CM . . . . Volume XV Number 13. . . .February 20, 2009.
Don Mills, ON: Pearson Education Canada, 2007.
139 pp., pbk., $21.95.
Grades 5-7 / Ages 10-12.
Review by Myra Junyk.
My stepbrother, Jacob, runs through sunburnt grass and whistles, the trill echoing over the meadow. Mr. Higgins’ bay stallion lifts his head, whinnies and gallops, black tail rippling, to his outstretched hand.
Jacob shouldn’t be there. He should be at my papa’s side, in our hardware store, cleaning shelves or pricing yesterday’s freight.
I should tell.
Bending, I pull another sheet from the basket and pin it to the clothesline. It catches the wind and fills, like a four-cornered sail that carries my spirit to heaven, to Mama.
Mother Alice calls, “Torrie?”
“Victoria. My name’s Victoria,” I mutter as the wind gusts and the sheet twists and a tear falls on my cheek.
Victoria has a new stepmother, Mother Alice, who keeps Victoria busy with constant chores. Meanwhile, Alice’s son Jacob is supposed to be working with his stepfather in their hardware store, but Jacob loves to run after horses in the fields because he misses the family farm which his mother had to sell.
Then one day, Victoria falls ill with a terrible fever, and pains shoot throughout her body. “Lightening bolts, red-hot streaks of pain, fork through my legs, twisting and twitching down their length.” She has infantile paralysis or polio! This disease paralyzes a child’s legs. And then, Victoria’s little sister, Lizzie, falls ill and dies. The doctors hold out very little hope for Victoria to ever walk again. Jacob tries to help Victoria cope with the pain in her legs by buying a book called The Wizard of Oz and reading it aloud to her – despite his difficulty with reading.
He also helps his mother to secretly place hot compresses on her legs to ease the pain – despite the advice of the doctor against this. Slowly but surely, Victoria regains the feeling in her legs. Her relationship with Jacob and Mother Alice grows stronger while her relationship with her father deteriorates after the death of her little sister.
This touching and lyrical novel captures the determination of a very brave young lady. Faced with the prospect of never walking again, Victoria refuses to give up. When Mother Alice helps her to ease the pain with the hot compresses, Victoria starts hoping for a miraculous cure. With Jacob’s help, she wills her legs back into motion. The descriptions of her despair at the loss of her little sister are very hard to read. Her grief seems overwhelming as her little sister is buried while Victoria lays ill on the couch. Particularly poignant is the day that Victoria must once again sleep in her own bed – without her little sister.
Linda Aksomitis captures the setting of Australia before World War I very effectively. She describes the difficult and burdensome chores that women do each and every day and the poverty families face. Medical care is spotty at best, and there is very little knowledge about polio or its treatment. In fact, Mother Alice’s treatments, based on folk medicine, are much more effective that the village doctor’s remedies!
Readers learn about courage, grief, and individuality in this novel. The narrative voice varies from Victoria to Jacob. This duality of viewpoints gives the novel a wonderful balance of perspectives and provides readers insight into both major characters in this novel. Particularly beautiful is the juxtaposition of the events of the Wizard of Oz story with the events in the novel, itself. Numerous allusions to this wonderful piece of children’s literature give depth and interest to this touching story!
Myra Junyk is the former Program Co-ordinator of Language Arts and Library Services at the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Currently, she is working as a literacy advocate and author.
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