History Lessons

  • Harriet Zaidman
    City on Strike: A Novel. Fitzhenry & Whiteside (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Beryl Young
    A Boy from Acadie: Roméo LeBlanc’s Journey to Rideau Hall. Bouton d'or Acadie (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Suzanne James

These two works set out to provide middle-school readers with accessible, engaging accounts of significant twentieth-century individuals and events. City on Strike focuses on the 1919 General Strike in Winnipeg, which involved more than thirty thousand workers, while A Boy from Acadie traces the background of Roméo LeBlanc, Canada’s twenty-fifth Governor General.

City on Strike, a novel by Harriet Zaidman, presents the General Strike through the alternating perspectives of two narrators, thirteen-year-old Jack, and Nellie, his eleven-year-old sister, members of an impoverished family of Jewish immigrants. The more dynamic of the two, Jack is given agency in events preceding and during the Strike, through his work both as a newspaper delivery boy and as photographer’s assistant on the climactic Bloody Saturday (June 21, 1919). In contrast, Nellie’s chapters generally serve as interludes in Jack’s more suspenseful narrative. Her vision is more limited, only occasionally transcending gendered concerns such as a desire for fancy dresses, or accounts of petty rivalries among her school friends. While Jack assists a photographer to capture images of police brutality on Bloody Saturday—pictures which provide crucial evidence to refute claims that the strikers instigated the violence—Nellie’s involvement consists of a dramatic escape as she runs after her sister, evading armed Mounties charging a crowd of strike supporters.

However, while the novel’s conventionally gendered perspective is disappointing, City on Strike merits praise for its nuanced account of the Strike and the events preceding it. Avoiding a possible temptation to present a polarized perspective based on twenty-first-century outrage, or a simple valorization of the heroic behaviour of select individuals, Zaidman opts to challenge adolescent readers to engage with complexities and moral ambiguities. Like almost everyone in his community, Jack supports the Strike and recognizes the underlying social injustices motivating the strikers, yet secretly delivers, in order to earn money for his family, an Establishment newspaper replete with both anti-union propaganda and fabricated news stories (and, in an additional subtle twist, when he belatedly confesses his actions to his mother, Jack is informed that she was aware of the source of his income all along).

City on Strike carefully foregrounds the ethnically diverse nature of Winnipeg’s working-class neighbourhoods through the protagonists’ descriptions of community members, though Zaidman assumes a reader’s familiarity with early-twentieth-century historical events such as World War I, the Spanish flu, and immigration to Canada, as well as the structure and role of unions, and the politics of employee strikes. Since neither the broader context nor the relevance of the General Strike are addressed in any detail in the novel, there is a danger that middle-school readers, some of whom may well struggle to locate the city on a map, will fail to engage with this work as more than an entertaining coming-of-age story set in an unfamiliar context.

Beryl Young’s A Boy from Acadie, although a biography rather than a novel, has a pedagogical goal similar to Zaidman’s work: presenting moments in Canadian history as vibrant, engaging, and relatable to young twenty-first-century readers. However, Young’s tone is more overtly didactic, and it is difficult to imagine this text outside of an educational environment. Roméo LeBlanc is allowed a few minor vices, such as a reluctance to engage in farm work and a youthful habit of sneaking out to smoke cigarettes with his sister, though we are informed that he was “never afraid” of academic work and “later came to his senses and gave up the habit” of smoking. Nonetheless, A Boy from Acadie provides a very clear and informative account of LeBlanc’s life. The book’s layout is effective and the narrative is interspersed with a series of evocative photographs and somewhat eclectic asides (including an account of Joe DiMaggio’s baseball career—LeBlanc was a serious baseball fan—and a recipe for one of his favourite dishes, poutine à trou).

Overall, both City on Strike and A Boy from Acadie succeed at providing accessible and quite engaging accounts of significant events in Canadian history.

This review “History Lessons” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 31 Aug. 2020. Web.

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