CM . . . .
Volume VI Number 3 . . . . October 1, 1999
The tunnel sloped down, and the ground was scored with uneven ruts and cart rails. She felt the rhythm of the miners, and her body took on the same cadence. The air grew warm as they travelled deeper into the mines. The tunnel opened into a room, supported by pillars of coal. The walls were ragged and black, filled with pick marks and holes. Hannah hesitated, looking to see where to go. She saw Wilbur Mackay who was close to her age, perhaps a bit older, head for an opening to the right, and, knowing that she must look as if she belonged, she followed him. She stopped in her tracks as a voice boomed out behind her.Hannah is the story of a young girl who flouts convention to ensure her family's survival. In doing so, she puts herself in great danger. Her efforts are successful and present both her and her family with the possibility of a somewhat better life. The story is set in the coal field of Pictou County, Nova Scotia, in 1858. Miners worked in unsafe conditions and faced the threat of rockfalls, floods and gas leaks every day. Hannah's father has died in a flood, and the family is now destitute without a man attached to it. Hannah's mother has just given birth to yet another girl and is extremely sick. An aunt comes from Halifax to help, but she, herself, is poor and can only stay a brief time. The money she leaves for train fares to Halifax is spent on rent while the mother recovers her strength to travel. Hannah realizes that she must disguise herself as a boy and go down to work in the mine, an act which contravenes the superstition that women will jinx a mine if they enter. She gets caught after one day yet, any money she and her two sisters are able to earn picking vegetables is inadequate, and they will never be able to save money for the fare. With the collusion of another boy, Hannah again goes down into the mine and earns enough money to get her family out of their desperate circumstances. However, on her last day of work, she is attacked by a group of bullies, and, when they discover that Hannah is a girl, they organize some townspeople against her. Hannah and her family leave on the train for Halifax where there is the promise of education and potential employment for women. Hannah departs with hope and the good feelings from those who had helped her.
This is a well-told story of how people lived and did what they could in order to survive. Hannah's family's circumstances were not unlike those of many other families. The dangerous and unhealthy working environment and the poor living conditions stand in sharp contrast to the pristine, opulent homes of the mine owners. Hannah's hope that she might escape her poverty through her talent is dashed by the class snobbery that prevailed, but she finds value in her family and community and realizes that she can develop her talents within them. Diana Vazquez has presented an honest account of life for the poor, uneducated Scottish immigrants, including their own backwardness as they struggled to make it in the new world. She captures their thoughts using the dialect they brought with them from Scotland and the one the children developed in Canada. This is an exciting story which should appeal to both boys and girls as they follow Hannah's adventure into forbidden territory.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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