CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 15. . . .December 10, 2010
No Small Victory.
Connie Brummel Crook.
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2010.
230 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Lang (Ont.)-History-20th century-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 3-7 / Ages 8-12.
Review by Kris Rothstein.
"Eat up, Bonnie. You're too thin. You need all the strength you can get."
"Sorry, Mum. I'm just not hungry anymore!" Bonnie looked down at the blob of mashed turnips and the fried fish parry on her plate.
"It doesn't matter whether you're hungry or not. You need to eat."
"Please, Mum, couldn't we have something else besides suckerballs and turnips? Maybe an orange once in a while?"
The minute she said the word "orange," Bonnie knew it was a mistake.
"Oranges are expensive," said Dad. "We simply can't afford them."
Bonnie Brown is an only child during the Depression, and her parents have been hit hard by crop failure and financial ineptitude. When they can't pay their mortgage, they are forced to move to a farm no one wants to rent because it's where two people died of consumption. But the Browns scrub it clean and try to make the best of a bad situation. Bonnie doesn't know anyone, has a lot more chores to do and is stuck with a new, unsympathetic teacher who doesn't encourage her love of learning. Eventually Bonnie makes friends and finds a way to accept her new life.
Modern readers will be able to relate to plot elements like parents arguing about money and schoolyard bullies. Even losing the family farm might not be so foreign to kids today. Crook, who has published many historical novels, is skilled at creating an informative and lively historic setting while also focussing in on the issues, small and large, which matter to Bonnie and to other kids. She also develops the theme of how the world is often unfair to children, another element to which most readers will be able to relate. While Bonnie has many harsh conditions to endure, these problems don't seem unnecessarily cruel or burdensome. The exception is in the opening scene in which Bonnie's cat is killed for no reason other than to make readers feel sad and to make Bonnie more isolated. She later receives a new dog for a companion, but this storyline is also a little weak.
The strength of this novel is in the details, and they bring the era alive in a believable way. Rural Ontario is vibrantly described - the flowers, rivers and landscape, the style of dress and food and the atmosphere of a one-room schoolhouse. There are memorable scenes of the humiliation of getting lice, a chimney fire at school, a spelling bee and avoiding the game warden. The other strength is the character of Bonnie who is smart, obstinate, a little out of control but also, at times, a little too syrupy. She is a spunky character, but she needs a little more rounding out. There is also some intriguing political and cultural context about little-reported aspects of the Depression. Most interesting is the divide between people on Relief and the pride of farmers in Bonnie's town of Lang, ON, who do not accept assistance.
No Small Victory would have been a much better novel if it had a stronger and more meaningful story arc. The episodic nature of much of the book (while echoing Anne of Green Gables, a book Bonnie covets) does not allow for a plot with any momentum or genuine character development. Bonnie does fit in and learns to be comfortable in her new situation, but not really through any transformation, just through circumstances and the passing of time. She is a lively and likeable character who should have grown more. Too much here just skims the surface, never achieving the kind of depth needed to propel readers through a story. There is a tension between being instructive and telling a compelling story which is never resolved. While Crook is successful in creating an impressive historical setting, some of the other elements of a great story are missing.
Recommended with reservations.
Kris Rothstein is a children's book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.
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