________________ CM . . . . Volume IX Number 13 . . . . February 28, 2003


Rachel: The Maybe House. (Our Canadian Girl).

Lynne Kositsky.
Toronto, ON: Penguin Canada, 2002.
83 pp., pbk., $7.99.
ISBN 0-14-331208-1.

Subject Heading:
Black Canadians-Nova Scotia-Shelbourne-History-18th century.

Grades 4-6 / Ages 9-11.

Review by Harriet Zaidman.

**** /4


"You a free Nigra?" asked the woman, her eyes narrowing and her voice becoming even more clipped. "You nobody's slave?"

"Yessum. No'um."

"Well, I'll serve you this time, because there's no one in the store, but I don't want you coming in here again and bothering my customers. Understand?"

Rachel knew she'd been cheated. Her heart trembled within her at the thought of the precious tuppence, which could have bought a deal of fine things but was now lost forever. "Please'um," she began politely.

"Didn't you hear me the first time? Get out of here with your Nigra ways. I don't need you dirtying my shop"

It was useless to argue.

In Rachel: The Maybe House, Rachel is the daughter of a former slave. It is 1784, after the American War of Independence. The family lives in Birchtown, Nova Scotia, the Negro Loyalist settlement. Blacks looked to Canada as a refuge from slavery but suffered tremendous discrimination at the hands of the British colonists. The British promised the blacks land titles but gave no indication as to when these pledges would be fulfilled. Scarce supplies were mostly directed to the whites, and the poverty-stricken families had no houses. Many blacks were forced to inhabit pits dug into the ground, lined with stones and covered with a board. These pit houses had sloped roofs to keep water away, but nothing could keep out heavy rain or the cold of winter that seeped through the earth. Rachel's family has already lived through one winter in the mud of a pit house. She longs for a real house, which, to her delight, becomes a reality when her stepfather, Titan, builds one in a squatters' area near Shelburne. The one-room house is a palace for Rachel and her family. They try to be happy. Rachel has to help out at home but finds time to be a child herself, telling stories and playing with Ann-Marie, a young Micmac girl who also bears the brunt of racism. Rachel struggles to learn how to read. To her surprise, a white boy who has been antagonistic to Rachel because of her colour becomes her teacher and sheds much of his arrogant attitude. But trouble is brewing. The end of the war has brought delisted British soldiers who are looking for work into Shelburne. Because the blacks had been willing to work for one quarter the wages of the whites, there is great resentment and tension. The hostility of the former soldiers grows, resulting in a riot in July 1784. The meager houses of the black squatters are deliberately destroyed, forcing them back to Birchtown and the pit houses. The fairy tale ending Rachel had hoped for does not occur. She does not give up hope entirely; maybe there will be a house and education in her future.

     Lynne Kositisky has created fairly representative characters in a short novel. Titan wants to be treated like a man, Rachel's mother wants to keep her family safe, and Rachel wants to be a child free to play and learn. The characters do their best as they face their difficulties together. Kositsky has captured a teachable moment in history in just 83 pages. She includes the good relations between the blacks and Micmacs, the slavery that existed in Canada as Loyalist whites came to Canada from the American colonies, the starvation that occurred in the colony because of the increased population and the difficult life the blacks faced in their new land. Ann-Marie's character is the weakest; she is not enough of a presence in the story for her personality to develop. When conditions failed to improve about 1000 of the 1500 blacks who came to Canada as Loyalists left in 1792 and sailed to Sierra Leone.

     Canadian history is brought to life for today's young readers with the “Our Canadian Girl” series published by Penguin Canada. The series focuses on the lives of typical girls, rather than the lives of the decision-makers. Readers can learn about how ordinary people survived the difficulties of poverty, disruption and discrimination. Little known events, such as the settlement of blacks in Nova Scotia, are illuminated. The “Our Canadian Girl” series is sure to be a hit with young readers, especially girls. The companion website is also written in language appropriate to the target age group and is easy to navigate. Related recipes or craft activities mentioned in the books are available to download, as are sample chapters of many of the books and teaching suggestions. Readers will admire Rachel's strengths and be all the more educated as they read Rachel: The Maybe House.

Highly Recommended

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in the Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg, MB.

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

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