CM . . .
. Volume VIII Number 6 . . . . November 16, 2001
Though Gillian Chan has two successful short story collections to her credit, The Carved Box is her first young adult novel, and an impressive one it is, juxtaposing fantasy and history so skillfully that the existence of magic in an historical context is completely believable. The novel is set in late eighteenth century Upper Canada and begins with the arrival of Callum Murdoch to the rural community of Coote's Paradise to search for an uncle he has never met. On the way, he meets a dog that has been badly mistreated by its master. For some reason, Callum feels compelled to protect the animal, and when the man unexpectedly offers to sell it, Callum readily parts with the money he was supposed to give his uncle. Once settled on Rory MacBean's homestead, Callum is immersed in the rugged life of a farmer, a vocation for which he is ill prepared, and one for which he has no liking. Raised to be a scholar, Callum resents the long, endless days of backbreaking labor, and, though he is grateful for his uncle's kindness and generosity, Callum is frequently sullen and selfish. For the most part, it is the dog who keeps him in line, showing him how to do jobs he is unfamiliar with and pushing him to act honorably when he is tempted to do otherwise. More than once Dog saves the day. Callum knows Dog isn't an ordinary animal, and he believes her strangeness is somehow related to the carved box that came with her. But it isn't until the box is accidentally shattered that Callum learns exactly how special Dog is. With the help of Dog and Uncle Rory, Callum eventually finds a place for himself in this new country, and, putting something before himself at last, Callum gives Dog her freedom.
Though Callum is fifteen, he feels younger. Perhaps that is because he is self-absorbed, a quality that keeps him from being a totally sympathetic character. So much so, in fact, that at times the reader finds it difficult to side with him. Otherwise, The Carved Box is well crafted. It paints a vivid picture of rural life in early Canada, and for those interested in historical fiction, it provides a highly enjoyable read.
Butcher, a former teacher, lives in Victoria, B.C. and writes for children.
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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.