CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 22 . . . . February 10, 2012
It's 1916, and 12-year-old Eliza Bates, a resident of Uxbridge, ON, is on the verge of adolescence. Having said farewell to her two eldest brothers, Hugo and Jack, who voluntarily enlisted to help the Allied cause in the Great War, Eliza, the middle child of seven, is left to deal with her prudish older sister and infantile younger siblings. As if being a minister's daughter wasn't bad enough already! Friendless, lonely, and hopelessly missing her dear brother Hugo, Eliza decides to confide her feelings to you, "Dear Reader," in her private journal. Over the course of two years, Eliza records her family's daily struggles as the Great War shakes them to their very core, changing their lives forever. Slowly shedding the last of her childish fears and insecurities, Eliza takes on a new and important role in her family as confidant and caretaker; she is the glue that holds them together during these tumultuous times.
In accordance with the accomplished writer that she is, Jean Little skillfully begins the novel in medias res, both in terms of the events of the Great War and in terms of Eliza's coming-of-age. Eliza's transition from child to adolescent is seamless and subtle, yet quite evidently apparent when reading the contrasting opening and closing Christmas Day entries. The character of Eliza is far from a goody-goody; she has a temper, and she is a snoop. In fact, the impetus for her to begin writing in her journal is spite! Thus, Little weaves a credible plotline, filled with childish arguments and frivolities, as well as, budding insights and a heightened national awareness. Furthermore, Little deserves even greater accolades for her twist on the typical epistolary diary format. As is customary in epistolary novels, the character Eliza writes about her life and family in the first person; however, Little adds a second metacognitive layer to the diary through Eliza's mindful consideration of the inevitable "Reader" and discussion of the act of writing and recording.
At the end of the book, Little provides an 'Historical Note' regarding the causes of the Great War and the events or battles in which Canadian soldiers were involved. I must admit that her summary of World War I is one of the best and most palatable versions for children that I have read to date. The fictional diary of Eliza Bates is great, but the book, itself, would be worth purchasing just for the historical summary alone! In addition, Little includes a photograph of her uncle, Lieutenant Gordon Smith Mellis Gauld, who inspired the creation of the characters of Hugo and Jack, thus lending an enormous amount of credibility to the story of Eliza's family. The book also includes a number of other photographs and maps that offer a glimpse into the wartime conditions, both away and at home.
Overall, Brothers Far From Home should be seen as a valued member of the "Dear Canada" series, and it belongs on every Canadian child's bookshelf. With Remembrance Day an annual event, this book offers children an opportunity to experience the sacrifices and valour of the Canadian soldiers in World War I, and thus, encourages them to participate in the two minutes of remembrance with empathetic silence.
Dorothea Wilson-Scorgie is currently a Teacher-On-Call in Victoria, BC, while also pursuing her MA degree in Children's Literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
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