________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 4 . . . .October 14, 2005


Breaking Trail.

Joanne Bell.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books, 2005.
135 pp., pbk. & cl., $9.95 (pbk.), $18.95 (cl.).
ISBN 0-88899-662-4 (pbk.), ISBN 0-88899-630-6 (cl.).

Grades 2-5 / Ages 7-10.

Review by Andrea Szilagyi.




Out the tent flap that evening I see Dad sleeping in the dog sled, the mountains slick with melting snow behind him. I guess it's the only place he can be alone. It tires him to talk. The toboggan is six feet long but so narrow he has to lie flat on his back.

My arms hurt. I ran my dogs twelve miles today. At least, I pushed on the handlebars from behind, since they hardly pulled.

Shivering, I drop another log in the stove. The wall tent cools off fast when the fire in the woodstove dies down. It's just canvas walls with a roof hole and tin safety for the stovepipe to jut through. No floor.

Last year I had to ride in the sled bag on Dad's toboggan with my little sister, Rachel, and her ginger-striped cat. Taffy acts like Rachel's her kitten. She follows her everywhere, except when Rachel tucks her into the sled bag. Dog mushing makes her spitting mad, I guess. No cat wants to be freight for a team of huskies!

We're heading back to our old mountain home now. We've been gone for a year from the cabin we built on what used to be our trap-line.

Dad quit trapping a couple of years ago. "It's a dead way of life," he told mom. "The bottom has dropped out of the fur market and lots of countries are banning the sale of fur altogether. The prices just aren't worth it anymore."

Dad used to be always laughing, but he wasn't laughing then. "Trouble is," he said, "that I've lived in the woods all my life. I don't know how to do anything else."


In Joanne Bell's first novel, Breaking Trail, Becky and her family are traveling back to their cabin after being disappointed by the fur market in town. Becky's father is depressed, and her mother is about to give up on him but hopes that a trip back to their cabin will cure him.

     Focusing primarily on this journey, the plot is simple and slow-paced and deals secondarily with the conflicts in Becky's life: family tensions, worries about trail conditions, the stress of training her own dog team for the first time and preparing them for the Junior Quest race, plus the worry that her lead dog, Ginger, is about to give birth and Becky has neither told her parents nor knows how she will get the pups back to town after the summer. Bell portrays the rugged Yukon wilderness setting vividly.

     Becky is a complex, determined young protagonist, breaking trail in her life as well in the wilderness. She has a child-like innocence, but she also questions the security of her family and is full of apprehension. At the same time, she is angry that her mother might want to abandon her father. Becky displays courage when she does what is necessary to help Ginger give birth; she displays determination when she runs behind her sled, almost dropping from exhaustion rather than adding the strain of her weight to Ginger's load. These are some of the more memorable moments, but there is a great focus on the animals throughout the novel, to the neglect of the development of human characters.

     The book is written in first person, present tense, and the language is simplistic for the targeted audience of 9-12. Though the book touches on some more mature themes such as depression and family problems, it is primarily a warm story about a girl and her relationship with her dogs. Italicized sections in the novel may confuse some readers. Presumably they are flashbacks of happier times for Becky and her family (Becky's memories). I wished for more sentence variety, as the many short sentences made the narrative a bit choppy and stilted by the end. On one hand, the syntactic choices may not make the book ideal to read aloud, but, on the other, the novel may appeal to a high interest/low ability reader. Bell displays thorough knowledge of her subject matter through the language, which gives a sense of confidence to the text.

     Breaking Trail combines elements of wilderness, adventure, and animal stories and is a quick, easy and entertaining read that offers a glimpse into what is an unfamiliar world for many Canadian children.


Andrea Szilagyi is a graduate student studying children's literature at the University of British Columbia.

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

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