Adventure-Packed Historical YA Fiction

  • Irene N. Watts
    Clay Man: The Golem of Prague. Tundra Books
  • Eric Walters
    Wounded. Penguin Books
  • Trilby Kent
    Medina Hill. Tundra Books
  • Andrew H. Vanderwal
    The Battle for Duncragglin. Tundra Books

Three of the four books reviewed here are historical fiction for young adults, a difficult genre as it has to be informative to be worthwhile, but exciting enough to keep the attention of young readers. These novels achieve just that.

Although short, Clay Man has wonderfully descriptive pencil drawings throughout that will intrigue pre-teen readers. Set in 1595, it tells the story of a devout rabbi who creates a gigantic clay man who comes to life to protect the people in the Jewish ghetto of Prague from the violent anti-Semitism of their time. The tale is told from the first-person perspective of Jacob, the rabbi’s young son. He tries to befriend the golem, and even tries to get it to help him personally, with predictably and humorously disastrous consequences.

Though this story is told in the voice of an innocent child, the horrors and dangers of life for Jewish people in that time, and by extension, throughout history, are revealed as a subtle subtext. The story is quite well told, although occasionally it gets a little repetitive or disjointed. Jacob’s character is likeable and easy to relate to, and readers will understand his fascination with the golem, as well as his dislike of studies. The author makes both the characters and the setting utterly real, thereby bringing the time and place to life.

The Battle for Duncragglin is a longer book than Clay Man, but it, too, would most likely appeal to pre-teens. It begins in our time, with Scottish-born Canadian Alex arriving in Scotland to spend the summer. He normally lives with his uncle following the disappearance of his parents when he was very young. In fact, they disappeared close to where he ends up staying with a family with three children around his age whose mother has also disappeared. In exploring the caves under a nearby ruined castle, the children are caught in a time warp and transported back to the thirteenth century, where they join William Wallace’s battle for control of Scotland against the English. The tale is full of adventure, battles and bloodshed, intrigue, and suspense. It is a rollicking yarn that brings the time and place vividly to life. The three other children find their missing mother. To Alex’s great disappointment, he does not find his parents, but he does learn that the time warp can transport people to different times, so, when the others find their way back to the present, he chooses to stay in the past with a kindly knight and his wife who take a liking to him, hoping to encounter his parents in another adventure.
The book is well-written, the story-line believable despite its almost hectic pace at times, and the characters realistic. In fact it is the realistic characters to whom readers can relate that make the story believable. The only problem with the story is typical of most historical fiction—how do the modern characters manage to understand the much-changed language of the characters in the time to which they have been transported and vice-versa? However, that concern is for the purists to worry about. As it stands, the novel is a great adventure while it cleverly teaches children about one of the bloodiest periods of Scotland’s frequently bloody history, and one of its most endearing heroes, William Wallace.

While set in a much more recent past than the previous two novels, Medina Hill is a good adventure yarn for most of the novel. However, Kent is unable to maintain the excitement and suspense. Her main character, Dominic, has fallen silent from the stress of an ill mother, a distant father recently returned home from the First World War, and the difficulties he experiences at school. A summer in Cornwall with a much-loved Aunt and Uncle provides the company of their three off-beat lodgers plus a one-legged gypsy girl whom Dominic first befriends then defends as the locals turn against the “dirty, thieving” gypsies.

While the story is intriguing for the most part and the characters are delightful, there are two real problems with this novel for pre-teens. First is the problem of voice. Dominique is a boy from the lower classes who has rarely been out of his slum neighbourhood and who has only ever read two books in his life. Consequently, many phrases in the first-person voice of the boy ring false, such as “slate and granite boulders were scattered in desolate clusters across the windswept fields, their brooding forms brushed by yellow grass that seemed to bow in hushed reverence. . . . ” This is not the voice of the average eleven-year-old, let alone an unread, “disadvantaged” child. The novel continues in that manner with diction that belongs to a much older and more educated voice.

The second problem with the book is its completely anti-climatic ending. After having saved the local Commons for the gypsies, Dominic and Sancha, his gypsy friend, discover that her people plan to leave there forever anyway. There doesn’t seem to be much point to the effort they put in to help the townsfolk accept the gypsies. Then there is the treasure of Lawrence of Arabia, revealed to Dominic by the dying Reverend Cleary. When he does find it, after true treasure-seeking adventures, it turns out to a small horse figurine from Arabia. Why Lawrence had hidden it, or what it meant to him, is never revealed. What Dominic does with it is simply give it as a parting present to his friend Sancha, who may or may not really understand its significance.
Eric Walters is a prolific and popular author who often tackles thought-provoking issues. The only book here which is not historical, Wounded, deals with a soldier’s return home from Afghanistan. The book is told through the first person voice of Marcus, the son, and chronicles his feelings, first waiting every day to see if his father has been killed, through to dealing with a returned father who has been deeply emotionally wounded by his experiences.

The premise of the book is good and, indeed, thought-provoking. There are two problems with the book, however. The first is that the age of the boy, Marcus, is never established. He is not old enough to drive a car, but he is old enough for the counselor at school to give him information about attending military college. Sometimes he sounds like a small boy, trying to be grown up but basically lost and confused. At other times, he sounds mature enough to be mid-teens. While teenagers often do oscillate between adulthood and childhood, his voice here is too inconsistent for the reader to be convinced by the character. His father’s abrupt swings between anger, even violence, to joy at being back with his family are, however, very convincing. As these two characters are in the forefront of the novel throughout, the fact that one character is so inconsistent is a major problem in the book.

The other problem is Walter’s approach to the main theme. Since the story is set primarily on a military compound, support of the military is to be expected. However, his strong support for the pre-emptive strike doctrine and the repeated assurances that the military only ever kills civilians by accident wears thin really fast, especially for anyone who follows the news. However, his main theme that there are many kinds of wounds received in war, some of which are unseen but just as damaging as those that are visible, is well-portrayed by the father in this story.

This review “Adventure-Packed Historical YA Fiction” originally appeared in Prison Writing. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 208 (Spring 2011): 198-200.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.