________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 8 . . . . December 5, 2008

cover Out of the Deeps.

Anne Laurel Carter. Illustrated by Nicolas Debon.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2008.
32 pp., hardcover, $19.95.
ISBN 978-1-554143-559-6.

Subject Headings:
Pit pony-Juvenile fiction.
Coal mines and mining-Juvenile fiction.

Kindergarten-grade 6 / Ages 5-11.

Review by Keith McPherson.

**** /4

Reviewed from f&g’s.

Inspired by pit mining stories retold by an 80-year-old Cape Breton miner named Savino “Hinson” Calibrese, Out of the Deep recounts a 12-year-old Canadian boy’s first day of work in a coal mine. The story follows the protagonist, Savino, and his father’s coal mining team as they travel down “under the bedrock, under the ocean” into the eerie maze of black tunnels of an Eastern Canadian seaboard mine, and then the story describes the demands and perils that turn of the century coal miners and their work horses faced while excavating seams of coal by hand.

Although excited about his new mining job, 12-year old Savino is also a little uneasy entering the gloomy underworld of “black, chiseled walls and timbered beams.” His unease is partially alleviated by his co-workers who explain how innovative mining developments, like battery operated headlamps and caged canaries (for detecting methane leaks), are making mining much safer.

However, Savino’s growing courage is tested when his father asks him to leave the mining crew and help their ‘pit pony,’ Nelson, pull a full box of coal up the seemingly endless mining shafts to a distant transfer station. During the trip, Nelson suddenly and unexpectedly stops and refuses to move forward through the clammy tunnel.


Savino inched forward, his headlamp flickering over the coal in the box …Nelson’s sweaty flank…then the dark mystery. His light shone on something in the middle of the tunnel, blocking their way.

Rocks. Savino grabbed the shovel from the back of the box and began to clear them away.

Then his lamp went out.

As is the case throughout this book, author Anne Laurel Carter’s storytelling is flawless and builds a superb sense of suspense and foreboding disquiet. She cleverly furthers this sense of apprehension by using choppy but very sensory-filled sentences that relate Savino’s trepidation yet captures the dark and dangerous essence of a pit mine. Through the constriction of visual language and emphasis of sounds, tastes, smells and touch, Carter gives readers a very acute first-hand sense of the muted and murky nature of hand mining in very physically and visually confined spaces. Anyone with claustrophobia tendencies or fear of the dark may want to read this book in full daylight with another person because Carter’s word-craft will magically transport you into Savino’s shoes and underworld, and have you: feeling both the blisters on your hands from shoveling all day and the crushing weight of tons of bedrock bearing down on the surrounding posts and beams; hearing your own heart beat eerily like the clop, clop, clop of Nelson’s hooves, while listening to the echo of shuffling rats in the darkness below and beyond your headlamp’s weak light; smelling and tasting the underworld’s ancient dead dank muskiness and tasting the fear associated with poisonous methane gas; and experiencing the overwhelming darkness as it swallows your sight and makes you wonder if you’re still alive.

     Throughout this suspenseful plot, Carter scatters numerous fascinating historical facts about early Canadian pit mining. For example, readers may be interested to learn that pit horses lived most - if not all - of their life underground, that miners once risked using candles to detect explosive methane gas, that gardens were grown underground to provide ‘treats’ for pit ponies, and that prior to the 1930’s and 40’s, the majority of miners worked tirelessly day after day without any holidays. As if this wasn’t enough to keep readers interested, Carter also presents historical information encouraging further exploration into the need for safer and healthier coal mining laws while developing the reader’s empathy towards the eventual liberation of pit ponies from working tirelessly in the dank, moist, narrow, and dangerous coal mining corridors.

     Nicolas Debon’s sumptuously painted illustrations are a perfect complement to Carter’s narrative. Using heavy deep blacks, browns, purples and grays, he visually reinforces and further shapes Carter’s description of the miners’ gloomy, tubular and claustrophobic setting. Similarly, his skilled use of white tones convincingly replicates the very difficult-to-capture shadows cast by multiple pinpoint light sources, such as the miners’ headlamps. Parents and teachers wishing to explore scale and visual perspective with their child/children will also find Debon’s illustrations to be quite rewarding. For example, midway through the book, Debon presents readers with a double page spread almost completely painted with a solid deep chocolate black-brown.

internal art
This very dark page is interrupted about two thirds the way down by a thin horizontal line coloured a lighter murky brown, and inside this line we can see a very small Savino and Nelson pulling their coal car to the transfer station. Older children can view this illustration and be encouraged to discuss why the illustrator chose to paint this picture in this manner and with these colours, and how he used scale to present additional information (e.g., the heavy blackness fills the page and creates an overpowering feeling of uncertainty while illustrating the underworld’s immense size and weight, whereas, by painting Savino and Nelson as small as ants, the illustrator conveys feelings of our protagonists insignificance and powerlessness).

     This informative and highly enjoyable story can be read both independently and/or in a group setting. It can also be easily tied into explorations into the lives of early pioneers, especially early Canadian and North American pioneers. For example, children can be easily encouraged to relate their own experiences with that of Savino and discuss differences and similarities. Similarly, Out of the Deeps can be used to explore the similarities and differences between past and present views on human and animal rights, especially those concerning child labour and working horses. Although the text has an approximate grade four readability, its multi-layered narrative enables it to be easily read to, and/or read by, a wider variety of children and adults with much lower and higher reading skills. For example, I read this story to a Kindergarten child, and he was completely silent as he searched the visuals for more information into Savino’s plight. I also loaned the book to a grade five child, and she informed me afterwards that she was taken by the historical facts peppered throughout the story, and she sympathized with the pit pony’s onerous life. I enjoyed both these children’s insights and thrilled in Debon’s sophisticated use of illustrations to develop depth in the protagonist’s character and deepen the story’s plot and setting. Furthermore, the multilayered nature of this book’s narrative means that it can be reread many times over with each encounter offering new and refreshing information and experiences.

     I also believe that this story has a wider than normal grade-appeal because many ages can relate to the deep seated human concern of being ‘trapped’ in a tight dark tunnel, because we can all identify with Savino’s fear when his only light source fails in the mine, and because we can all relate the joy he feels when he and his father’s pit pony come up to the surface to breathe fresh air again. An excellent multifaceted story that presents informative and engaging insights into the dangers, drama, lifestyles, triumphs, and history of mid-twentieth century Eastern Canadian coal mining children, adults, and their workhorses.

Highly Recommended.

Keith McPherson has been a primary and elementary teacher and teacher-librarian in BC since 1984 and is currently the coordinator of the Language and Literacy Education Research Centre at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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