CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 16. . . .December 20, 2013
The Power of Harmony.
Jan L. Coates.
Markham, ON: Red Deer Press, 2013.
260 pp., trade pbk., $12.95.
Friendship in adolescence-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 3-6 / Ages 8-11.
Review by Barb Janicek.
"Wish I had skin like yours. It's like the sand at Heather Beach," I say. "Or taffy. And you don't have any ugly freckles. In the summer, I'm just one big freckle."
She laughs. "It's easier having white skin. Even if you're mean like Junior and Sarah people still think you're good."
"That doesn't even make sense." I sit down across from her and pretend I'm pouring tea from the blue and white plastic teapot into the little cups. "You're a hundred times nicer than them."
"Mmm... The Elders say our ancestors lived here ages before the white man came."
"But there are heaps more white people now. How did that happen?"
Melody shrugs, then leans forward, rests her elbows on her knees, folds her hands in front of her. "My people got pushed off their land, crowded onto the Reservations, instead of living with nature like before. White people took over."
I stare at her. "But that's terrible. It's like stealing. Did the white people have to go to prison?"
Melody shakes her head. "Don't think so. Maybe they didn't have any prisons way back then. And the white man brought guns with him. It'd be hard for arrows to argue with bullets."
Jennifer loves to sing and has "the voice of an angel." Unfortunately, she is struck with stage fright and can't seem to perform in front of anyone except her family, including baby sister, Bethy. She misses her best friend who moved away and who seems to have found a replacement best friend, judging from the short postcard responses Jennifer gets from her. Dealing with bullies, who are always there to remind her of her social standing and her shortcomings, Jennifer finds solace in books. When Melody, the new girl, arrives, Jennifer is faced with some social choices to make: accept a spot on the bottom rung of the mean girl popular clique, led by "Sarah, the Queen Smirkle Bee," and treat Melody as badly as they do because she is "a dirty Indian," or get to know Melody and stand up to her bullies. In many ways, Jennifer does neither: she does not stand up to her tormentors directly, but she befriends Melody and finds that they have much in common, including a love of singing. When the two girls perform together, in harmony, at the Miners' Hall Concert and get some sage advice and compliments from Anne Murray, herself, the bullies are somewhat naturally put in their place. It helps that Melody, her brother (a runaway in hiding), and Jennifer help to rescue the local bully boys when they fall into a sink hole caused by another "big bump." While the book ends with a daring rescue, it also ends in tragedy for Jennifer's family when her baby sister, Bethy, dies from the chickenpox.
Coates does not shy away from tough topics. Bullying? Check. Best friend drama? Check. Racism, residential schools, and Native stereotypes? Check, check, and check. By the time we get to the death of an infant, we're at overload with the number of issues included in the story. When Anne Murray shows up at the concert and tells the girls, "Remember – sing with your heart and soul; harmony's a powerful thing," the story is pulled just a little too far overboard. The pace of the story will keep younger children reading, especially towards the end as the storm rages and children must be rescued. Adults reading the book with their kids may appreciate the copious references to the 1960's which establish a realistic setting and time, even if children miss some of the references. The time and place feel authentic, but the children's voices do not. For kids who are in Grade 5, they speak in a very immature and babyish manner. Extremely complex issues are oversimplified. Ultimately, what feels wrapped up a little too neatly at the end may prove to be satisfying to younger readers, especially after the discomfort of racial language and stereotypes used towards Melody and her Native family members.
The Power of Harmony is worth a read for someone who is looking for realistic fiction, an historical setting, or character development centered around issues like bullying and racism. Some of the racial slurs will feel uncomfortable for readers and may require or prompt a discussion or a debriefing. The Power of Harmony, ideal for classroom use or book clubs, is a book most likely appreciated by avid readers more so than the average Grade 5 reader.
Barb Janicek is a Children's Librarian with Kitchener Public Library, in Kitchener ON.
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