________________ CM . . . . Volume IV Number 17 . . . . April 24, 1998

Cover The Gambler's Daughter.

Shirlee Smith Matheson.
Vancouver, BC: Beach Holme, 1997.
137 pp., paper, $8.95.
ISBN 0-88878-380-9.

Subject Headings:
Gambling-Juvenile fiction.
Stepfathers-Juvenile fiction.
British Columbia-History-1918-1945-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 3 - 7 / Ages 8 - 12.
Review by Mary Thomas.

**** /4


We have one hour to get everything together: clothes, food, blankets, matches, guns and ammunition, a small first-aid kit and emergency supplies including a fifty-pound test line that can be used for sewing anything from wounds to torn clothing. I grab my treasure box and shove it deep into a bag.

We'll be going out on a sled pulled by a single file dog-team, travelling by moonlight. We need to get to Dawson Creek, nearly four hundred miles away and from there, we'll take a train to Edmonton.

Bean-Trap rasps out instructions. "Hurry! Just two bags..."

He yanks back the floorboards and takes out his cache of money and gold...I notice blood seeping through his shirt. "You're hurt!" I cry, but he quickly buttons his parka to disguise the [money] bags and his injury....As we close the door to our cabin I see our little stove still glowing with the last log.

Loretta Braden is the gambler's daughter in question, although she is actually his stepdaughter. She, her mother, and stepbrother Teddy have lived almost everywhere - Portland, Oregon, Fairbanks and Eagle, Alaska, Fort Nelson and Weasel City, British Columbia, first as Loretta's mother tries to find work as a teacher after Loretta's natural father dies, and then, with her stepfather "Bean-Trap", hurriedly and often at night as place after place gets too hot to hold him. Bean-Trap runs gambling houses wherever he goes, winning the miners' gold, the construction workers' wages, and the trappers' fur money by fair means or foul, and the impression the reader gets is that the means are usually the latter!

      This is a story of loneliness, of a family ostracized because of the father's occupation, and always moving so that even if someone were prepared to befriend the children, there is never time. Loretta has a letter exchange with Jay Smith, a boy who is kind to her and Teddy in Fort Nelson, but even that has to be on the sly because Jay's father is the one who torched Bean Trap's gambling establishment in Fort Nelson. The interconnections strain credulity somewhat, but the characters come through with remarkable depth. Even Bean-Trap is not the complete villain - he is good to the children after their mother dies, looks after them and plans for their future "just in case", and does not ever seem to think of abandoning them, even though it would obviously have been easier for him to move about alone. And Loretta is a spunky 14-year-old, taking care of her brother, housekeeping as best she can under whatever circumstances she finds herself, and standing up for herself, her brother, and even her father as required.

      The historical period is the 1940s, just after the Americans have entered the war. The Alcan highway, made necessary by the threat of attack from Japan, is pushing through the wilderness, bush pilots are up, flying by the seat of their pants, but the main occupations are still the frontier ones of trapping and mining. It is an interesting period, and Matheson makes it come to life both in this book and in the parallel one, Flying Ghosts (Stoddart, 1993) which is Jay's story. Youngsters might well get hooked on this one and go on to the other - a useful spinoff.

      The accompanying teachers' guide, which come free with the purchase of a classroom set of 20 novels, contains some suggestions how this book could be used to enliven other aspects of the curriculum while serving as a novel study in English Language Arts. In the latter context, I could wish that the editor had removed a clump of glaring uses of "I" as object of a preposition, but that is a quibble about a book which is informative in the context of being an exciting read.

Highly recommended.

Mary Thomas works in two Winnipeg elementary school libraries and enjoyed both of Matheson's tales of relatively recent frontier life very much indeed.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © 1998 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364