CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 14 . . . . March 2, 2007
Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 2006.
170 pp., pbk., $9.95.
Goodwin, Albert, 1887-1918-Juvenile fiction.
Coal mines and mining-British Columbia-Cumberland-Juvenile fiction.
Cumberland (B.C.)-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 6-10 / Ages 11-15.
Review by Betty Klassen.
"Most boys Jimmy's age are working down the mines and most girls my age are either helping their mothers at home or married. There are not many choices in Cumberland."
"Why are you two still there?"
"I am because my father thinks an education will make me less Chinese." Jimmy had returned from his walk and stood behind me. "He thinks all Chinese can become just like everyone else here if we wear western clothes, learn to speak good English and get an education. I don't agree, but I can't think of anything else to do. So I stay at school." Jimmy leaned on the rail and watched Vancouver Island draw closer.
"And I haven't yet met anyone that I want to spend my life scrubbing the kitchen floor and laundering underwear for."
"Why don't you leave?"
Morag laughed again, but this time there was a hard, bitter edge to it. "Perhaps you haven't noticed, but Jimmy is Chinese and I'm a woman. Neither are characteristics that help us make an independent way in the world."
When Will Ryan's father dies in the trenches of World War I, Will's grandfather decides that the 16-year-old is to go and live with his childless aunt and uncle in Canada. Will struggles with accepting that the adults in his life can make all the decisions for him. As he reaches Cumberland, BC, he meets Jimmy, Morag, Uncle Charles, and Red Goodwin who each find reason to scorn him for his "privileged" position in 1918 society.
Jimmy informs him of the situation the Chinese face in the coal mines working for one third of a white miner's pay and being allowed to do the most dangerous jobs. Will and Jimmy strike an uneasy friendship that calls Will to disobey his uncle in order to support Jimmy and his father as safety reaches a crisis at the mine.
Morag is angry about her limited role as a young woman, angry about the conscription forcing young men to fight a war that is of no concern to them, angry about the unsafe conditions in the mine, and angry at Will for his position as a member of the boss's family. She challenges Will to help her take supplies to the men living in the bush to dodge the draft and to help Goodwin who is there to organize and empower the mine workers to fight for more than starvation wages.
Will feels as if he has entered a different kind of war zone, one with conflicting values and loyalties. Living with his Uncle Charles and Aunt Sophie, he soon learns the struggle his uncle has keeping the production of the mine up to prewar levels is not just to please the absent mine owners but also to keep his own job. After hearing Red Goodwin speak in support of the miners and their families, he can no longer view him as the evil rebel described by his uncle and the police. He is, therefore, torn between family loyalties, ideals of human justice and the tenuous friendship he is establishing with Morag and Jimmy.
The summer of 1918 changes his life as he continues to come to terms with his father's death and gets to know honorable men who give up their lives for a war not fought in the trenches. He realizes he has the courage and strength to defy the authority of his uncle and the police, to act in honorable ways himself. And he learns that he can make a choice about his future.
This novel draws the reader into the conflicting forces that tear at Will's mind, feeling in turn empathy for the Chinese workers, for Red Goodwin and the men hiding in the bush, and understanding of the action Uncle Charles takes. The characters of Morag and Jimmy demand Will to examine his own actions and ideals, and, in the process, challenge the reader also.
John Wilson portrays Red Goodwin as a character worthy of his folk hero status in British Columbia. He captures the stratified life in a mining town in a historically accurate way providing opportunities to discuss many important issues that link strongly both to Social Studies and Language Arts.
Betty Klassen teaches Language Arts and Social Studies to Middle Year students in the Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba.
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