CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 3. . . . October 4, 2002
On Mountaintop Rock is a fictional writer's look back at events of his childhood. Edward Ferguson and his friend Jenny Trotwood spend the summer of 1954 exploring Jasper, and, inspired by Sherlock Holmes, poking into local mysteries. Where is historic Henry House, the fort established by William Henry while expedition leader David Thompson explored Athabasca Pass? Who is the neighbours' mysterious visitor, and what lies behind the secrecy surrounding her visit? Where does eccentric Fraser McKillop, who quotes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, go every night? And why is he constantly battling Sargeant Gumbrell? The children find answers to most of these questions, and satisfied, move on. With hindsight and a little more life experience, however, the grown-up Edward now sees greater significance in the events of that bygone summer.
Now, reminiscing is a slow and easy occupation, and author John McLay writes with a fitting quaintness that well evokes the innocence associated with growing up in the '50s. Back then, children roamed the streets with carefree abandon, converged on the local matinee daily, and worshiped Davy Crockett and Randolph Scott. Playing "guns" and "cowboys and Indians" was still okay, Dinky toys were in, and going for a drink was disreputable, even for a man. In the same mellow manner, McLay reveals the natural intimacy of small-town Jasper and the glorious splendour of the Rocky Mountains with details of boulders jutting into houses and out of streets, of oil drums serving as garbage cans, of daily raids by hungry bears, trips to the falls, the Lodge, the lakes. The characters are similarly touched with nostalgia, rendering them as charming and unburdened as they appear in Diane Way's perky, accompanying sketches.
The journey is indeed a pleasant and well-paced meandering, an ideal itinerary for a trip down memory lane. But the going won't be easy for younger readers. The story is built around real visits to Jasper by public icons Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Marilyn Monroe, occasions that will certainly resonate with some readers. But as often happens, memories mean the most to those who've lived or shared them in one form or another. The children who read this book will know the character Sherlock, of course, but will they care about his creator, or recognize his works? Will they pick up on the trivia and hints that reveal the identity of "la femme fameuse," whose name is never actually disclosed? Can they separate the facts out from the fiction, and fit them into the context of twentieth-century history? As an adult who grew up a proud Jasper resident at the time of these events, McLay is likely steeped in the context for his book. For him, and for his peers, these dates are indeed benchmarks, the kind that he calls "foundations upon which to build an understanding of life." Will they hold the same significance for the current and future generation of young readers?
Recommended with reservations.
Cora Lee is a Vancouver, BC, writer and editor.
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