of the Robertson family as they acclimatize themselves first to an unexpected addition to their numbers, and then to a baffling loss. Eleven-year-old Jessica responds to the announcement of her mother’s pregnancy with a baby project of her own—a school project, that is, undertaken with her slightly madcap friend, Margaret. As the girls research the existing scholarship on babies (appearance, food, habitat, enemies, natural defenses, life cycle), the process of gestation and parturition proceeds in counterpoint. After Lucie’s birth (her name is an ominous hint to the discerning reader), Jessica is surprised by the depth of her attachment to her new sister, and by her mother’s sudden tiredness and vulnerability. The family adjusts, and then adjusts again when Lucie’s short race is run.
Ellis has prepared the ground well for her portrayal of family sorrow. The major characters are three-dimensional, each with strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. Dad tries to hold things together. Mum retreats numbly into herself, while Jessica responds with anger—cutting her cherished project to pieces with scissors—and then by drowning her feelings in an orgy of Nancy Drew books. Strange as it may sound, Ellis seems to have had fun writing this book: among many comical touches, she finds occasion to satirize the cult of reading and playing music to the unborn, and (through the character of Margaret) argues spiritedly against
Kidism, the set of prejudices that keep children socially powerless and resentful. Though the novel ends with only the gentle suggestion that
life goes on, The Baby Project is a rewarding and good-humoured treatment of family relationships.
A similar awareness of the complexity of family, friendship, and community entanglements can be found in the third volume of Rosa Jordan’s series about the Wilsons and the Martins and their south Florida neighbourhood. The Last Wild Place (a sequel to Lost Goat Lane and The Goatnappers) catches up with Kate, Justin, and Chip, and Chip’s pal Luther Wilson, as they join forces against a local developer. With help from Lily Hashimoto, a pint-sized soccer star and all-round ball of fire, they succeed in using a mild form of civil disobedience to protect one of the last remaining vestiges of natural swampland outside the Everglades. Though the book is in part a plea for environmental awareness and activism, Jordan handles these issues with a light touch. Indeed, the scenes in which Chip retreats from the hurly-burly of schoolyard politics to his secret patch of jungle are pastoral in the classic sense of the word. For this reason, the reader finds it easy to care deeply about the plants and animals (especially a Florida panther and her cubs) whose existence is at stake in the conflict.
Like Ellis, Jordan is interested in intergenerational relationships as well. As a backdrop to the children’s campaign, both mothers in the story are planning remarriage—an event in both cases which threatens to uproot the younger characters, in the same way as the endangered species are threatened. The Last Wild Place, though mostly upbeat (and with a triumphant ending) nevertheless acknowledges that there are some things one can only accept.
Call Me Aram, a well-researched, nicely illustrated account of one aspect of Canada’s relief effort in the Armenian genocide of 1922, provides a more serious look at hardship and struggle. The title character, Aram Davidian, is one of a hundred boys accepted as refugees on a farm in Georgetown, Ontario. The watercolours of Muriel Wood capture the relief with which the boys welcome the green peaceful setting, as well as the social situations in which they remain ill at ease. Uprooted in the worst way possible, orphaned and confused, Aram and his compatriots slowly adapt to a new country, a new language, new foods and routines. And although their Canadian hosts are well-meaning, the cultural divide is a challenge for them as well. In the Canadians’ insistence on renaming the boys—so that Aram Davidian must answer to
David Adams, for example—Skrypuch subtly conveys the lack of mutual understanding that overshadows the process of acclimatization. In a scene that is based on historical documents, the boys eventually succeed in reclaiming their identities. Pointing to his friend Mgerdich, Aram says:
he has lost his father and mother. He has lost his homeland, too. All that he has left is his name. Please don’t take that away from him.
Such moments of self-assertion make each of these books a valuable study in contending with obstacles. Though no struggle is complete, each protagonist finds unexpected inner strengths. Readers will be encouraged to do the same.
- Transcending Boundaries by Yaying Zhang
Books reviewed: Dead Man's Gold and Other Stories by Paul Yee and The Jade Necklace by Paul Yee
- Worthy of Serious Study by Judy Brown
Books reviewed: Growing Up: Childhood in English Canada from the Great War to the Age of Television by Neil Sutherland, Children in English Canadian Society: Framing the Twentieth Century Consensus by Neil Sutherland, and Canadian Children's Books: A Critical Guide to Authors and Illustrators by Raymond Jones and Jon Stott
- Last Pages: Stick Pen by Laurie Ricou
Books reviewed: Canadian Hockey Literature by Jason Blake, Now is the Winter: Thinking about Hockey by Jamie Dopp and Richard Harrison, Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman by Sheema Khan, Saskatchewan Sports: Lives Past and Present by Holden Stoffel, Sport in Canada: A History by Don Morrow and Kevin B. Wamsley, and Footprints: Canadian Sports Stories: Summer by Dave Toms
- Brain Food for Youth by M. Sean Saunders
Books reviewed: The Uninvited by Tim Wynne-Jones and Watching Jimmy by Nancy Hartry
- A Scar Tissue Landscape by David Nally
Books reviewed: Creating Societies: Immigrant lives in Canada by Dirk Hoerder and The Portugese in Canada by Victor M. P. Da Rosa and Carlos Teixeira
MLA: Turner, Hilary. Not Quite Sunnybrook Farm. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 1 Mar. 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #212 (Spring 2012), General Issue. (pg. 149 - 150)
***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.