CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 19. . . .January 17, 2014
Kenneth Oppel returns with another rip-roaring adventure tale for readers aged 10 through 16. The Boundless is a magic realism re-visioning of one of Canada’s most dramatic historical periods—the completion of the CPR. Sixteen-year-old fictional protagonist William Everett mingles with larger-than-life industrial leaders of the past convincingly brought to life, including Cornelius Van Horne, Donald Smith, and Sandford Fleming. In a dazzling sleight of hand, these real historical figures blur together with imaginary circus folk like tightrope walker Maren and ringleader Mr. Dorian, alongside fantastical creatures such as hags and oh-so-Canadian sasquatch. The mash-up is evidence of Oppel’s exceptional faith in his young readers to sort fiction from fact; it also invites genuine contemplation of the possibility that there is more to life than we can rationally understand.
Will’s story begins with the last spike, but his journey across the country on the 11-kilometer-long train, The Boundless, starts years later. The story blends reality with imagination to make insightful commentary on the human journeys of growing up and finding oneself. Over the course of a country, Will does both, along with falling in love, saving lives, and exploring many aspects of human existence—from its poorest roots to the most spectacular possibilities glimpsed through magic. The Boundless is a grand, lavish spectacle of proportions as exciting as the train itself, the likes of which is rarely seen in Canadian children’s literature. Perhaps more unusual still is the story’s awareness of (post)colonial issues and the deft way in which Oppel protests corrosive racial attitudes through commentary spoken by plausible characters that believably reflect their views on the real-life pervasive economic, cultural, and political problems of that era in Canadian history.
As serious as its philosophy and ideology are, at its core The Boundless is a rollicking adventure tale incorporating all the best features of the genre. The story begins with a life-changing childhood encounter when Will saves Van Horne’s life and thus catapults from rags to riches. Years later, Will’s father is in charge of The Boundless while Will is privileged to participate in the train’s inaugural voyage. But Will’s mind is preoccupied with his future—he dreams of becoming an artist while his father heavy-handedly urges him towards a practical career in engineering. Will changes his father’s mind after proving his competence by foiling a villain, preventing a robbery, and saving several lives. All the while, he is helped by his soul mate, the circus star Maren, and eventually earns the right to follow his dreams alongside her in San Francisco; he will attend art school, and she will run the circus for which she has performed since her early childhood. As the story closes, readers are offered the deep satisfaction of adventure resolved, lessons learned, and fortunes gained.
While it may be easy to dismiss such affirming tidiness as the stuff of tales, Oppel makes a strong suggestion similar to those made in the best children’s stories: follow your dreams by developing your own unique aptitude, and you can’t help but succeed. Now as always, this is a welcome affirmation for readers of all ages. The Boundless will become another timeless Canadian classic, standing in good company with Oppel’s other works.
Michelle Superle is an Assistant Professor at the University of the Fraser Valley where she teaches children’s literature and creative writing courses. She has served twice as a judge for the TD Award for Canadian Children’s Literature and is the author of Black Dog, Dream Dog and Contemporary, English-language Indian Children’s Literature (Routledge, 2011).
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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.