CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 11. . . .November 13, 2009
Lost in Spain.
Toronto, ON: Key Porter Books, 2000/2009.
213 pp., pbk., $11.95.
Spain-History-Civil War, 1936-1939-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.
Review by Ellen Wu.
**½ / 4
"They won't shoot us," he said convincingly as he could. "If they were going to shoot us they would have done it by the road."
Dolores looked up meeting Ted's gaze. "They will shoot us," she said simply. "I think the officer on the road did not want the responsibility of shooting a foreigner. I think here they will not be so cautious," she smiled ruefully, "and sooner or later, they will realize I am a Spaniard."
Dolores was right. Sooner or later, someone would think of looking for her passport and that would be the end of their brother/sister charade. They would also note that Ted had crossed the border well after the revolt began and could not be the innocent hiker he claimed.
The situation looked grim and Ted was terrified. He didn't want to die against a bloody wall in a pigsty. His parents, even if Catherine woke up and Will found her again, would never know what had happened to him. Why had he left Perpignan? It seemed stupid now. Maybe if he broke down and pleaded for his life, if he cried and screamed for mercy, perhaps the soldiers wouldn't shoot a Canadian. No, they wouldn't care. Dolores was right. They were doomed.
Ted's excellent European adventure rapidly descends into a perilous journey through the battleground of the Spanish Civil War, due partly to the idealistic political leanings of his father, Will. A country boy hailing from the Okanagan, Ted is first introduced to us in 1935, fuming at being left behind by his father in Salmon Arm to hitchhike home, as Will travelled east "On-to-Ottawa" to protest against the government about work camps for the unemployed during the economic depression. Ted's more well-informed than the average adolescent his age, questioning the unjust political systems of Fascism while, at the same time, wondering about the worthiness of his father's Socialist causes that more than once leave him and his mother to run the farm by themselves. Ted's inability to reconcile inaction against perceived injustice will get its test sooner than he thinks.
A few months later, Ted's maternal uncle, Roger, a businessman of some sort (we later find out he may be a weapons dealer, as well as a spy for the British) visits the farm with an offer that Will cannot refuse--to travel to Europe, and make "contacts" with Socialist leaders, in order to strengthen Socialist governments against "the main danger" of Fascism. This time, though, Will gets to take his family (Ted's always wanted to see a bullfight, after reading Hemingway), and have a vacation of sorts, too.
At first, the family have a wonderful time in France, but Will soon takes off on a dangerous mission to Spain, where the Fascist rebels have begun to revolt against the newly elected Republican government, and he leaves Ted and his careworn, long-suffering mother Catherine to fend for themselves. When Catherine is struck in the head during a violent altercation between rebel Fascist groups and the Republicans, Will has to go out to seek his father to reunite their fractured family. Along the way, he meets Dolores Martinez, a young woman whose intelligence and spunk embody the ideals of political activism that Ted grows to admire (predictably, her political idealism and intelligence are not the only things he admires). The two travel through the perilous shifting alliances of various towns, each fraught with the tension of divided loyalties and the fear of betrayal. Will Ted ever find his father and reunite with his mother? And if he does, will he ever see Dolores again?
The key struggle which Ted undergoes—that of putting into action untried political beliefs—is not enunciated by himself, but rather by his pacifist father, who, at the end, confesses that what he saw on the front lines, how he had to respond with violence to preserve his own life, taught him that "the normal rules don't seem to apply" in a world turned upside down, and that he realizes "violence is a part of [him]," a part "which must always be held in check, but which nonetheless must be acknowledged." Will's sombre pronouncements robbed Ted of his chance to truly reflect and learn about his experiences, with an adult telling us what the "lesson" should be rather than having the teen protagonist live it out for him or herself. There is also a flash-forward to the present day (sadly, the date provided for 2009 was one day off) where Ted and Dolores finally see a bullfight together and get the opportunity to tell their grandchild about how they met long ago.
John Wilson, an ex-geologist and self-professed frustrated historian, has garnered critical acclaim both for his historical non-fiction and novels for young adults. I wanted to love this book, given Wilson's strong track record, but Lost in Spain demonstrates the danger of losing the interest and sympathies of its intended readership. Historical fiction should be both immersive in its authenticity and accuracy, and yet identifiable for the young reader. It is unfortunate that Ted is, at times, too composed a protagonist; for example, his reaction after being thrown to the ground before a bomb goes off, rather than visceral panic, is "This is silly." The detached third-person narrative, while objective in imparting historical details, also distances us from Ted: the confusion, the grit, the bravery that no doubt coursed through Ted and Dolores throughout their gruelling adventure is not matched all the time by the level of prose. I have a feeling that if the story's protagonist had been Ted's father, Will (a character Wilson has visited before in a previous work) would have been filled with a bit more tension and moral ambivalence, and indeed, angst, an element of teen emotional life lacking from the staid Ted.
I still recommend Wilson's book for school library purchase (it provides a handy time-line of events at the back, as well as a run-down on the myriad political factions in a prefatory note, though without ever letting us now what the groups' acronyms stand for), and for use in the grade 12 history curriculum, but I would also supplement this title with other pieces of literature, such as George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, and even films such as Pan's Labyrinth. I believe that if John Wilson paid more attention to the writer that got Ted interested in Spain in the first place, Ernest Hemingway, he would have written a book not only meaningful in its contribution to a school curriculum's focus on twentieth century history, but also a powerful one for its deeper thematic concerns for democracy and individual freedom. As it stands, this novel is useful as a teaching tool, raising important questions about the differences between knowing about political precepts and truly experiencing their ramifications, but it falls just a touch short in being memorable as a gripping story.
Ellen Wu is currently a MLIS student at the School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is also finishing her MFA in children's literature from Hollins University.
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