________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 6 . . . . October 9, 2009

cover

Billy Green Saves the Day.

Ben Guyatt.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2009.
160 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-1-55488-041-6.

Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.

Review by Ruth Latta.

** /4

excerpt:

"A lot of people say the Americans could even come here to Stoney Creek and take over this country." [said Billy.]

Adam [Green, Billy's father] threw the sack in his hands against the wall, causing an explosion of white powder. "It's not going to happen! It's just a stupid rumour... There will be no more talk of the war in my house...I've seen war, son. It's not glamorous. It's not exciting. It's bloody and it's something you want to forget but never can."

"You can't stop me, you just can't!" cried Billy as he ran out of the barn.

 

Ben Guyatt's novel, Billy Green Saves the Day, is about a real person, a hero of the War of 1812, but we do not meet him until we have read a lengthy prologue which supplies background information about the war.

     First, we are taken to the White House, where President James Madison, his wife, Dolley, his vice president, George Clinton, and legislators Thomas Jefferson, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Paul Hamilton are discussing their war with Britain. The British have blockaded American ships attempting to trade with Britain's enemy, France. Conquering the British colonies to the north, says Madison, will be "mere matter of marching." None of these people appear again in the action of the novel.

     Billy Green, (1795-1877), the first child of European descent born at Stoney Creek (near present-day Hamilton and Burlington) was the son of a United Empire Loyalist farmer/grist mill owner. A member of a large extended family, Billy led the outdoor life of an Upper Canadian backwoods youth in the early years of the 19th century until the routines of pioneer life were interrupted by an invasion by American troops.

     Billy and his brother Levi observed the troop movements and learned from their brother-in-law, Isaac Corman, who had been briefly held prisoner by the Americans, the password that would get individuals through the Yankee lines. He conveyed this information to the British army commander, General Harvey, camped at Burlington Heights, and then, as Billy knew the terrain, he led the British troops on a three hour march to make a night attack on the U.S. troops. On June 6, 1813, the British forces routed the Americans at Stoney Creek. Billy joined the militia, eventually married a local girl, became a farmer and founded a family. His first person account of his experiences to his grandson, John K. Green, is on the Stoney Creek Battlefield website (http://www.battlefieldhouse.ca/billy_scout.asp).

     Billy Green's heroism has captured the imagination of several Canadian writers. Prior to Guyatt's novel, Grren was the subject of two books, a folk song, various articles and a video. Pierre Berton highlighted his heroism in the second volume of his history of the War of 1812.

     The meaning of the Battle of Stoney Creek and other Canadian victories in the War of 1812 has been interpreted in two different ways. For many years, the war was presented as an example of Britain protecting Canada and Canadians' loyalty to the Crown.

     More recently, the War of 1812 has been presented in Canadian nationalist terms, with Upper Canadians defending the embryonic society that they were building. This viewpoint is summed up in the final stanza of Stan Rogers' 1975 ballad, "Billy Green," which states, "I led our forces through the night that this land would be free."

     Ben Guyatt's novel gives a third interpretation of the Stoney Creek Battle and the War of 1812, as indicated by the passage at the beginning of this review, and by the following:

"The cost of war is always too high. It's a stupid game being played by stupid politicians who are hundreds of miles away and oceans apart. Men treated like pawns on the chessboard for the sake of what?... For wealth, revenge, egos."

     While I agree with these sentiments, I doubt that an Upper Canadian Loyalist living in June 1813, would, for, when your home is being invaded, it's hard to be jaded and philosophical. In an era when life was, in John Locke's words, "nasty, brutish and short," was anyone unaware that war was unglamorous and bloody?

     The Billy Green story shows the determination of ordinary people to defend their homes and families against invaders, a message that might be pertinent with regard to war in the 21st century.

     A great deal of historic fact is presented through dialogue in Billy Green Saves the Day, but the overall flavour or tone of the era is not well rendered. For instance, the attitude that young people take toward their parents is typical of today, not the early 19th century. Billy's fictional girlfriend has a sharp personal exchange with her father, and, at one point, Billy says to his father: "Listen to you. It's not fair of you to say that to me. I can't take that kind of pressure... that kind of guilt. Nobody can." Jane Austen was a contemporary of Billy Green, and in her novels young people don't lecture their elders, especially not the head of the household. Of course, young readers of today will not perceive any flaw in the tone of the novel because they are unaware that current attitudes and values did not prevail in former times.

     The Billy of the novel, a troubled teenager in love, comes across as quite different from the real, older Billy whose voice speaks to us in his account of the Battle in a modest, matter-of-fact way. But perhaps his personality and story needed enhancement to appeal to today's youth.

Recommended.

Ruth (Olson) Latta has a Master of Arts in History from Queen's University, Kingston, ON. Her most recent novel, Spelling Bee, is to be published by Baico Publishing in Ottawa sometime in 2009.

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

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
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