________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 8 . . . .December 8, 2006


Secret Signs. (Orca Young Readers).

Jacqueline Guest. Illustrated by June Lawrason.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2006.
140 pp., pbk., $7.95.
ISBN 1-55143-599-3.

Subject Headings:
Depressions-1929-Canada-Juvenile fiction.
Tramps-Juvenile fiction.
Runaway children-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-6 / Ages 9-11.

Review by Marina Cohen.

*** /4



“Be quiet!” Clickety Clack looked up, listening intently.

Then Henry heard it. A strange whirring sound filled the air.

“We’re in for it now!” Scrambling to his feet, Clickety Clack hurried to the open door and tugged at it.

At that moment, Henry saw them.

Millions and millions of grasshoppers! With a hailstone rattle, the flying bugs hit the sides of the boxcar, plastering it with their slimy green bodies. The noise was deafening. Henry ran to help close the door. The grasshoppers smashed into his hair and face. He opened his mouth to yell, but his voice was drowned as insects filled his nose and throat. He couldn’t breathe, and panic gripped him as his mind flashed back to that terrifying day at the creek when he had almost died.

He spat out the loathsome bugs and pulled on the door. It was jammed.

Henry could see that the bottom track was plugged with dead grasshoppers. He dropped to his knees and frantically dug the gooey green mush out of the track.

Clickety Clack heaved on the door, slamming it shut against the terrible storm. “This is not good. These little critters can strip a crop to the ground in minutes and drive cattle so wild that they stampede into fences.”


When 12-year-old Henry Dafoe’s mother becomes ill, she decides to send him to live with his Uncle Paul in Nova Scotia. The year is 1932, and the Depression is ravaging the country. Henry’s father has had to leave the farm to seek work on the Glenmore Dam and Reservoir Relief Project in order to provide for his family. Henry is afraid of the water and has no desire to work on a fishing boat with his uncle, and so he decides to run away.

     After stealing five dollars from his mother, Henry takes his notebook full of hobo signs and his favorite book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and hits the open road. Along the way, Henry meets Clickety Clack, an old hobo, who agrees to accompany Henry from Winnipeg all the way to Calgary to search for Henry’s father. The journey is not what Henry expects. He encounters desperate people, angry railway police, vicious dogs and a plague of grasshoppers. Henry discovers that life as a hobo isn’t as glamorous as he’d originally thought it to be. Henry learns several life lessons, all the while uncovering the true meanings behind the mysterious hobo signs.

      In Secret Signs, Jacqueline Guest takes her reader on a lively adventure alongside her main character, Henry Dafoe. Canadian history and geography spring to life in this charming tale of a boy seeking his fame and fortune in the wide world.

      The linear plot is driven by crisp dialogue and suspenseful situations. The characters are, for the most part, credible and their actions believable given the era. Guest presents the reader with a main character who is a thoughtless know-it-all. As readers follow Henry along on his adventure, they will watch as he grows in humility and understanding. The ending of the novel, however predictable, is satisfying.

      Secret Signs is an enjoyable read, full of “teachable moments.”


Marina Cohen, who teaches in the York Region District School Board, has a Master’s Degree in French Literature.

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

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