CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 23. . . .February 15, 2013
Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2010.
212 pp., trade pbk., $12.99.
Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.
Review by Ruth Latta.
With shaking hands, Addy read the words:
"Man's Body Found in Ashes of Cabin
A thin column of smoke led a passerby to the discovery of a body in a burned-out cabin several miles off Meadow Creek road. The body has been identified as that of the recluse, Raymond Crawford... Investigators concluded Crawford fell and hit his head while filling his wood stove. No trace was found of Crawford's stepdaughter, Adelaide, believed to be about twelve years of age, despite a thorough search of the surrounding area..."
Addy let her breath out in an exaggerated sigh. A weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She didn't need to be afraid any longer.
Warning: This review contains "spoilers" which reveal the plot.
Kootenay Silver opens with 12-year-old motherless Addy hanging out in the woods to avoid her abusive drunken stepfather, Raymond. Her brother Cask, age 14, has left home to find a job. He promised to come for Addy, but hasn't. Addy dreads winter, which will force her into close proximity with Raymond in their dilapidated cabin.
When Raymond returns from his monthly trip to town for supplies and finds Addy wearing a long dress (used clothing from the "United Church" ladies), he makes a grab for her. In the ensuing scuffle, she hits him with a poker and then runs out of the cabin.
Later, from a distance, she sees flames and realizes the cabin is on fire. Thinking that Raymond is unconscious, and not wanting him to burn to death, she runs back to rouse him. First she tries to put out the fire. Then she sees that she has killed him. She realizes, too, that if his body burns, the head injury he received at her hands will go undetected.
Gathering up her dead mother's jewellery, papers and personal effects from the flaming building, including a framed photo of her mother with baby Cask, Addy takes some food and sets out into the woods. She heads for Kaslo where Cask hoped to find work on a steamboats on Kootenay Lake.
The cover blurb tells readers that "It's 1910," but on p. 53, when Addy is fleeing the scene of the fire, she carves into a tree her name and the date, "October 1912." A flashback dates back to 1910. Eventually, the outbreak of the First World War clarifies the time frame for anyone who may be confused. But what are readers to make of Addy's dress from the "United Church ladies"? There were Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist ladies in 1912, but the United Church of Canada was founded in 1925.
Kootenay Silver has many story lines and themes: the impact of a mother's death in childbirth; the neglect and abuse of Addy and Cask, merging with the theme of sexual abuse; the removal of their little brother, Abel, from the family, followed by his disappearance from the community; Addy's two almost-miraculous rescues from peril; her quest to find Cask; her winter with a benefactor; her masquerade as a boy; her first job; her romance with Ian; the impact of war; Addy and Cask's reunion and a surprising discovery that brings the prospect of comfort instead of poverty.
Since Chandler touches upon sophisticated ideas but does not fully develop them, I wondered if she originally wrote, for a mature audience, a longer novel which was edited down into Kootenay Silver. The primary cause of Addy and Cask's plight is their father's death in the South African War, prior to the novel's opening. Although war comes into the novel again, in 1914, the impact of faraway imperialist conflicts on Canadians is not the main theme. Indeed, several interesting themes and plot strands are not fully expanded. I felt cheated at not being shown Addy's reunions with her benefactor, Gracie, and her long-lost younger brother. The main theme is Addy's maturation, thanks both to puberty and to her victories over challenges posed by the plot twists.
A complicated plot makes a busy, fast-paced story and encourages summary (telling) rather than showing. When Addy heaves an "exaggerated" sigh, the "exaggerated" stands out as an authorial interpretation, since, to Addy, the sigh would be sincere and heartfelt. Later readers are told that Addy is "no longer the frightened, traumatized child, driven by the necessity to survive and the search for her brother." Readers should be allowed to come to this conclusion on their own, from observing Addy's actions.
At times, Addy is too much the servant of the plot. As a 12-year-old, she shows incredible agility and presence of mind when she climbs a ladder against a burning cabin, wearing a hiked-up dress and carrying a bucket of water in each hand. Sometimes she is sharp-witted, other times not; for instance, under stress, she is able to reason that the fire will cover up the murder, but, under calmer circumstances, she fails to examine closely the treasured framed photo of her mother. (Obviously, Chandler wants to withhold what the photo conceals until the end when Cask gets home from the war.)
Androgyny seems to be a theme too. The elderly, seemingly male trapper who rescues Addy in the woods turns out to be a woman, Gracie. Later, in Kaslo, Addy pretends to be a boy in case the authorities are looking for a girl in connection with Raymond Crawford's death. In the last quarter of the novel, readers are told that Addy "revels in femininity" after meeting Ian Willoughby, but when Ian is sent overseas and his letters fall off, his role is diminished.
Chandler kills Ian off just when Addy and the readers think he is coming safely home. His loss devastates Addy - for a night. Consoled by his ring, "a piece of Ian she could take wherever she went," she continues with her plan to visit Gracie, then find little Abel, and the novel ends. Ian's death, before he can join Addy's family circle and share in its newfound wealth, shocks the reader, but fits with the idea that Addy's mission is to restore her original family to the extent that she can. Would it be possible for Addy to comfort and nurture war-disabled Cask and little Abel and also have romance in her life? Perhaps readers will find out in a sequel.
Ruth Latta's teen novel, The Songcatcher and Me is being published in 2013 by Baico Publishing of Ottawa, ON. (firstname.lastname@example.org )
on this title or this review, send mail to email@example.com.
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