CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 16. . . .December 17, 2010.
Winnipeg, MB: Great Plains, 2010.
216 pp., pbk., $14.95.
Grades 7-12 / Ages 12-17.
Review by Janet M Johnson.
I sat cross-legged across from Swift Doe in the tepee, sipping rose-hip tea. Bear entered and sat beside me. He lightly kissed my forehead. It was such a simple gesture, but it filled me with such a warm, comfortable feeling, as though I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Suddenly, he began moving away from me - or more specifically, I began moving farther away from him as if huge hands were dragging me. I struggled against the invisible force, but could not break free. I called to Bear, asking for his help.
He called to me, saying, "We need you to return. Do not wait too long. The magic will not last forever."
I felt the sweep of large wings on my face. An owl morphed into Bear's grandfather and stood in front of me. Bear appeared by his side and, far off in the distance, the doctor watched us.
"The power of the moon is strong this night, Owl said gravely. "If you are ready to come back to us, now is the time."
Spirit Quest continues the time travel story that began with the novel, Withershins, an excellent novel which was nominated for several awards in 2009, including the MYRCA (Manitoba Young Reader's Choice Award). In Withershins, Michelle, our heroine, goes back in time to spend three months in Lower Fort Garry in the mid 1800's. While living in the past, she makes friends with a family of native people as well as some early European settlers while learning to survive in hard life of the early pioneers. Most importantly, Michelle becomes aware of her own Métis origins and fills in her knowledge about her own family that is will be forgotten with the death of her great grandmother. Michelle also experiences the beginnings of love between herself and Bear, the medicine man's grandson, allowing the reader to experience an important aspect of growing up
After being at home in Winnipeg for awhile, and homesick for the people she knew in the past, Michelle goes to the Manitoba archives to look for any mention of Owl or his nephew Bear and finds that Owl-who-sees-All was found guilty of murdering a young woman whose body was never found. Michelle, realizing that it is her own self that disappeared, becomes anxious to return to 1847 to rectify this tragic miscarriage of justice. Once back at Fort Garry, Michelle clears Owl's name and rescues him from hanging but finds she cannot go home until October of that year. To make herself useful, she offers to help the doctor and undertakes the task of learning Owl's language and spiritual beliefs. It is this quest for spiritual knowledge that becomes the real adventure in the book.
While it may not seem logical for a young woman to be able to survive in the wilderness and again within the more restricted Victorian male dominated society, the author resolves this problem by not ignoring how Michelle copes with the new time. By using plain speech and a matter of fact tone in her text, the author successfully dispels any problems that might arise from a easy "suspension of disbelief" in the reader's imagination. For instance, when talking about her clothing, Michelle tells Bear how his sister met her on her return to the past with a new outfit to wear:
She met me at the church when I came back and her mother gave me the deerskins to wear, as I was still in my street clothes like when I showed up in October. I lifted the skirt to show him the polar fleece. I did have the foresight to wear my thermal underwear, in case I landed back during the winter.
Furthermore, the author incorporates real life histories of actual people who were around at the time as well as actual events, such as the buffalo hunt, with considerable attention that promotes the feeling of a consistent, believable and logical world at the Fort Garry Settlement.
The best parts of the book involve Michelle's spiritual training under Owl's tutelage. he First Nations ceremonies are informative for non-native readers, and Rocan successfully covers the issues of modesty and "monthlies" without sensationalism.
The sweat is a cleansing, Bear reminded me. "A rebirth. Normally one arrives at a sweat without clothes, the way we began life. Today, however, there will be a mixed group in your honour so we will wear a minimum of clothing. It is not a time of modesty. "(p. 82)
It is important to note that a reader doesn't have to read the first book in order to understand the storyline in Spirit Quest. This book was a very satisfying read, and although it has a regional bias, considering the setting, I feel this setting only contributes to the story. The early life of settlers was the same in other provinces in many respects so the regional bias should not hinder it from becoming a great read for young readers elsewhere. Readers from Manitoba will, on the other hand, profit from identifying with landmarks, such as St. Andrews Church, used in the book,.
This historical fantasy is sure to appeal to many readers, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to any reader from grade seven and higher.
Janet M. Johnson is a librarian and instructor at Red River College in Winnipeg, MB.
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