________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 1 . . . . September 3, 2004


Rachel: An Elephant Tree Christmas. (Our Canadian Girl).

Lynne Kositsky.
Toronto, ON: Penguin Canada, 2004.
84 pp., pbk., $8.99.
ISBN 0-14-301671-7.

Grades 4-6 / Ages 9-11.

Review by Harriet Zaidman.

**** /4

Reviewed from Uncorrected Proofs.

This is the last book in the series chronicling the story of Rachel Sparrow, a black child whose Loyalist family escaped slavery by supporting the British side in the War of Independence. The British moved many of the former slaves to Nova Scotia where they hoped to receive land and begin life in freedom. The reality was far different; the land promised never materialized, and blacks were forced to live in holes, called pit-cabins, dug into the earth. The British colonizers discriminated against the blacks, pitting them against returning soldiers for underpaying jobs. A riot by soldiers in 1784 drove blacks out of their homes in Shelburne, and the Sparrow Family moved to Birchtown. In Book Three, Rachel and her mother, Sukie, were kidnapped and sold as slaves again. Rachel managed to get back home, but An Elephant Tree Christmas finds Sukey still missing. Rachel is now in charge of all the family responsibilities as her stepfather, Titan, tries
to find whatever work is available.

     Life is difficult in Birchtown. The lack of work means that there may be no food during the cold winter. Rachel has not revealed to Titan that Mr. Pritchard, to whom she had been sold illegally, paid her five guineas when she was set free. She wants to keep the money secret, knowing that, if it is spent too quickly, it will run out, and then the family truly will have nothing.

     Rachel tries to fulfill her responsibilities but finds it difficult to keep up. She also has the idea that the black children in the neighbourhood should learn to read in order to help them get ahead in life:


The day was real nippy, but a bunch of children were there anyhow, waiting by the big bush outside the Sparrow hut. Rachel had given maybe five lessons so far, and word had spread like beef fat on bread. There must have been about thirty children now, all eager for stories and lessons. It was pretty amazing, but a might daunting too, all those pairs of eyes fixed on her and expecting so much from her. Rachel wondered if she had enough learning stored in her brain for them, but she was bent on teaching them whatever she knew.

     Teaching a bunch of unruly kids in the outdoors and looking after her little brother at the same time prove to be taxing. The onset of cold weather means that school must end and the children will forget whatever they have learned. Colonel Blucke, a businessman in Birchtown, offers Rachel the use of his house and lessons as well.

     Despite Rachel's best efforts, circumstances overwhelm her. Her conscience prevents her from hoarding her money; she gives it away guinea by guinea to her starving neighbours and strangers. Meanwhile, the children are becoming increasingly difficult to teach. As Christmas approaches Rachel misses her mother even more and longs to be relieved of her burdens.

     The story ends happily. Colonel Blucke, who has disappeared and left Rachel feeling helpless, reappears. He has brought Sukey with him, having traced her to Halifax. The family is reunited, and Colonel Blucke takes over the schooling. The future looks promising, although the real life experiences of blacks in Nova Scotia was fraught with difficulties based on their race right up to the present day.

     The "Our Canadian Girl" series is an excellent way to educate children about different issues in Canadian history. The book includes an informative introduction, a timeline at the end of the book and a website for further investigation. Integrating real historical characters, such as the mulatto Colonel Blucke, an enigmatic figure who straddled both the settler and the black communities, makes the fiction more interesting and is a catalyst for research as well. The narrative reflects Rachel's point of view and uses her expressions; colloquialisms familiarize children with phrases and the manner of speaking of people at the time.

     Young children and pre-adolescents, especially girls, will find these books engaging. They will want to read the whole series to find what happens to the young protagonists. These books can be read on their own or used as part of a unit in the study of Canadian history.

Highly Recommended.

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.

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

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