CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 20. . . .January 28th, 2010.
Toronto, ON: Napoleon, 2010.
138 pp., pbk., $9.95.
Jesuits-Missions - Juvenile fiction.
Indians of North America - Juvenile fiction.
Grades 3-6 / Ages 8-11.
Review by Kris Rothstein.
*** / 4
Before he settled beneath his canoe roof, Etienne studied the faces of his fellow travellers in the firelight. The smoke from their pipes lay above their heads like a storm cloud. Amid their tang of sweat and tobacco and loud belches, they boasted of trades and troubles. These men of the woods were nothing like he had expected.
Neither is this journey, he thought, bitten by bugs, scorched by the sun, and sick from the motion.
Ten-year-old Etienne, a farmer's son in seventeenth century New France, yearns for adventure and excitement. He makes a rash decision to secretly trade places with an orphan who is being sent as an apprentice to the isolated Jesuit mission of Sainte Marie. Etienne is overjoyed to be on the road with Voyageurs, but the journey includes terrible hardships and, understandably, Etienne starts to wonder why he left his parents and home. But he is convinced that his destiny is to be a great adventurer and explorer, and he can't wait to get started. In Sainte Marie, he learns about the Jesuit lifestyle and enjoys being apprenticed to an herbalist. He also befriends members of the Huron community of converts at the mission, especially a boy of his own age called Thomas. Etienne survives an attack on the Huron village by Iroquois warriors and is accepted into the Huron community for his brave deeds. He then decides it is time to return home and also helps Thomas escape to a safer life with allies in the south.
The historical details of this story are extremely well integrated into the flow of the narrative, and none of the descriptions or events ever seem tacked on or inserted to give the book more educational appeal. Warbird presents a lively, well-rounded and intricate view of seventeenth century life. It is a fast-moving book which covers a lot of ground and is never boring. But even in this short novel, there are chapters with more thought and description than action, and the combination of all of these elements produces a story which is very well paced. Such a young hero is difficult to imagine now, but, in the context of a time when children were expected to do much at a tender age, it does make sense and feels credible.
Warbird is primarily a story of adventure and friendship, but when it does address issues of First Nations culture, religion and history, it does so in a very even and respectful manner. Etienne, himself, has no particular thoughts on religion - he is just interested in learning about different people and traditions. He gives respect to those who deserve it, regardless of their background. Some of the missionaries he meets are kind and considerate characters while others are strict, harsh and unforgiving. He isn't worried about the judgements of the religious community and is more sympathetic to his Huron friends than the priests who want to control them. He encourages his friends to disregard Jesuit demands for them to destroy ceremonial items, like their drums, and is proud to dance with his friends even though it is forbidden. The Huron are portrayed in a positive light because they are Etienne's friends, while the threatening Iroquois are fierce warmongers. It is not really within the scope of this short book to comment on the bigger issues involved with contact and conversion, but Jennifer Maruno's light touch communicates more effectively than many other authors who try harder to make specific arguments.
Warbird isn't one of those magical books that absorbs the reader completely and begs to be reread, but it is a very fun adventure story with convincing period details, a strong main character and a lot of historical interest.
Kris Rothstein is a children's book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.
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