CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 18. . . . May 9, 2003
Phillipe and Celine Doucet always thought of the time when they were nine and eight years old, as the year of Papa's best surprises....There was no new baby in 1934, just Papa's two wonderful gifts, one in Winter and one in Spring.
Phillipe and Celine Doucet are two of Marietta and Gabrielle Doucet's seven children. The French-Canadian family farm in Manitoba's Interlake region during the Great Depression and supplement their agricultural income by trapping. When a wolverine ruins the family's supply of flour, oatmeal, and sugar, Gabrielle and his eldest son Emmanual walk to town for new supplies. They are gone for four days and leave nine-year-old Phillipe in charge of the animals and assisting his mother. Gabrielle and Emmanuel arrive home on the morning of the fourth day with a strange large box from Eaton's company. The family's excitement escalates as they take turns guessing the contents. When the box is finally opened at the end of the day, the family is amazed by the luxurious gift that their father has purchased. Papa's "winter surprise" is a harmonium.
Migrating geese herald the coming of spring and the familiar cycle of preparing the land for spring seeding. Every member of the Doucet family works hard to prepare the fields and plant the garden and crops. As the family is isolated, they are educated through home schooling and summer school teachers. Phillipe and Celine learn that they will be going to school in a couple of days. In the meantime, as a reward for his family's hard work, Gabrielle has a surprise - a canoe. After their father teaches them how to paddle the canoe, Phillipe and Celine pretend they are voyageurs going to Lake Manitoba. As voyageurs, Phillipe and Celine experience the wonder of the local wildlife. They see beautiful dragonflies feasting on mosquitos and frogs trying to eat the dragonflies. Beaver and moose also cross their paths. As voyageurs-in-training, they teach themselves how to portage around a beaver dam that is blocking their route to the river the leads to Lake Manitoba.
Portaging is a strenuous task and the children become tired. It is also getting too late in the day to go to Lake Manitoba and return home. The children are relieved when they meet Tom Straightarrow, a local First Nations person. Tom convinces the children that they should go home, and he answers their desire to see the lake by taking them to view it from a hill. Having satisfied their curiosity, Tom helps the children portage their canoe back into the stream that will take them home. When Phillipe and Celine return home, a pirate-like stranger greets them with the rest of the family. It is the teacher M. Henri Lafitte. He looks just like the pirates in Phillipe's imagination.
Historical fiction is one of the best ways to excite children about the past. In Papa's Surprise, Constance Horne has introduced history and the ecology issue to young children in an engaging manner. Young readers will be able to relate to the thrill of a surprise, and the author has created a focal point for the reader's attention and imagination. The reader also learns about the cycles of nature and their influence on life on an early 20th century farm. It is a lifestyle that is ruled by the environment. Climate controls and/or is a factor in the Doucets' employment and lifestyle. Climate is a major uncontrollable factor in making a living on the land through farming and fur trading. Climate dictates when to seed, the amount of grain, and the harvest. Climate will determine the quality of furs that the trader sells. Climate and distance also isolate the family in the winter and prevent the children from attending a formal school. Climate and distance force the family to purchase food supplies in bulk for the winter. Finally, climate and the seasons dictate when the migrating birds will return. Forces of nature are also a factor in their recreation activities. The Doucet children are advised not to go out on to Lake Manitoba as their canoe is too small and they would be swamped. Mother Nature does not suffer fools.
Parents seeking to introduce their children to their agricultural past will do well to read Constance Horne's book. Historical information is presented matter-of-factly without any painstaking detail, which is the perfect way to approach history and young people. Similarly, parents who want to teach their family respect for nature will enjoy Papa's Surprise. Environmental and ecological cycles are presented with wonder, mystery, and an innocent playfulness of childhood. Teachers or parents could read the ''spring surprise" to children before they embark on a nature walk. The "surprises" do not need to be read in sequence. These are really two separate stories that are linked by means of climate descriptions. Humorous and/or detailed pencil sketches assist in effectively engaging the reader. This is a well-written book although the addition of french words would have created an effect of the distinctness of Doucets' cultural way of life.
Denise Weir is a consultant with Manitoba Culture Heritage and Tourism, Public Library Services.
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