CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 17 . . . .April 13, 2007
The Royal Woods.
Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books, 2007.
218 pp., cloth, $16.95.
Grades 3-5 / Ages 8-10.
Review by Anna Swanson.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
"Yes, but I mean, why one boot and one running shoe? Isn't that sort of, you know, a little bit awkward?" asked Sydney.
"Can be, at times. Very awkward, now that you mention it. But you see, the boot's for dancing, putting out fires, and horseback riding. And the sneaker's for sporting events puddle jumping, and tree climbing. Not to mention fleeing the scene. You gotta be ready for pretty much anything around here."
That answer seemed reasonable enough to Sydney. But maybe it only seemed reasonable because she hadn't slept in two days, and now here she was sitting beside a house made from car parts and things salvaged out of the garbage, on the banks of the Rat River where the farm was supposed to be, talking to a man in a yellow tuxedo jacket with an alarm clock around the neck. Maybe any answer would have seemed reasonable to Sydney just then.
Hopping a train isn't nearly as easy or as fun as 12-year-old Sydney and her nine-year-old brother Turk were expecting. And when they finally arrive in the Prairies from their home out east, they find that Aunt Lily and Uncle Frank's farm has been replaced by a sprawling new housing development on the banks of the Rat River. Having made a pact not to even mention going back home and having sealed it with their secret handshake, the two siblings decide to stay and try their luck in the empty and sprawling streets of the Royal Woods development.
Along the way, they find support in some unusual characters. Kumar seems to work at every fast food joint in the mall, as well as the gas station, and he takes it upon himself to feed the two siblings who remind him of his children back home in India. Shep McParlain wears one red running shoe and one blue cowboy boot and entertains the children in a home made of cardboard (and other found materials) on the path by the river. Dark-haired Rene is a quiet but thoughtful boy who works at the golf course, knows a lot about the history of the place, and just happens to be Métis.
The characters are clearly meant to be quirky and perhaps to introduce some positive images of diversity to the narrative, but they seem to draw on somewhat stereotypical (though not negative) qualities for their "quirks," which is unfortunate and also lends a two-dimensional feel to some of the writing.
It's hard not to compare the book to Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming (the first in the award-winning "Tillerman" cycle): The children in each book come from challenging family situations, find themselves on the road trying to get by with dwindling money supplies and no proper place to sleep, and are led by an eldest sister (Dicey is 13 in Homecoming, Sydney is 12). Homecoming is a rough, gritty, realistic story about children abandoned by a mother who will never reappear as a happy ending. The Royal Woods, on the other hand, is a humorous fantasy about two children who run away and learn to survive by their wits in a strange new world where their biggest challenges are an ongoing feud with some neighbourhood bullies and the possibility of discovery by the local real estate agents. Sydney and Turk's father is also still alive but has been distant and completely wrapped up in his own grieving since the death of their mother last year. The children, in the logic of self-appointed orphan stories, figure he will be happier without them.
The brother and sister team live in the unsold houses of the new development (conveniently opened for them by Shep McParlain who just happens to have had a brief history as a locksmith). They are fed each day by the generous Kumar who conveniently cannot report them to the police since he is working in Canada illegally, and Sydney manages to find work caddying at the local golf club when one of the regular caddies fails to show up for a shift. Convenient is the name of the game in Royal Woods. But, if the situations they find themselves in are somewhat unrealistic, they are also often funny: The climactic trouble begins at the local fair when their friend Shep pays for his newly befriended chicken to take a turn on the pony ride.
In short, this is survival lite. Unlike Voight's brilliant but heart wrenching Homecoming, this story is harmless and clearly barrelling towards a happy ending. Luckily, The Royal Woods is not meant to be realistic or gritty—this book aims to amuse and entertain. It even tries to teach the reader a few lessons about the history of land use—the appropriation of land from aboriginal peoples and the profit-driven transformation of rural landscape into suburban development—sometimes slipping into awkwardly didactic dialogue with, no surprises here, the siblings' new Métis friend.
Even though it features children of roughly the same age as Homecoming, the narrative seems to be pitched at a much younger audience. It is possible that by the time some readers are competent enough to read the 218-page book independently, the content may be too young for them. On the other hand, the humorous tone and episodic series of misadventures could make for an amusing read-aloud, especially for younger children. Overall, the writing is fun and light-hearted but not as well-crafted as it could be.
Anna Swanson, who is completing her Master of Library and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia, currently works as a student librarian for the Richmond Public Library.
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