CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 14 . . . . December 2, 2011
Fourteen-year-old twins Sam and Eadie move into an old house in a historic rural area outside London, ON, where they learn about a legend that a War of 1812 skirmish took place close by and the British paymaster had to bury his gold in a hasty retreat, never to be found again. Together with their neighbour Ben, they investigate the legend's veracity and the possible locations of buried gold, discovering in the process that a part of their new house was a pioneer log cabin with a scrap of paper from a period diary. Eventually they discover a chest of coins buried under a neighbour's property, coins which turn out to be from a later era. With their interest in history piqued, Eadie decides to write a story based on the diary page and other scraps of fact and legend about the original Loyalist inhabitants of the house.
Lacing the modern-day story with excerpts from the fictional diary, this book is an effort to kindle interest in the War of 1812 and its significance to the present, mixing in adventure, mystery, and discovery. On that account it has some success. The diary excerpts, the best part of the story, are short, staccato bursts of an authentic voice of a girl of the period writing on scarce paper, neither too literary nor too sentimental to be true. The trio attack the mystery with abandon, encountering many false starts, and using some real deductive reasoning – such as positing the position of the original settlers' cabins using the British conditions of settlement at the time The facts and legends behind the story are well documented, and real resources, from books to the Internet to the local library, are used.
The suspense and interest, however, are not particularly well sustained. The book has a few too many ups and downs, excited bursts of discovery followed by disappointment, not to mention unimportant details of the teens' life, such as what they eat for breakfast before digging up the cabin cellar, or Ben's constant need for sunscreen to protect his fair skin. There is a good deal of jumping to conclusions on the group's part that go beyond youthful abandon – such as their certainty that, even if the legend is not true, gold must have been buried by an army paymaster in their neighbourhood at some point in history. "The Legend of the Paymaster's Gold" is also constantly referred to in capitals, as if it is the name of a book or a real literary work, which it is not. After so many digs that have come up empty, the discovery of the gold coins at the end comes across as a bit anticlimactic, as though it was either a rushed or overly delayed conclusion.
As for the diary, for a moment the reader is excited that the as-yet-unexplained excerpts foreshadow a profound discovery of historical documents, and the realization that they are really just Eadie's extrapolation is both a mild disappointment and a potentially brilliant twist. In the end, the twist is not handled quite artfully enough for the book's appeal to move beyond the local and historical relevance.
Recommended with reservations.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario.
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