________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 8 . . . . December 7, 2007


A Deadly Distance.

Heather Down.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2007.
136 pp., pbk., $10.99.
ISBN 978-1-550026-37-5.

Subject Heading:
Beothuk Indians-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Deborah Mervold.

*** /4


Startled, Mishbee gasped, frozen with horror. She was staring down the barrel of a musket and was familiar with the sound those weapons made. The young Beothuk girl knew muskets meant death. In an instant she vividly replayed the images of the recent burial of a cousin; red ochre smeared over his body, his most prized possessions gathered for the ceremony. She remembered, as if only moments ago, sneaking off several days after his burial to the cave where he was laid to rest. Her cousin, she understood, would sleep until his spirit traveled to the New Land. Now she wondered if he had arrived at that place yet and if she would join him there all too soon. The cousin had been shot by a settler, and here Mishbee stood facing a settler’s gun.

The main characters are Mishbee and John. Mishbee is a young girl from the Beothuk First Nations who lives with her father and mother, and her older sister and confidante, Oobata, who is soon to be married to a young warrior from their band. Her people are nomadic and follow the seasons as they move around in the area and join other First Nations people for the winter. John is a young English settler who has traveled to northeastern Newfoundland to learn shipbuilding. He writes to his sister back in England. The letters are included as part of the text and through them readers learn more about John’s life in Canada. Mishbee and John encounter each other at a time when both groups fear the other and there is a climate of mistrust.

     Mishbee expects that John will shoot her, but he cannot. He helps her to pick up her blueberries that have spilt and repairs her pendant which was given to her by her soon-to-be brother-in-law. John knows that others in his group would have shot her without hesitation. Over the next few months, they meet in secret, learn each other’s language and begin a friendship. Mishbee knows that her family is suspicious of her disappearances and that they will not approve of her new friend. It is this suspicion that saves Mishbee’s life when Oobata is worried about her sister and pulls Mishbee out of harm’s way when one of John’’s associates nearly shoots Mishbee. Unbeknown to everyone, John has contracted tuberculosis and spends the next few weeks fighting for his life. He also brings the disease to Mishbee’s family, and it proves more deadly to her family members than the dreaded musket.

     Heather Down has written a detailed account of the harsh existence of life in Canada in the early nineteenth century. She includes the details of shipbuilding in the new land and also the life of a First Nations band as they set up their community. She details the friendship of two young people who secretly go against the wishes of their communities because they realize that there is a misunderstanding that exists between their people. Mishbee and John both have their own lives, and the friendship is minimal but important. The friendship is written about in a realistic way while showing the life that each character maintains, including their other associations, goals, and futures.

     This historical fiction novel is divided into thirteen chapters, each of which ends on a high point which encourages readers to continue reading. The vocabulary is suitable and appropriate for the intended audience, and the dialogue is realistic. Historical notes, a glossary and selected reading are also included for those readers interested in knowing more about the time period.

     A Deadly Distance would appeal to a variety of readers, including readers of historical fiction and adventure stories. The ending certainly leads the reader to the conclusion that there are events that have tragic unexpected consequences. This book would be an excellent class novel for individual reading or as a read aloud choice. It would also be good supplemental reading to go along with the Social Studies curriculum. It would be an excellent addition for personal, class, school and public libraries.

Highly Recommended.

Deborah Mervold is an educator from Shellbrook, SK, who is now doing faculty training and program development at Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology.

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

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.