CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 9. . . .October 28, 2011
A Forest of Gold.
Toronto, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2011.
163 pp., pbk., $7.99.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Jocelyn Reekie.
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 21, 1927
...And pickling and canning is no ride on the hay wagon either. (How is that for a saying? Mr. Meredith uses sayings all the time so I decided to try my own.) Wash, slice. Wash, slice. Wash, slice. Wash, slice. Imagine me filling up the rest of this journal with those two words repeated over and over. And imagine having to read EVERY single one of those words. That is how boring pickling is. I could say that I am thankful for the pickled cucumbers and beets and everything in the winter, but that would take the effect away from my complaining.
It is Sept. 9, 1927. Emily Marie Pattersen has just received a journal from her friend, Will, for her twelfth birthday. She knows just what she'll use it for. The Postmaster of Mattawa, Ontario, the town where Emily lives, says everything is either "the voice of history" or "history in the making." Emily thinks that's true. She loves to hear stories of the past. And when she hears a story about someone in her family she hasn't known, she wants to know more. If those people had written their stories in journals, she thinks, she would know more about them. That's why she's going to record all of the things that happen to her, along with stories of her family, and become "the voice of history" for future generations of her family. She is so excited by the prospect that, before she starts her record, she does a dance of celebration in her room. She does not yet know the pages of her journal will come to hold entries that will threaten to tear her family apart.
In A Forest of Gold, Courtney Maika's debut novel, she uses a journal format and the voice of a very real, often wise, and sometimes horribly conflicted 12-year-old to tell a story whose core is as authentic and contemporary as it is old. Family ties—made strong in the Pattersen household through generations of love and respect—are being strained by secrets, old and new, and are beginning to fray.
First, there is the L.C.M. (Logging Camp Mystery). Emily wasn't around when that event took place, but whatever it was, it's now causing big trouble between her Pa and her 16-year-old brother, Joe. The trouble between Joe and Pa is not resolved before Pa leaves home to spend at least three months at his winter job at a logging camp in Témiscaming. Then, Joe disappears from home, and no one Emily, her mother, her aunt and uncle, or her nine-year-old brother, Alex, asks, knows where he's gone. Except that Mr. Rankin at the train station answers Emily's question by saying, "Well now, all I have to say is that Joe is safe and off to do what a young man his age has to do." Emily repeats this to the others, and it gives them some comfort, but the mystery remains.
However, life in Mattawa continues to unfold. School, friends, dreaded visits from other relatives, happily anticipated social events, and holidays occupy Emily's days, and when one lives on a farm, as her family does, the chores must always be done. So, while a part of Emily's heart frets about Joe's disappearance and she is saddened with his and her father's absence from home, another part lifts her up and lets her carry on.
Then, one day, Emily picks up the mail and finds some letters from Joe. One is for their mother, two are addressed to her. She tears one open and, for a brief moment, feels nothing but relief, knowing he's safe. But relief is soon choked out by confusion because his letter reveals he has a D.S. (Dreadful Secret), and he wants her to keep his secret from their parents, especially from their father.
Emily loves her father and her brother. She does not want to betray either of them. In her mind, she berates her "stubborn, impulsive" brother who obviously "has not thought this whole thing out very well, and if he has then it was pretty mean of him to go ahead and do it and put me in such a spot!" But she is forced to make a decision, and she makes one she believes she can live with. Later, she is almost overwhelmed with new worry when the death of another young man from Mattawa brings the realization that, besides widening a family rift, her beloved brother's secret has the potential to cause him being injured, perhaps even killed.
With palpable details, Maika takes readers back to a time when, as well as going to school, 12-year-old girls and nine-year-old boys milked cows, churned butter, filled coal oil lamps, helped harvest crops and did a myriad of other chores necessary to keep a farm running smoothly; when 16-year-old boys considered themselves men and were hired to do dangerous jobs only men could do; when logging made some people very rich but for others was the job they had to do in wintertime to keep their farms, though it meant families were separated for long periods of time, and some men died. With equal realism and wit, Maika brings an entire family and a town to life. Readers get a clear sense there are stories within stories in the Pattersen family, in Mattawa, and in this era, and the stories could go on forever, just as history does.
Emily's voice is much more current than early 20th century language, but when she speaks and thinks, the stories usually flow. When she stops to insert narratives, such as descriptions of a card game or what Joe tells her about making ice roads, the pace stalls. Joe's letters also slow the pace, but details of the life he's experiencing will interest many. Although the writer sets up and maintains good tension throughout the book with several layers of conflict, in places the plot seems too predictable and the tension somewhat artificial (Emily's best friend, Will's, illness; the stereotypical portrayal of Amelia, the small town girl who moved to the big city, for instance).
In the end, young readers will relate fully to Emily and her situation; they'll cheer for her. They will also find themselves drawn to Alex, to Joe, and to Will. Overall, A Forest of Gold is a delightful and fast-paced read.
Jocelyn Reekie is a writer, editor and publisher in Campbell River, B.C.
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