CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 22. . . .February 11, 2011.
The Legends of Lake on the Mountain: An Early Adventure of John A. Macdonald. (Leaders & Legacies, Bk 2).
Whitby, ON: Fireside, 2011.
217 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Macdonald, John A. (John Alexander), 1815-1891-Childhood and youth-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 5-11 / Ages 10-16.
Review by Ruth Latta.
"...It's a dangerous thing to let just any common man have enough power to make decisions without a sober educated voice of reason." [said the colonel] "Sometimes the common man doesn't know what's good for him."....
"Why does change have to happen all at once?" asked John. "Just because I'm a British subject and I'll die a British subject some day, doesn't mean we can't grow. Not everything happens overnight."
Toronto author Roderick Benns made an inspired choice of setting for The Legends of Lake on the Mountain: An Early Adventure of John A. Macdonald. It is a matter of historic fact that Macdonald's father owned a grist mill at Stone Mills, now Glenora, in Prince Edward County, a peninsula jutting out into Lake Ontario. Lake of the Mountain is located above Glenora, nearly 62 meters above the Bay of Quinte. Geologists believe that it is a collapsed doline, a feature unique to areas where limestone predominates.
Mohawk legend claimed that spirits dwelled in Lake on the Mountain. The cover illustration of The Legends of Lake on the Mountain shows a Loch Ness type of monster swimming in the sunset purpled waters of that lake, with the future prime minister and two other children peering at it from behind some trees.
The author's "Fiction or Fact" section at the end of The Legends of Lake on the Mountain explains which of the many characters were real and which are imaginary, and shows the novel's roots in historic fact and local legend. The plot line to do with conspiracy and espionage is made up.
Benns hopes that this novel, and others in his "Leaders & Legacies" series, will make young Canadians more knowledgeable about Canada's leaders. He writes: "Our Prime Ministers (and other Canadian 'leaders') are people who provide living evidence of personal sacrifice, service to country, and, yes, ambition. ... We want children to know that serving one's country will not invite ridicule or disdain but rather, respect and appreciation, assuming their intent is in the best interests of their fellow Canadians."
The Legends of Lake on the Mountain features a foreword by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The first book in the series was a murder mystery featuring the young John Diefenbaker. In the near future, Benns plans to write and publish adventure novels starring Paul Martin, Lester Pearson, Charles Tupper and Kim Campbell.
For many years, Canadian authors have been blending truth and fiction in historical novels for young people. I will never forget Rebels Ride at Night, a Governor General's Award winner by John Francis Hayes (1904-1980), which I read during my long ago elementary school days. Hayes's compelling novel with its finely drawn characters came to my mind because it was set during the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837. Benns' novel, set in 1828, takes place against a backdrop of social conditions which led to the uprising. In fact, although The Legends of Lake on the Mountain contains allusions to the hardships of the settlers and to the embryonic thoughts of the day about democracy, these elements are lost in the conspiracy plot.
The serpentine creature in the lake relates literally and metaphorically to the conspiracy/espionage storyline. So as not to spoil the story, let me merely say that the strongest female character succumbs to the whisperings of a seducer sent by Uncle Sam.
Through the omniscient author, readers are given glimpses into various characters' hearts and minds, including those of young John Macdonald, but readers don't learn too much about his feelings, other than his survivor guilt over the death of his brother. This absence of focus on John A.'s inner life is intentional. Benns writes in his "Question and Answer" section that boys "want action, not an over emphasis on the emotions." Will girls enjoy this series? Benns says an emphatic yes: "The thing about girls is that they tend to have more flexible reading habits overall."
Years ago, in teachers' college, I remember a professor telling us to select "boys' books" for our classroom libraries because boys wouldn't read "girls' books" but girls would read anything. Evidently this problem is still with us. Maureen Johnson, who writes for young adults, tackles this issue in a must read essay on her blog: (http://www.maureenjohnsonbooks.com/2010/09/22/sell the girls).
"The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything... Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read "girl" stories, (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate as opposed to girls, who are like pickup trucks or big, family style SVUs. We can go anywhere, through anything, on any old literary fuel..."
Let's hope that Benns' books will lure reluctant readers away from their video games and transform them into history buffs. Anyone who has a chance to visit Lake on the Mountain Park in picturesque Prince Edward County should seize the opportunity.
Ruth Latta has a Master's degree in History from Queen's University in Kingston and is the author of several books, including two non fiction books, The Memory of All That: Canadian Women Remember World War II, and They Tried: The Story of the Canadian Youth Congress.
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