CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 2 . . . . September 9, 2011
Porter's previous free verse novel, The Crazy Man, won the 2005 Governor General's Literary Award in the category of children's literature (English text), the 2006 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award, the 2006 CLA Book of the Year for Children Award, and the 2006 Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People, as well as being nominated for and/or winning several provincial and state readers' choice awards.
I suspect that Porter must have approached writing I'll Be Watching, another free verse novel, with some trepidation, knowing that it would undoubtedly be compared/contrasted with The Crazy Man. She need not have worried as the quality of I'll Be Watching certainly matches, if not surpasses, that of The Crazy Man. In addition to sharing the same literary form, the two books are set in the past in rural Saskatchewan and revolve about the happenings in a materially poor family. However, the two books are more different than similar, with the greater complexity of I'll Be Watching suggesting an older adolescent reading audience.
The central plot of I'll Be Watching revolves around the Loney family that consists of father George, mother Margaret (deceased), stepmother Effie Slade, Randall aka Ran, 16, Norah, 14, Jim 12, and Addie, 7. The book begins in the present with Jim and Norah returning to the now ghost town of Argue, SK, and then flashes back to the community as it was in October, 1941, concluding in the spring of the following year. A veteran of World War I, George had returned from that conflict a changed man, and alcohol and the economic realities of the Great Depression have caused him to lose the family's farm and to relocate them all to a house in Argue. After Margaret is killed in an auto accident (the Argue gossip mill says that George was driving drunk), George, faced with raising four children on his own, has entered into a loveless marriage with the ultra religious Effie Slade.
The book's title comes from the fact that the children's deceased mother, Margaret, now a ghost, is one of the book's narrators, and it is she who watches over her family. Later, following George's freezing to death after coming home drunk one night and being locked out by Effie, he also joins Margaret in this guardian angel role. While the three younger children are now fully subject to Effie's strict, no-nonsense "parenting," widow Effie quickly abandons them by running off to California with Elijah Small, an itinerant Bible salesman. The saying, "It takes a village to raise a child," was obviously unknown to the "Christian" citizens of Argue as the Loney children are forced to fend for themselves. To assist his siblings financially, Ran, just 16, lies about his age in order to enlist in the RCAF where he becomes a navigator on a bomber in the European theatre. As winter arrives in Argue and the Loney house's electricity is cut off because of nonpayment and their coal supply is depleted, the three children abandon their bedrooms in favor of sleeping around the cookstove, using the rooms' doors and pieces of furniture as fuel. When Ran's plane is shot down, and the RCAF reports him as "missing in action," his siblings fear that he is dead. Readers, however, know that Ran is alive and attempting to avoid being captured by the Germans. Readers also realize that Ran is being watched over by his father's ghost. In the spring of 1942, Effie and Small suddenly reappear, and, after Effie sees the state of "her" cannibalized house, she simply says, "You are no longer welcome in my home", and, as Nora explains, "We were to pack and to leave immediately." Fortunately, Ruth Parker, the new teacher of Argue's one-room school house, steps in and arranges the "where" and the "how" of the children's immediate future.
Divided into seven sections, I'll Be Watching has a very large cast of secondary characters, one so long that a listing identifying them would not have been entirely out of place at the book's beginning. If a character has a "speaking" role, then that person's name is placed before her/his "lines." [see "excerpt" above] The secondary characters not only interact with the Loneys but also with each other, and Porter creates a number of subplots, with not all being completely resolved at the book's conclusion. Though Porter never says exactly how large Argue is, its population appears to be sufficient to support three churches, one Roman Catholic, another Anglican and the third Presbyterian. Effie Slade religiously attends Knox Presbyterian whose pastor, Reverend Meany, unknown to his congregation, is engaging in an incestuous relationship with his daughter, one that results in her pregnancy and a forced illicit abortion.
Porter shows how the war in Europe impacts the citizens of Argue in a number of ways. For example, Franz Lahr, the one-room school's original teacher, is hounded out of town because of his German heritage. And telegrams become something to dread as the community's sons go off to war, and the telegraph becomes the immediate means of notifying families of bad news. Carol Williams, who operates the post office located at the back of the Mercantile, the community's general store and "gossip centre," profits from the war and her position by "looting" the mail, including Ran's military pay which he was sending home for his siblings.
Though I'll Be Watching contains the fantasy element of ghosts, Porter weaves this element seamlessly into what is otherwise realistic fiction that utilizes an historical setting. Like The Crazy Man, I'll Be Watching can be readily enjoyed by an adult audience, and public libraries serving both adolescents and adults should consider purchasing copies for both the YA and adult collections. Rich in character, plot and setting detail, I'll Be Watching definitely merits more than one reading.
Dave Jenkinson, CM's editor, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.