CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 7 . . . . November 23, 2007
Set in Toronto during the 1860s, The Youngest Spy provides an interesting perspective from which to view the American Civil War. The author, Barry McDivitt, has interestingly elected to focus less on the carnage of that bloody war than on the intrigue and subterfuge of spy networks trying to gain an upper hand for their cause. It makes for an atypical, unique story.
William Duguay is a Canadian farmer fighting for the Union Army. So that he could buy a farm for his family, Duguay joined up, earning for himself the $200 bounty offered by the U.S. government for enlistment. Each chapter begins with a letter extract from Duguay, writing home to his wife. The letters prove a useful tool in providing glimpses into the war, with references made to such things as casualty lists, discontent at ineffective and incompetent officers, desertion from the ranks, and the slavery issue.
The story, however, revolves primarily around the exploits of Duguay’s teenaged son, George, who uncovers a plot that could result in an American invasion of Canada. George’s loyalties become conflicted when he befriends a Confederate gentleman whilst simultaneously working with an American detective and a British agent.
Early in the book, I found that McDivitt was struggling to settle upon a voice for his novel. The letter extracts appropriately provided an additional voice and were a worthwhile inclusion. McDivitt, however, seemed to be undecided as to whether he was primarily writing a fictional narrative or an historical, information text. For instance, on the very first page, after the letter excerpt, the book begins with,
Another example appears at the start of chapter two, after the letter excerpt,
While these details are of value, I found the style and tone of the writing disparate with the main narrative and, therefore, a distraction.
The problem of voice is, however, not the main concern with The Youngest Spy. Throughout the novel, the copyediting is shoddy. There are instances of misplaced or missing periods and several occasions where the final word choice was inappropriate. One example appears on page 156, where it says, “His was pointing the gun straight at his friend.” Clearly it should say “he,” rather than “his.” On page 81, it reads, “Mary leaned closer land her voice dropped to a whisper.” Clearly “land” should be “and.” On page 146, an author or editor change of mind is evident. It reads, “As she stood in the doorway Lizzie caught saw a horse and rider.” Either Lizzie caught sight of a horse and rider, or Lizzie saw a horse and rider. One or the other.
In other places, a word is missing: On page 124, the letter excerpt says, “It didn’t seem likely that they were going to [do] us any more harm.” On page 128, “A man could be sure of hitting the target even [if] he had to use his weak hand.”
These are just a few of many examples. Such slipshod copyediting is unfortunate and does a great disservice to the author. McDivitt has created what is generally an engaging story told from a perspective that provides a unique twist to the multitude of young adult civil war novels.
Young adults with an interest in warfare and/or history will enjoy McDivitt’s story. There are enough distracting problems with the writing and editing, however, for me to have reservations about recommending The Youngest Spy.
Gregory Bryan teaches children’s literature in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.
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