CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 23. . . .February 19, 2010
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2010.
192 pp., hardcover, $7.99.
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Vikki VanSickle.
Reviewed from Advance Review Copy.
He was a boy my age. His face was a dark colour like the beautiful walnut sideboard Aunt Sadie had in the dining room. His eyes were shining and he seemed friendly because he had a wide smile on his face. I smiled right back. We became friends just like that. All it took was two smiles. I held out my hand to shake, saying "I'm Titus Sullivan."
"Moses Croucher." He shook my hand.
I took the other peppermint stick out of my shirt pocket and handed it to him. I brushed off the little bit of lint on it first. "Some man gave me a nickel to get a treat. I bought two, so this one's for you."
Moses's eyes lit up, and he took the stick breaking it in two. "I'm going to give this piece to Beulah, my sister."
I thought of the loaves and the fishes, how Jesus made them multiply. I broke the end off of my stick and put it in my pocket for Lem. What had begun as a treat for one became a treat for four.
Titus Sullivan, 12, stows away in the back of his brother Lem's wagon and accompanies him to Enniskillen swamp where the discovery of oil has attracted an assortment of labourers, opportunists, freed slaves, and criminals. Here, among the grit and the grime, Titus thrives, excelling at school, making new friends, even creating an upstart business. But the fragile peace that Titus finds is threatened by racism, which turns violent, and only Titus can bring those who are responsible to justice.
Grease Town is a fictional story based on events that occurred in Oil Springs, ON, in 1863. Towell brings the setting to life quite convincingly, seamlessly blending fact into an engaging narrative. The story is told from Titus's perspective. His voice is clear and feels historically authentic. We discover at the close of the novel that we have been reading an account prepared by the narrator for the witness stand. This format allows Titus to hint at events to come, which creates suspense and propels the reader forward.
Towell creates a warm cast of supporting characters, including Mercy, a spunky young maid who wants to learn to read and has no qualms about wrestling (and winning) against boys, Uncle Amos, a just and thoughtful man who was once a military doctor but has since given up on medicine and the army after witnessing how cruelly the native peoples were treated, and Mrs. Ryan, a plucky young teacher who doesn't mind getting her skirts dirty. Unfortunately, the only character who feels underdeveloped is the main character and narrator, Titus. At times, it feels like Titus is merely a passive observer of the story. He becomes a conduit for information rather than an active participant.
It is perhaps because of this detachment that I found Titus' silence in the last third of the book unconvincing. Titus sneaks out and witnesses a violent assault on the shantytown where his friend Moses and his family live. The incident horrifies him, and he is struck dumb for weeks, a situation which becomes dire when his testimony is needed in court. While his inability to speak provided a degree of tension and suspense, it felt more like a plot device than an emotional or psychological response to a traumatic experience.
Towell has recreated a rich slice of Canadian history that will appeal to lovers of historical fiction and readers who like to see justice prevail.
Vikki VanSickle has an MA in Children's Literature from the University of British Columbia. She is a writer and manager of The Flying Dragon Bookshop in Toronto.
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