Saturday, April 22, 2017

To Catch A Killer by Sheryl Scarborough

To Catch a Killer is a somewhat predictable murder mystery. Author Sheryl Scarborough is a forensics buff who has incorporated her knowledge into the novel; readers interested in basic forensic science won't be disappointed.

Erin Blake lives in Iron Rain, Oregon with her mother's best friend, Rachel. Erin's mother, Sarah Blake was murdered fourteen years ago. Erin was only a toddler at the time and survived three days alone beside the corpse of her murdered mother. With the identity of her father unknown, Rachel took in Erin.

Once again Erin finds herself at the scene of a murder - this time involving her beloved biology teacher, Miss Laura Peters. Erin found her body lying in a pool of blood when she went to drop off DNA samples for Miss Peters to analyze. She tells the police officer named Baldwin that she saw someone running away from Miss Peters' house and identifies the person as Journey Michaels, a classmate.

Rachel arrives at the police station where her best friend,  Detective Sydney Rankle works. As she's leaving, Journey Michaels is being brought in for questioning. The next morning Rachel questions Erin about why she was at Miss Peters home early in the morning.  Erin doesn't tell Rachel what really happened and why she was leaving a bloodied towel in Miss Peters mailbox. She tells Rachel that she knows so much about forensics from Rachel's brother Victor's books on the subject. "Uncle" Victor works for the FBI. Rachel is not supportive of Erin's interest in forensics as she believes it is a trigger for her based on what happened when she was younger. But Erin, her best friend Spam and her other friend Lysa run a Cheater Check club where they offer forensic services to their fellow students to see if boyfriends/girlfriends are cheating.

It turns out that Erin is quite keen on forensics. She has a secret door in her closet that leads to the attic where her mother's old furniture is stored and where she is also hiding the box containing evidence from her mother's murder.The attic also houses Erin's beginnings of a small lab complete with a microscope. Erin tells her friends that there were three potential male suspects in her mother's case that she considers might be her father. From her mother's evidence she knew their identities and was able to surreptitiously obtain DNA evidence with the intention of determining if any are her father. Miss Peters was going to do the tests.

When Erin returns to school, she attempts to talk with Journey but he seeks her out and is furious, handing her a thin strip of white and blue fabric claiming she dropped it. Erin is shocked because the fabric Journey Michaels hands her is a missing part of her mother's dress. Erin gets a pass home from Mr. Roberts, the principal and unexpectedly finds police confiscating her laptop and other possessions. Sydney tells her that Journey is cleared but that she is a person of interest. Luckily the police do not search the attic. Erin has no idea what the piece of fabric means and she's determined to speak with Journey.

They meet after school and compare what happened that night outside Miss Peters house. Journey reveals that he had brought a toothbrush to Miss Peters because he is trying to clear his father of murder. Erin takes Journey to her house and shows her the box of evidence and her budding crime lab. Erin tells him that the tie he gave her was part of her mother's dress and has been missing for fourteen years. She believes if they can figure out who left the material in the van and why they can solve both her mother and Miss Peter's murders.


To Catch A Killer features four teens who attempt to solve the murder of their biology teacher through the use of forensics. The teens are led by the main character, Erin Blake who was present when her mother was murdered years ago. Erin is a forensics buff like her "Uncle" Vince who works for the FBI. She reads all his books on forensics procedures.

Crime novels create suspense partly by concealing the identity of the perpetrator. But in To Catch A Killer, readers will clue-in early on to the identity of the murderer as this character's behaviour stands out as creepy and just strange. However, Erin doesn't notice because she considers this person a close friend.

The focus of the story is on the forensics used to solve crimes and Scarborough delivers on that count.  Scarborough incorporates many forensic facts into her story by having Erin either practice them or mention them to her friends. There is an eleven-page description of Victor and Erin conducting a DNA extraction at Erin's house. Despite the story being engaging, many of the situations seemed contrived to move the plot along. For example, principals don't usually give out passes (most schools have attendance offices that do this or vice principals - which did not exist in this story) but it was necessary to have Erin go home to discover the police searching her bedroom. Another strange situation involved Rachel's lame attempt to convince Erin that there was no intruder in their house despite the fact that Erin saw the man and had physical evidence (the footprint) of his presence. The fabric from Erin's mother's dress was the clue that linked the person who murdered Sarah Blake to the murder of Miss Peters yet at the reveal near the end, the reader has to wonder why that person was carrying around a piece of fabric for fourteen years (and it still seemed in good condition) and dropped it in Journey's van?

The characters in To Catch A Killer are interesting, especially Spam, but not as developed as they could be. Scarborough does give more detail on the relationship between Erin and Spam and of course, there's a budding romance between Journey and Erin.

Overall, To Catch A Killer is a fun read, with an exciting conclusion. It's not Agatha Christie but for those who love mysteries and lots of forensics, it's a winner. Scarborough ties up most of the loose ends but not all.

Book Details:

To Catch A Killer by Sheryl Scarborough
New York: Tom Doherty  Associates       2017
320 pp.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wait For Me by Caroline Leech

Set in Aberlady, East Lothian Scotland Wait For Me is a tender story about forbidden love during the closing days of World War II.

Almost eighteen-year-old Lorna Anderson lives on Craigielaw farm with her father. Her mother died when Lorna was very young. Since then, Mrs. McMurdough (Mrs. Mack) comes daily to cook, clean and care for the Anderson family.  With her brothers, John Jo and Sandy away at war, Lorna and her father are helped on the farm by Nellie who came two years ago from the Women's Land Arm.

In early February of 1945, a truck bearing German POWs from the Gosford Prisoners of War camp pulls into the farm. One of the prisoners, a tall skinny young man is dropped off to work on the Anderson farm. He is introduced to Lorna who is shocked to see that the left side of his face has been badly burned and scarred. "...from his left temple to his chin across his cheek and down the left side of his throat, the pale skin had been burned away, leaving raw red scarring, tight and shiny. The flesh was puckered into the knotted remnants of an earlobe, and his left eye was stretched out of shape, round elongating to oval."

Lorna races to school to write her exam and can't wait to tell her best friend Iris Robertson. After the exam Lorna's teacher, Mrs. Murray suggests to Lorna that she should consider university but with the war continuing, Lorna feels she cannot leave her father. After school Lorna tries to convince Iris to reconsider her blossoming romance with William Urquhart, who is the son of the parish minister and Aberlady School's head boy but Iris insists that William is clever and "very moral". Iris believes that Lorna's dislike for her beau is a mask for jealousy. . Lorna tells Iris about the badly disfigured young German soldier who is working on their farm. Iris seems to feel the German soldier deserved his injuries which greatly upsets Lorna.

The next day the German POW arrives back at the farm. After slowly and loudly introducing herself, Lorna is surprised to discover that he speaks English. He tells her his name is Paul Vogel and wishes Lorna a good day. Paul explains to Lorna that his aunt was an English lady who taught him English during his holidays on his uncle's farm. When Lorna tells Paul that people are not happy about Germans working on local farms and that there are Nazis at the camp he brusquely reminds her that not all Germans are Nazis. Later on Mrs. Mack reminds Lorna that Paul like all young men, was doing what his country asked of him.

As the days pass Lorna begins to experience increasingly conflicting feelings about Paul. Although she's upset at his presence on the farm, she also watches out for him. With the start of lambing season, Lorna helps her father as Nellie is unable to cope with the birthing. Paul stays in the lambing shed to feed those lambs abandoned by their mothers caring tenderly for them. But after her remark about the Nazis, Paul is curt and distant with Lorna, making her feel upset. Needing more help on the farm. Lorna's father is granted permission to have Paul stay overnight on the farm. They arrange a place for Paul to sleep in the hayloft in the barn and Lorna takes his evening meal to him in the barn.

One evening Paul explains to Lorna about his family. She reminds him of his younger sister Lilli who lives in Desden with his mother. Paul describes the beauty of Desden to Lorna, with its churches, art galleries and many parks. He also tells her how his father, a clockmaker, was forced into the Wehrmacht, the German army in late 1939 and was dead by April. When he turned sixteen, Paul began to apprentice as a clockmaker, but when he turned eighteen, he too was forced into the Wehrmacht.

As Lorna comes to know Paul, she is faced with the reality that he is a nice man and one whom she could be friends with or even more. But is that even possible in a time of war? And what does that mean for herself and her family? For Lorna, falling in love with an enemy soldier may mean losing all that she holds dear.


Wait For Me is a beautifully crafted story about love in the time of war. In her debut novel, Leech deftly weaves her story about a young woman's prejudices and assumptions that are gradually conquered when she encounters the humanity of a German prisoner of war. As her view transforms from mistrust to friendship and finally to love, she struggles with her own inner conflicts and the prejudices of those around her.

The story opens in February of 1945, in what would be the closing months of World War II. Like most British, Lorna views all Germans as the enemy; cruel and dangerous.  The nearby base has been made into a prisoner of war camp housing German soldiers who are to work on local farms. When she first sees Paul Vogel, she believes he's sneering at her. "Then his gaze fell to her school uniform and woolen stockings, her milk-and-muck-spattered shoes. The right, undamaged side of his face rose in a sneer. Or was it a smile? No, definitely a sneer."

Although she doesn't trust Paul, when Iris suggests that he may have deserved his terrible wound, Lorna is horrified. "Iris! Just because someone's a German doesn't mean he deserves to be hurt so badly."  Iris suggests that Lorna should be pleased that he's been badly hurt, but Lorna is confused about how she should feel. "Well, mean, yes, but when you've got a real one standing right in front of you and the damage to his face is so terrible, well, it's ...different. Somehow."

The next day, Lorna notices that Paul seems forlorn and she feels "... almost sorry for him." Looking more closely at Paul, she notices, "...the tug at the right side of his mouth was there again. That same sneer. Except, today, it did look more like he was trying to smile. Tentative, perhaps, but still, it lightened his face..." And when she actually speaks to him, she notices even more, "...the smile was back, drawing Lorna's attention away from the burns. Its curve led her from his mouth up to his eyes, which sparkled." Lorna feels guilty; "Surely noticing an enemy's sparkle was tantamount to treason. She was betraying John Jo and Sandy and Gregor..." 

Lorna is concerned about Paul understanding the sergeant's insults but when she returns Paul's wave minutes later she admonishes herself. "Stop! He shouldn't be this friendly. She couldn't be this friendly. He was a German, after all." Paul's friendly actions don't fit with Lorna's view of Germans who are the enemy. Mrs. Mack tries to explain that Paul is simply doing what his country asked of him in a time of war. Lorna decides, "the prisoner had seemed quite nice, and not particularly threatening...Yes, he was quite nice really. For a German."

One day after Paul mentions his sister,  Lorna's questions lead him to tell her how the war affected his family and life.  Lorna identifies with Paul's situation, recognizing that just as she worries about her brothers, he worries about his mother and sister in Dresden. But as Lorna opens up to Paul about her brothers, once again she experiences intense conflict. "What had she been thinking, trusting this stranger, this enemy, with her precious memories.?" Yet she continues to be drawn to Paul both physically and emotionally. Watching him one morning washing at the water pump she wonders, "Would this Greek god still be here by summer, washing at the pump in the warm sun?"

Observing Paul working on the farm creates curiosity in Lorna. "She found herself wanting to know more about him. And it was strange, the more they'd talked the evening before...the less German he became. Or not less German, exactly, but more like any of the normal boys, the Scottish boys she knew at school. Lorna didn't know what to make of that. He was not like she had expected the enemy to be at all. In fact, she was beginning to realize that he might not be so very different from her."

Lorna's inner conflict is realistically portrayed and her gradual change of heart as she comes to view Paul as a person worth loving is touching and very romantic. Her internal struggle is a complicated one. For example, as their friendship grows, Lorna finds herself becoming more concerned with Paul and how he feels. His scarred faced no longer repulses her as she is able to look beyond his wounds to the person beneath. Lorna feels shame over her initial feelings about Paul suffering from the cold when he first arrived on the farm and shame for labelling him a Nazi. Paul's help when she is caught unexpectedly in a rainstorm, leaves her feeling comfort at his presence and recognizing that Paul is a nice person whom she could be friends with. But when they talk about the war and how Paul came to be injured, Lorna remembers that Paul may have killed Allied soldiers. "Suddenly the doubts crept back in. She must not forget that this man was an enemy soldier, she must not forget he was German, that he had been trained to kill men like her brother and his friends."

 Although Lorna is loyal to Britain she can't make herself hate or treat Paul badly simply because he's German. Her close relationship with Paul helps her to recognize that he doesn't represent the Nazi regime and that like her family, he's been caught in a war not of his own making.  But her struggle is ongoing throughout the novel; she is ready to accuse Paul of stealing her father's watch and she viciously blames him for what happens to John Jo.

Ironically, Lorna's only other interaction with a man who is not a family member is a complete contrast to Paul's actions towards her. While everyone is warning her to be watchful of Paul because he might be a spy, to lock her bedroom door when he stays overnight on the farm, it turns out it is the American soldiers she needs to be wary of. Her date for a dance turns out to be an American soldier whose drunken attempt to rape her leaves Lorna distraught and afraid. His behaviour is in stark contrast to Paul who is labelled an enemy soldier. Even Nellie's experience with the American soldiers is not a positive one; she becomes pregnant by a soldier who then tells her cannot marry her because he has a wife in Tennessee. 

As Lorna's relationship with Paul becomes known within the community both she and Paul face prejudice and Lorna is ostracized by almost everyone.  Here Leech's character shows her mettle; she stands up to her brother and to the prejudice of the villagers.Her bravery is soon supported by her father and by Mrs. Murphy whose son Gregor was killed. As her family rallies around her, Paul begins to find some acceptance when the war ends.

Leech builds tension throughout the novel beginning with the crisis between Lorna and her brother John Jo who is furious that she is friends with a German soldier, to a confrontation between Lorna's family and the parish minister, culminating in the sudden departure of the Germans from Gosford leaving Lorna believing Paul has gone for good. But Leech closes her story on a hopeful note, as suggested by the novel's title.

Wait For Me really captures the atmosphere of living in rural Scotland during the close of World War II. Life on the farms continued as families worried and waited for word of sons and husbands sent off to fight. Lambing season arrives, people fall in love, life goes on. Interactions with American and Allied soldiers were not always positive. And the arrival of German prisoners of war caused much worry among the local people.  Leech offers a balanced perspective with some characters being open and accepting of Paul, while others are not. John Jo's furious reaction to Lorna's relationship with Paul is realistic (it would be expected a soldier would not be happy with his sister falling in love with an enemy soldier) while Mrs. Mack recognizes Paul as a person who needs healing and compassion. Leech also touches briefly on the bombing of Dresden by Allied forces, demonstrating that in war, terrible deeds are done by both sides.

Wait For Me is another excellent addition to the young adult World War II historical fiction genre. Fans of Dan Smith's My Friend The Enemy will enjoy Caroline Leech's debut novel. Look for more from this author in the coming year.

An article from the Telegraph exploring the bombing of Dresden on the 70th anniversary.

A February 2015 Atlantic article titled, "Remembering Dresden: 70 years after the firebombing" contains many interesting photographs (Please note some are very graphic).

Book Details:

Wait For Me by Caroline Leech
New York: HarperCollins Children's Books   2017
361 pp.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

Sixteen year old Petula De Wilde lives with her mother and father in a four-storey walkup called the Arcadia in Vancouver's West End, B.C. A family tragedy, the death of Petula's little sister Maxine three years earlier, has derailed her life and that of her parents.

Petula and her best friend Rachel were ten years old when their mothers were each expecting a second child. Petula and Rachel were "crafting fiends" who spent their weekends making anything and everything. Petula's sister, Maxine Ella was born first and Rachel's brother Owen was born shortly afterwards. Maxine was a sweet, happy child whose favourite book was Where the Wild Things Are.

For Maxine's third birthday, Petula and Rachel made her a wolf costume with brown buttons which Petula sewed on to the front of the suit. One November evening over two years ago, Petula stayed home with Maxine while their parents went shopping. Maxine was fussy that day but Petula still put her down for her nap even though Maxine threw a temper tantrum. Eventually she calmed down and Petula thought Maxine fell asleep. When her parents returned and her father went to get Maxine he found her dead. She had been sucking on one of the buttons and it came loose, lodging in her throat, suffocating her. From this terrible event Petula learned to "always expect the worst."

Since Maxine's death, Petula is always preparing for something terrible to happen and she lives her life with this in mind. She only crosses at designated crosswalks and intersections, she scans the pavement for suspicious objects and bags, she avoids construction sites frequently checks that she's not being followed and carries a rape whistle. Her friendship with Rachel was destroyed when Petula could not bear to see Rachel with Owen and behaved cruelly towards her.

Maxine's death also seriously affected Petula's parents and their marriage. After Maxine's death her parents sold their cozy apartment on Comox. Her father who loved to play music stopped doing so and he's frequently absent from home. Her mother has taken to volunteering for the Vancouver Feline Rescue Association and has taken in six cats. The cats have helped drag Petula's mother "out of her pit of despair after Maxine died, which was something no one else -- not me, not my dad, not her therapist -- had been able to do." But they have also created tension between Petula's mom and dad.

After Maxine's death, Petula is sent to counselling with the school counsellor, Carol Polachuk. However, when she throws a cup at Polachuk, it's decided Petula will attend YART, the school's Youth Art Therapy group once per week. The group is facilitated by Betty Ingledrop who is their art therapist. The group consists of Alonzo Perez who attempted suicide after he came out to his family, Ivan (the Terrible) whose mother drowned two years ago on vacation in Mexico, and Koula Apostolos who is an alcoholic and drug addict. And then there is a new member, the Bionic Man.

The first time Petula sees the Bionic Man is when he is leaving Carol Polachuk's office in the counselling suite. The second time happens when Petula faints during her presentation on the 9/11 disaster. After being checked out by the nurse, Petula talks with Mr. Watley, the principal of St. Margaret SS who encourages her to try to avoid panic attack triggers. When leaving Watley's office, Petula bumps into Bionic Man again. He is at least four inches taller than Petula who stands at 5 ft 11 inches. He introduces himself as Jacob Cohen and offers her his black bionic hand to shake. They meet a third time in English class when Jacob is assigned to be Petula's partner for a class project involving adapting a portion of Wuthering Heights into a screenplay or stage play. Petula want's nothing to do with Jacob but after their YART session he attempts to get her phone number.

On the weekend Jacob shows up a Petula's apartment and meets her parents. He tells them that his family just moved to Vancouver in the past month after his parents got job transfers from Toronto. While at her apartment, Jacob discovers Petula's scrapbook that she keeps with clippings of disasters. She explains to Jacob that she's a pessimist and that the scrapbook reminds her to be vigilant.

As Petula and Jacob's relationship grows, and as she attends more YART sessions, Petula begins to change. Outings with her friends from YART lead Petula to use a public washroom. She reaches out to her estranged friend Rachel and begins to try to recover their friendship. With the encouragement of Jacob, Petula begins to confront her fears. But while Petula and the other YART members open up about their lives, Jacob remains secretive about his past. She can't find him online or on social media and he's insistent that their video project not be posted to YouTube. As Petula begins to heal emotionally, she must face some hard truths about her parents and about the boy she loves.


Set in Vancouver, B.C. Optimists Die First is the story of a young girl who struggles to cope with a series of challenging situations in her life and with the help of friends eventually arrives on the path to healing and forgiveness. Petula De Wilde and her parents are still attempting to come to terms with the death of her litter sister, Maxine, when her parents decide to separate. In addition to this, Petula discovers the boy whom she is in a serious relationship with is discovered to have been involved in a drunk-driving accident that resulted in the deaths of his two best friends.

This would seem to be a large number of heavy subjects to tackle but Nielsen manages her story well through the use of humour. Optimists Die First is laugh out loud funny at times while realistically portraying Petula's struggles. With the death of her sister, Petula has developed rituals to keep herself and her family safe. Maxine's death has taught Petula that life is filled with danger. "Maxine's death had shown me that dangers lurk around every corner. So even if my grief and guilt made it hard for me to get out of bed, I knew I needed to do what I could to keep my parents together and safe. And I had to keep myself safe too...Because I'm it. I'm the only child my parents have left."

Petula's fears are overwhelming and all-encompassing. She hasn't been on a bus or eaten ground beef in two years, she wears mittens to avoid touching public areas with her hands, she plans never to fly, and she won't walk by construction sites. Besides coping with her enormous list of fears, Petula also feels she must be a caretaker to her parents who are also struggling with Maxine's death. Her father is often absent from home and her mother seems obsessed with collecting cats and suffers from depression. Maxine's death has deeply impacted their marriage and despite counseling they seem unable to resolve their issues. This leaves Petula feeling as though she needs to help her parents as they try to maintain some sense of normalcy.

For example when her father complains about how the cats are a priority for Petula's mother rather than the family, Petula quickly intervenes. "I'll clean it up...I vacuumed up all the clumps of cat fur in the living room. I sprayed all surfaces with antibacterial spray and changed the litter boxes. It was part of my strategy: think ahead to things my parents might argue about and try to fix them before they did." On their twentieth wedding anniversary, Petula with the help of Koula, prepares a special evening for her parents, in the hopes that this might help their marriage. Although her parents show much concern for her, it is her relationships with her peers that ultimately help Petula the most.

Nielsen portrays Petula's journey from obsessive fear and guilt towards healing in a gradual and realistic way. Everyone has their part to play in her journey, from her school principal Mr. Watley to Jacob, to Rachel and her companions in YART.  Watley continues to encourage Petula to avoid the triggers for her panic attacks and when necessary pushes her towards involvement in life.Petula's relationship with Jacob and her developing friendships with her peers in YART  help her begin to live again. With Jacob's encouragement, Petula contacts her best friend Rachel in an attempt to reconcile and the two girls begin crafting again. Rachel is patient and allows Petula to gradually come back into her life. Jacob helps Petula confront some of her other fears too.

One of the strengths of Nielsen's novel is the realistic portrayal of her art therapy group YART, which is populated by quirky but believable teens. The YART  teens push Petula to do the things she's avoided for the past two years, such as eating out in restaurants, using public washrooms, and taking public transit.  Eventually Petula's realizes that "Something was shifting in me. I woke up in the mornings and actually looked forward to the day." Petula is even able to visit her friend Rachel and be around her little brother Owen, realizing "This is what I was so afraid of. This little boy."  And she's finally able to look at Maxine's copy of Where the Wild Things Are and cry over Maxine's death.

Confronting her fears allows Petula to help Jacob confront his own. Koula recognizes that Jacob hasn't been honest with the group. "...we've told him a ton. He hasn't told us much at all. It's like we've peeled back all our layers, and he's only peeled back maybe one." Jacob hadn't told Petula or anyone in YART about his past because he was afraid they would see him as "Jacob, the Drunk Driver Who Killed His Friend." However, with encouragement from Petula, she helps Jacob face down his fear and reach out to the friend who survived, Frankie Goorevitch. But before that Petula must forgive Jacob for the lies he's told and for treating her like a charity case just as she has had to forgive herself and realize that Maxine's death was an accident and no fault of her

Optimists Die First is filled with the themes of redemption, forgiveness, acceptance and the meaning of friendship. All these themes are woven throughout the novel and extend to almost all the characters. The book takes it's title from Petula's belief that pessimists are the ones who survive because they are constantly wary. Optimists die first because they are incautious. However Jacob points out to her that pessimists live smaller, limited lives but to Petula their lives are safer and longer.

Overall, Optimists Die First is a well written, engaging novel. Very enjoyable, short and to the point.

Book Details:

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen
Toronto: Tundra Books      2017
224 pp.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Vimy Oaks. A Journey to Peace by Linda Granfield

The Vimy Oaks: A Journey to Peace tells the remarkable story of Leslie Miller, a Canadian soldier who brought a few acorns from the oak trees at Vimy Ridge back to Canada and how one hundred years later Vimy may once again have oak trees.

When World War I began in mid-1914, Leslie Miller was teaching school in Saskatchewan. He enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was sent over to England in 1915. Leslie who was well educated joined the army's Signal Corps. He was stationed at Shorncliffe Camp, a military base near Folkestone, England. As a member of the Signal Corps, it was Leslie's responsibility to send and receive communications between various units of the military. During his time in England, Miller trained other signallers. Eventually he sailed across the English Channel to France. During his time overseas Miller kept several diaries filled with observations about the people and the towns in France.

Lieutenant Leslie Miller
Miller was part of the Canadian troops who fought in the battle for Vimy Ridge in April, 1917. After the battle, while on Vimy Ridge, Leslie Miller gathered acorns from the destroyed oak trees and mailed them home to his family in Canada. Miller didn't return home until early 1919. Eventually he returned to the Miller farm and the acorns from Vimy Ridge grew into oak trees. Miller eventually married and he and his wife, Mary Isabel "Essie" Fraser called their farm Vimy Oaks.

As the years passed by, many new Canadians helped the Millers on their farm. One such person was Monty McDonald who helped harvest the produce, remove brush and helped with the apple harvest. Leslie and Essie eventually sold their farm and after their deaths and the Miller  farm was purchased by a church. The Vimy Oaks however, remained.  The grew tall and very large.

When Monty McDonald traveled to Europe and visited the Vimy Memorial in France, he noted that there were no oak trees. Vimy Ridge had large stands of oak trees prior to World War I but the battles had destroyed the forests and scarred the earth around the ridge. McDonald wondered if it would be possible to reforest Vimy Ridge with the oak trees descended from the Vimy Oaks on the Miller farm in Canada. They would serve as a living memorial to those who died there. The second half of Granfield's picture book explains how McDonald's idea was to become a reality.


Linda Granfield has crafted an engaging non-fiction book that informs young readers about a little known piece of Canadian history. This year we remember the Battle of Vimy Ridge which began 100 years ago on April 9, 1917 and continued until the final hill was taken on April 12th. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was of supreme importance to Canada because it was the first time four Canadian divisions, fighting together as a unit, accomplished what no other military force was able to, and that was capture the ridge held by German soldiers. It was a carefully planned attack but it came at an enormous price - the deaths of thousands of Canadians with many more thousands wounded. Whether it is myth or not, Canadians have claimed that this battle signified the beginning of Canada as a nation in its own right.

Canadian Gunners at Vimy Painting by Richard Jack
Granfield tells only the basics of the Vimy Ridge story. Instead her focus is on how one Canadian soldier's decision to save a few acorns from Vimy, grew into a remarkable legacy. The story of Leslie Miller, a member of the Signal Corps is illustrated by the muted oil paintings of illustrator Brian Deines. The story is further enhanced by many interesting photographs of the Vimy Memorial, Canadian troops, the trenches of Vimy, Leslie Miller in uniform, Leslie and Essie later in life, and so forth.The second part of the story focuses on the efforts of Monty McDonald to see the Vimy Oaks from the Miller farm return in some form to France.

McDonald's original plan called for acorns to be gathered from the Vimy Oaks on the old Miller woodlot (all that remains of Leslie and Essie's farm today). However, when McDonald went to collect acorns two years ago, the trees produced only a handful of acorns. Not enough to start a crop of seedlings. He devised a second plan which involved having arborists scale the trees and take cuttings of the most recent growth from the top and graft them onto other trees to grow. Over one thousand trees were waiting in a nursery in West Flamborough to be planted at the Vimy memorial in France. However the French had to refuse the trees because they were concerned about the introduction of.... into France. Instead these Canadian saplings will be planted a World War I memorials across the country. This past year the Vimy Oaks in the Miller woodlot produced thousands of acorns which McDonald collected. Two hundred acorns were sent to a nursery in Paris where they have be nurtured. While they will not be ready for planting on the centenary, the will be ready for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I next year.

The Vimy oaks, when repatriated to Vimy Ridge, will help us to remember the sacrifice of so many young Canadians. In 1916, Leslie Miller wrote in his diary, "I am writing seated at the foot of a large oak..." One hundred years on, may people sit beneath the oak trees, not to write war diaries but to write and read in peace.

The Vimy Foundation's Vimy Oaks webpage has a brief write-up.

To learn about the Vimy Oaks Repatriation Project check out their website: this pdf outlines the plan. The Vimy Oaks Legacy website has much information on the entire project as well as a webpage on Lieutenant Leslie Miller

Macleans Magazine explores why Vimy Ridge became so important to Canada.

CBC has a video tour with Peter Mansbridge of Vimy.

Book Details:

The Vimy Oaks: A Journey to Peace by Linda Granfield
North Winds Press       2017
33 pp.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Bees. A Honeyed History by Wojciech Grajkowski

Bees A Honeyed History is an extraordinary book about all things pertaining to bees.The text was written by Wojciech Grajkowski who was once a researcher at the Institute of Experimental Biology and it is illustrated by Piotr Socha.

Bees A Honey History will answer every question you can possibly have about bees their history and their relationship with man and the natural world. Topics Grajkowski tackles include how the bee we know today evolved, the anatomy of the honey bee, the life cycle of the bee including information about the queen. Readers will learn how bees communicate with one another and why they swarm. The bee's role in pollinating plants so they can make seeds is presented along with other creatures who are pollinators.

There is a fascinating section on the relationship between bees and humans, beginning with evidence of man's earliest encounters with bees, to the Ancient Egyptians and the Ancient Greeks (who believed "honey was elixir of the gods") to the legend of St. Ambrose and to Napoleon and Josephine who replaced the gold fleur-de-lis of the Bourbon kings with embroidered bees on their garments.

As if this isn't enough there are two-page spreads, titled The Daily Buzz, which are filled with facts and trivia about bees. For example, did you know that the bees first trip out of the hive in spring is to go to the bathroom?

Grajkowski informs readers about bee keeping with detailed diagrams of a modern bee hive, types of beehives used throughout the world, information about the equipment of beekeepers and how bees make honey. Bees A Honeyed History concludes with a look at the bees most significant predators and touches briefly on how agricultural practices are impacting bees today.

Each page is gorgeously illustrated with the artwork of Piotr Socha in a style that will be appealing to younger readers. The depth of the information presented in this book is fantastic and makes it quite engaging. Bees A Honeyed History is a large book with an brilliant yellow cover, swarming with...bees!

Book Review:

Bees. A Honeyed History by Wojciech Grajkowski
New York: Abrams Books for Younger Readers     2017
80 pp.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Loving vs Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell

Loving vs. Virginia is touted as a "documentary novel" about the famous civil rights case which struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the United States. Mildred Jeter, a young black woman of mixed ethnicity, married Richard Loving in Washington, D.C. in 1958. The returned to their home in Virginia and were arrested five weeks later. In 1967, their case went to the United States Supreme Court. The court's decision, issued on June 12, 1967, overturned their conviction of violating Virginia's laws on miscegenation. At the time of the ruling in 1967, all sixteen southern states had laws forbidding interracial marriage.

Patricia Mruby Powell's novel in verse tells Mildred and Richard's story while also presenting "bites" of background historical information in the form of pictures, quotes and brief articles. The story is told in the alternating narratives of Mildred and Richard.

The story opens in the fall of 1952 in Central Point, Caroline county, Virginia where Mildred Jeter lives with her mother, stepfather, her older sister Garnet and seven brothers.  Mildred attends Sycamore School, her brother Lewis is in grade 1, Garnet is in grade 7, and Mildred is in grade 6. It is a one room school with all the grades sharing. The Jeter ancestors have lives in Central Point for centuries; her parents are part Indian as well as descended  from African slaves and their owners. In the spring Mildred's family plants a garden of corn, string beans and greens, they have their own cow for milk and make their own butter, and slaughter their own hogs and chickens. On the weekends, folks come to the Jeter household: Mildred's big brother's Theo, Edward, Richard, George and James, Otha and their friends come. They play softball in the field. When darkness falls, Mildred's father brings out his banjo, and her brothers play guitar, fiddles and mandolins. Soon everyone is laughing and dancing as one of the fathers calls a square dance.

"If I stop and watch
I see young and old --
Indians, Negroes, Whites --
all mixed together.

Everyone likes each other
in our neighborhood.
Everyone dancing

During the fall of 1952, while driving home in his friend Ray's car, Ray and Richard are stopped by Sheriff R. G. Brooks. Sheriff Brooks hates colored and he questions Ray calling him "boy" but Richard who is white is called "son". Brooks doesn't much like Richard either partly because he hangs around the coloreds and also because his father drives a truck for P.E. Boyd Byrd, a colored farmer known to be very good-natured.

In October 1955, Mildred is a freshman at Union High School. She loves school and plans to graduate, unlike her older brothers, Otha and Theo who have dropped out to work. At a dance at their neighbor's, the Fortunes, Mildred and Otha dance up a storm. Richard Loving notices Mildred and insists on driving her and her family home. That night Garnet suggests to Millie that Richard likes her. Her observation is proven when Richard takes everyone to the drive-in a few nights later. He tells Mildred that he offered to take everyone because he knew she might turn him down. They have their first kiss!

In the fall of October 1955 Richard and Millie's relationship continues to grow. In the spring of 1956 Millie is back at school. Richard comes regularly to see her. People don't like that Richard is with Millie and sometimes they hear comments, but Richard tells her that it would be worse if he was black and she was white. He would be lynched. In September 1958, Millie realizes she pregnant and she's terrified she will lose Richard. She tells him one night after Millie is refused entrance into a square dance Millie's father and brother's band is performing at. The dance is at Sparta school, the white elementary school Richard once attended. Richard is upset and drives her home. In January of 1957, with Richard's mother Lola Loving attending her, Millie gives birth to a beautiful little boy she names Sidney. In February 1957, Richard visits Millie, apologizing for abandoning her and asks her to take him back. He meets his little son.

In May of 1957 Sheriff Brooks harasses Richard and Millie, pulling them over when they are out driving. He warns Richard not to break the law and to "take that little Negress home where she belongs." Richard meets Millie's family in June of 1957. In April 1958 Millie finds herself pregnant once again. At first Richard seems upset but when Millie presses him he tells her they need to find out her due date so they can make plans to marry. This makes Millie very happy because she knows Richard will stay.

Richard's decision to marry Millie doesn't sit well with his best friend Ray who encourages Richard to do what others have done and simply live next door to her. But Richard believes that Millie deserves better. Ray challenges Richard telling him he can't marry Millie because it's illegal and that the sheriff will never let it go.  Meanwhile Millie who is now five months pregnant, her baby due in October, quits school.

Richard and Millie along with family drive to Washington, D.C., first doing the paperwork at City Hall. They go to the preacher's house and are married. Richard knows Millie doesn't know they are breaking the law by getting married. He hopes that once they return home to Virginia they'll be forgotten. But on July 11, 1958, Richard and Millie go to bed on a hot, sticky Virginia summer night only to be awakened by Sheriff Brooks shining a light in their faces. Richard tells the sheriff they are married and points to the marriage certificate on the bedroom wall. The sheriff tells them not in Virginia and both Richard and Millie are taken to jail.

Richard is put in a cell with other men and the next morning is bailed out by his sister. He is told if he bails Millie out he will be re-arrested. Millie is in a cell upstairs. Alone for days and pregnant she worries she might have her baby in the rat infested jail. She is visited by her mother who tells her that her brothers and father can't come because they believe they will be arrested. On her seventh day in jail Millie is bailed out by her daddy who pays her $1000 bond. Millie goes to live at her parents home, Richard as his parent's home. She learns that she and Richard can't be married because race mixing is forbidden and illegal. Richard visits Millie secretly and tells her he will come again. This reassures Millie that he won't abandon her. In October Millie gives birth to a baby boy whom Richard names Donald. After her hearing Millie, Richard and their two children Sidney and Donald move to Washington, D.C. to live with Millie's cousin Alex.

In January, 1959 Mildred and Richard return to Virginia for their hearing at the Bowling Green Courthouse. On the advice of their lawyer, Mr. Beazley, they plead guilty and Judge Bazile sentences them to one year in jail or a suspended sentence for twenty-five years if they leave Caroline County and the state of Virginia immediately and do not return together for those twenty-five years. Upset Millie asks Beazley if they can return in twenty-five years and he tells them likely not as they could be sentenced to another twenty-five years. He suggests they go visit their families but do not stay together overnight. However, when they try to return for Easter 1959, Richard staying at his parents and Millie along with the children at her parents, Sheriff Brooks forces them to come to the jail. Their lawyer talks to Judge Bazile and they are released but they must leave immediately.

Mildred and Richard spend the next years living in Washington, D.C. with Alex. Richard works in Caroline County. Millie delivers their third child, Peggy at her mother's home with the help of Lola Loving. In the summer of 1963, Millie, fed up with living in the city, missing her family and watching her husband have to commute daily, decides to act. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, she decides to write Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy. He tells her to contact the ACLU in Washington. Mildred and Richard meet with an ACLU lawyer, Mr. Cohen and set in motion a course of action that ultimately changes their lives forever.


Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrator Shadra Strickland have crafted a remarkable book that informs readers about the journey of Mildred Jeter Loving and Richard Loving to live their lives as they chose to - as husband and wife. Using interviews, print resources and speaking with friends and family of Richard and Mildred (both of whom have now passed away) Powell presents in historical context, the backstory behind the landmark Loving vs. Virginia case. Richard and Mildred narrate events in first person that occurred through the 1950's and 1960's leading up to the landmark case. Powell uses pages, separate from Richard and Mildred's story, to outline the struggle of African Americans to achieve equal rights.

The novel opens with a timeline beginning with Emancipation in 1865 (slaves are freed) to 1952 when Mildred and Richard's story begins. There is also a reproduction of the 1924 New Virginia Law to Preserve Racial Integrity. The 1950's decade during which Mildred and Richard were growing up was a period where the integration of schools in the United States was intensely opposed. Unbelievably, the state of Virginia chose to close schools rather than integrate black students into white schools. As the civil rights movement picks up steam in the early 1960's Powell has included photographs of sit-ins in white-only restaurants, explanations of the Freedom Riders of 1961 (students who rode public buses in mixed-race groups to protest continued segregation), and quotes and photographs from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches, letters and The March on Washington in 1963.

Mildred Jeter Loving and her husband Richard P. Loving
January 26, 1965
The time was ripe for defeating laws banning interracial marriages in the 1960's. The civil rights movement began building momentum during that decade aided by the determined and charismatic Martin Luther King Jr. When Mildred contacted the ACLU in Washington, she and Richard were contacted by two young, intelligent and inexperienced lawyers determined to win them the right to be married.  Loving vs. Virginia includes a photograph of Mildred and Richard with Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop. Separate pages outline how Cohen and Hirschkop prepared each step of their case that ultimately led them to challenge the Loving's conviction under Virginia's racial purity law in the nation's Supreme Court.

The views of elected officials, most notably Governor George Wallace are presented. Some are quite remarkable to read.When Judge Bazile issued his ruling in the Loving case in January of 1965 he wrote, " Almighty God created the races, white, black, yellow, malay, and red and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

Shadra Strickland illustrated the Loving's story using "a style of illustrative reporting from the Loving's time called visual journalism...Visual journalism was often characterized by a loose, impromptu drawing style that allowed lines to overlap and preserved the informal feeling of sketches in the final composition." Strickland used photographs of the Lovings from Life Magazine as well as from her own mother's childhood in the 1950's to create the illustrations in the novel.

Powell's narratives are believable, capturing the characters of Richard and Mildred. They are portrayed as simple, everyday folk who want to live their lives as they wish. Mildred's fears of being abandoned by Richard and Richard's determination to protect Millie and his love for her are well captured.  As Richard states in one of his narratives, "We just want to live as husband and wife in Virginia." After winning their case, Richard and Mildred were reluctant to attend a press conference, but were persuaded by their lawyers because of the importance of their case.

Despite their win change would continue to come slowly. In 1967 when the Supreme Court issued a ruling in the Loving vs. Virginia case, there were sixteen states which still had anti-miscegenation laws on the books. The last law against inter-racial marriages was finally struck off in 2000 in the state of Alabama.

Below is a short video of Richard and Mildred in a interview done by ABC News.

Book Details:

Loving vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell
San Francisco: Chronicle Books 2017
260 pp.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Wayfarer by Alexandra Bracken

"...There is the journey you make through the world -- the one that aches and sings. We come together with others to make our way and survive its trials, she said. 'But we are, all of us, also wayfarers on a greater journey, this one without end, each of us searching for the answers to the unspoken questions of our hearts. Take comfort, as I have, in knowing that, while we must travel it alone, this journey rewards goodness, and will prove that the things which are denied to us in life will never create a cage for our souls."
Wayfarer is the sequel to Bracken's fantasy novel, Passenger about time traveling families in search of a mysterious and powerful astrolabe.

Wayfarer continues the storyline at the end of the first novel. In Passenger, Etta Spencer, who has the unique ability to time travel, is sent on a quest to find the last remaining astrolabe, a device capable of creating time passages. She has been forced on this journey by the Grand Master of the travellers, Cyrus Ironwood. At the conclusion of Passenger, Etta and Sophia locate the missing astrolabe, but it is stolen from them by the Thorns and Sophia. Changes to the timeline cause Etta to disappear before Nicholas's very eyes, and Sophia is later discovered badly injured, the astrolabe missing.

Wayfarer opens with a prologue dated London, 1932. In this time Rose Linden witnesses the gruesome murder of her parents while hidden in a secret cupboard. The story then jumps to 1905 Texas and 1776 Nassau. Etta has been flung briefly to 1905 Texas and awakens in the desert where she is discovered and taken to 1906 San Francisco.Etta awakens to discover herself in a locked bedroom, recovering from her injuries sustained in her fight with the Thorns. She believes that the timeline has changed and she has been orphaned by her time. Her future gone. She has been snatched back "through a series of passages to wherever the last common point was between the old timeline and the new one they had inadvertently created." Etta has no idea how this has come about but believes that the Thorns have used the astrolabe, causing the changes. Desperate to escape she climbs out the window onto scaffolding but when it collapses, she is rescued by Julian Ironwood. She is astonished that Julian is alive because everyone believes he fell to his death on the path leading up to the monastery Taktsand Palphug.

Julian tells Etta that it is October 12, 1906 and they are in San Francisco.  Etta learns that she is with the Thorns and in the home of Henry Hemlock who reveals he is her father. Henry tells her he was with her in the future when she was taken by Cyrus Ironwood but was not involved in Alice's murder and that her mother easily escaped from the Ironwoods. Henry explains that Etta quest has been set up by her mother Rose and is based on delusions. Rose claimed to have been visited by a traveler from the future who told her there would be a war between the families. Rose became obsessed with restoring the timeline. When she obtained the astrolabe, she hid it rather than destroy it because that would cause a change back to the original timeline and close the passages permanently. Henry believes that Rose manipulated Etta so events could play out the way she thought they should.

To show Etta how Cyrus Ironwood as changed the course of time, Henry takes her on a walk through 1906 San Francisco. Etta notices that there is very little devastation in the city and it has not been destroyed by fire after the earthquake. Henry explains that they are in the original timeline. In the timeline that Etta grew up in, San Francisco was destroyed by a fire following the earthquake. This happened because Cyrus Ironwood altered events during the Russo-Japanese war resulting in reforms in Russia and changing that country's history.  This resulted in further changes that affected events even in San Francisco. They are back in the original timeline because Henry's men who stole the astrolabe from Etta have changed the timeline back to the original. The future Etta experienced no longer exists. Henry explains that they have worked to identify "potential linchpin moments in history" and the Russo-Japanese war was one, meaning that the future was altered from 1905 onward. Henry reveals to Etta that his men were followed by Ironwood's men. One was killed and the other is hiding in Russia with the astrolabe. Henry plans to travel to Russia to retrieve the astrolabe and destroy it before Ironwood.

Etta, Henry, Julian and Winnifred travel to 1919 Russia where Etta discovers Henry is good friends with Tsar Nicholas who knows of their ability to time travel. They find Petrograd in an uproar and Henry's man Kadir has not yet been located with the astrolabe. While the others search the massive Winter Palace, Henry, Etta and Winnifred have dinner with the Tsar. Etta learns that Henry has been guiding the Romanov family for generations and that his interference has resulted in Russia not becoming involved in World War I. However Henry tells Etta that the Tsar will still die as it is inevitable in any timeline but his family will survive. The dinner comes to a violent end when a bomb is set off at the table, severely injuring Henry. Etta is rescued by Julian who tells her that Kadir has been found dead and the astrolabe gone. They make their way out of the palace as it is stormed by the revolutionaries. Etta believes Cyrus Ironwood's agents are attempting to return the time line back to his version.

Etta and Julian manage to escape from Russia and find themselves in 1939 New York City which is utterly devastated. They are picked up by a patrol and taken to a field hospital where they encounter Julian's nanny, Octavia Ironwood who is badly injured. She tells Julian that Cyrus Ironwood is time travelling again and that he has come for the gold stored in a vault. There is to be an auction and the gold is required for the buy-in. Julian believes the Belladonna has somehow come into possession of the astrolabe. The bidding will be done by "submitting offers of secrets and favors."Octavia warns them about the Shadows who are murdering travellers and guardians. Etta and Julian need to locate sufficient gold for the buy-in and once at the auction they need to get the astrolabe and destroy it.

Meanwhile Nicholas and Sophia travel to the Three Crowns Tavern to meet up with Rose Linden. Sophia now wears an eye-patch after losing her left eye because of the beating in Palmyra. While Sophia was recovering in Palmyra, Nicholas received a note from Rose indicating that they had to meet on October 13th or not at all. Nicholas is aware that Sophia has not given up on taking the astrolabe, but he needs her to help him navigate the passages. Rose doesn't show but Sophia and Nicholas notice a man with the Linden sigil on his glove in the corner of the tavern. He gives them a folded sheet of parchment with the Linden seal and tells them that Rose had other business to deal with. As Nicholas is questioning the guardian, a diversion is created and the parchment is stolen from their table by a Chinese man. In their attempt to apprehend the man, Sophia fires her pistol setting off a brawl in the tavern. Nicholas and Sophia manage to escape and when they return to their camp by the Thames, they discover the Chinese man stealing from their campsite. Confronting him they discover him to be a woman named Li Min. Li Min refuses to divulge the contents of the note

Nicholas and Sophia travel to 1430 Prague where they encounter a young boy who leads them to a little shop. There they meet up with the Belladonna, an imposing woman who uses dark magic. Sophia tells her they wish to know the date of the last common year so they can locate a friend. The Belladonna agrees to help them in exchange for a favour. Nicholas asks the Belladonna if the Thorns are still in possession of the astrolabe and she replies that according to her last report, yes. However, the Belladonna tricks Sophia and Nicholas. She places a ring on Nicholas's finger and tells him the task she requires is the murder of Cyrus Ironwood before she provides the information they are seeking. This ring will eventually spread a poison through his body killing him unless he completes the Belladonna's task.

Nicholas and Sophia leave the Belladonna and travel through several passages before arriving in 148 B.C. Carthage which is under siege during the Third Punic War. They manage to escape an attack by the Shadows and are aided by Remus Jacaranda who takes them to his house. He tells Nicholas and Sophia that Fitzhugh is making his rounds as a healer. Remus serves them a tea which Nicholas does not drink. Remus knows nothing of the last common year but he does tell them about the history of the astrolabes and their ancestors. When Nicholas realizes that Remus has lied about Fitzhugh, Remus tells him they have sent for the Ironwoods as this is their chance to finally escape their exile in Carthage. Sophia has been poisoned by the hemlock tea, but Nicholas carries her and pursued by Fitzhugh and Miles Ironwood races to the passage. He is helped by the sudden appearance of Li Min and they are transported to 1499 Vatican where they are hunted by the Shadows. The three spend some time hiding in the old tombs beneath the Vatican where Li Min tells them more about her history and the Shadows. She also reveals that Etta Spencer is dead, sending Nicholas into shock but also leading him to confront Cyrus Ironwood in 1776 New York. There Ironwood proposes a new course of action for Nicholas, one that will lead to a life Nicholas Carter could never have dreamed of.


Like the first novel,Wayfarer is a complex story that weaves through many settings and even more characters than its predecessor, Passenger. This characteristic makes it a complicated read and difficult at times to keep track of the little details. In Wayfarer, Bracken has her characters travel to an overwhelming number of eras and locations: 1919 Petrograd, 1776 New York, 1776 Nassau, 1905 Texas, 1906 San Francisco, 148 B.C. Carthage, 1100 Reynisfjall Mountain, 1932 London, 1939 New York, 1430 Prague, 1499 Vatican City, 1830 Rio de Janeiro, and 1891 Mount Kurama. Not to mention the time passages that are only mentioned in passing. The plot too becomes more complex as more characters are introduced; the Shadows who serve a mysterious Ancient One who seeks the remaining astrolabe, the Belladonna who is known as the Witch of Prague, Li Min who it turns out is Etta's Aunt Winnifred and the Ancient One seeking to gain control of the remaining astrolabe after it is revealed he has absorbed the power of the other missing astrolabes.

The complex plot can be distilled down to a quest by multiple parties, each with their own agenda, for possession of the remaining astrolabe. It's a quest for ultimate power and the control of time itself. It turns out that this last astrolabe has come into the possession of the Belladonna who holds an auction for it. Everyone shows up and as expected the auction morphs into a deadly fight with completely unexpected results. Unlike Passenger which had a developing romance between Nicholas Carter and Etta Spencer, Wayfarer follows the journeys of two groups; Etta and Julian, and Sophia, Nicholas and Li Min.

Better editing could have distilled this novel down into a cleaner, tighter version of the story. At over 500 pages, the reader has to slog through pages of detail that sometimes overwhelm the storytelling. In the first novel, Passenger, Bracken succeeded in giving her readers the essence of what time travel might be like, but in Wayfarer, these become destinations that Etta, Nicholas and Sophia simply race from one to the next in their quest for the astrolabe. Readers learn some of the backstory to the time traveling families and it's interesting to consider how time travellers might change the outcome of history with what might seem like insignificant interference.

At times, Wayfarer reads like a Tolkien story; there are three four astrolabes with special powers given to each family. Three are lost and only one remains - the master astrolabe which has a unique ability to create timelines. The Shadows are people stolen from their families when they were young , "their humanity ripped from them with bloody training and manipulation." They exist to serve the Ancient One. We are told by Li Min,  "They  are here for one purpose alone:  to serve him. To find what he seeks  above all else." The Shadows wear loosely flowing black robes with hoods that shield their faces and carry a curved blade.  It sounds remarkably like Sauron and the Nazgul or Ringwraiths from Lord of the Rings. As it turns out, the astrolabe if found by the Ancient One will make him immortal (not unlike Sauron).

Readers who enjoy a complex fantasy story will enjoy Wayfarer. Bracken keeps her readers guessing about where the story will go and that alone makes Wayfarer an engaging tale. Bracken ties together all the loose ends and provides a satisfying ending to her story, one that suggests hope and healing for the future. A fitting conclusion to this fantasy duology.

Book Details:

Wayfarer by Alexandra Bracken
New York: Hyperion        2017
532 pp.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Red Wolf by Jennifer Dance

The novel Red Wolf  tells the story of a young Anishnaabe boy who is forced from his home into a residential school and how this changes his life forever. The story is told by two narrators, the boy, Red Wolf and a wolf named Crooked Ear who lives near the Anishnaabe.

Red Wolf opens in the year 1885, in the Algonquian wilderness of Ontario, Canada. A young wolf pup, Crooked Ear with his father Tall-Legs and his mother Tika and his wolf-siblings encounter Uprights who smell different from the people who live in the forest. The Uprights, who are lumberjacks, kill Crooked Ear's family. He manages to escape into the forest where he spends several months starving as he forages for food. By summer Crooked Ear arrives at the camp of The People who smell like they belong in the forest but who smell different from the lumberjacks.

However, The People are too distracted to notice the howl of the orphaned little wolf pup. Instead they are worried about "the pale-faced people moving up from the south, cutting down the great white pines." With the forests gone, the birds, deer and elk begin to vanish and their way of life too. Despite their discussions around the fireside, their drumming and praying, The People do not know what to do.

Two months after both the wolf pup and the boy had been at Clear Lake, their paths cross. Red Wolf wants to go to the pup but his father, HeWhoWhistles holds him back for fear of the pup's mother. When she does not show and HeWhoWhistles notices the pup is starving they feed him. As the weeks pass, Crooked Ear becomes a healthy juvenile wolf.  Although HeWhoWhistles sends Crooked Ear away so he can learn to be a wolf, the young pup continues to return to The People's campsite, sleeping against the outside wall of Red Wolf's family wiigwam. He wants to be near the young Upright called Red Wolf.

One day a stranger comes to the camp riding a horse. Red Wolf is captivated by the stranger's horse and leads him to graze in the grass. The stranger, who has white skin, speaks Algonquian and tells The People that he is an Indian agent. The Indian agent informs The People that they must leave this land as loggers are moving into the area. The People tell the agent they cannot move as the land belongs to them, they live off the land and the trees must not be cut. But the Indian Agent tells them the land no longer theirs as it has been sold. He produces a piece of paper which is the title to the land and tries to encourage them to move to the reserve where they will be given land and a house. This doesn't satisfy The People because their ancestors are buried on this land. The Indian Agent tells them they will be given food and there will be a school for their children. When the agent is ready to leave, he is angry that Red Wolf has taken his horse and accuses the little boy of trying to steal him.

The Indian Agent's visit results in confusion and disagreement among The People. Some want to migrate further north away from the intruders, some to learn the ways of the newcomers, others to stay and fight for their land. In the end, HeWhoWhistles takes his wife, his son Red Wolf and his parents and moves to the reserve. The wolf, Crooked Ear, follows the Uprights to the reserve.

When HeWhoWhistles and his family arrive at the reserve, they find a mix of shacks, wooden buildings and wiigwams. HeWhoWhistles asks the guide where all the children are and is told they have been sent to the school in Bruce County, a five day journey by foot. HeWhoWhistles learns that his son will be sent to the school to live away from home. This enrages HeWhoWhistles who reminds the agent that Red Wolf is his son. He is told that because he signed the paper, he is part of the Indian Act which he must now obey. This means he must live on the reservation and his son is a ward of the government. StarWoman begs the agent not to take their son but the guide tells her that the government will educate the Indian children and make them Christians. When StarWoman attacks the guide she is almost shot. The Indian guide gives HeWhoWhistles a ten day pass to escort his son to school and tells him he must return to the reservation within that time otherwise he will be jailed.

Red Wolf and his father journey to the school and are followed by the wolf, Crooked Ear, but only as far as the tall grass. Despite Red Wolf's fear, HeWhoWhistles tells him he needs to learn the white man's ways. They are met at the iron gate of the school by a bald man, Mister Hall who forces Red Wolf behind the gates and tells HeWhoWhistles to return at the end of June. Inside the school, Red Wolf is whipped with a leather whip when he speaks his native language, stripped of his clothing which is burned, has his hair washed in kerosene and cut short, and given the name of George Grant and the number 366. So begins Red Wolf's experience in the residential schools of Canada.

While Red Wolf spends his first weeks attempting to survive the harsh treatment at the (fictional) Bruce County Residential School, Crooked Ear waits at the edge of the tall grass for his return. When the big Upright returns alone, Crooked Ear travels quickly to the school but finds his path to the young Upright whose scent he can smell, blocked by barbed wire. Unable to reach Red Wolf, and with the unrelenting call to return to Clear Lake, his birth place, Crooked Ear journeys back to his old pack.

Crooked Ear finds that his brother Seraph is now the alpha male and he must submit. He becomes the wolf with the lowest standing in the pack. When Red Wolf journeys home with his father at the end of the school year, Crooked Ear meets up with them. Whenever Red Wolf accompanies his father into the bush, Crooked Ear would accompany them but he never stayed for long. When HeWhoWhistles takes his son back to the school, Crooked Ear once again refuses to cross the meadow. He returns to the pack at Clear Lake led by Seraph. When spring returns and Red Wolf journeys home with his father he is once again met by Crooked Ear. When Red Wolf runs away from school in his third year, Crooked Ear is there to guide him home. However, Crooked Ear becomes trapped in a snare and it is the young boy who saves his life, rescuing him from the trap. They reach the reserve safely, outwitting the Indian agent, but Crooked Ear is unable to warn Red Wolf in time and he is captured by the soldiers and taken back to the residential school.

Red Wolf's father does not return after his third year he learns the awful truth about what has happened to his family. Crooked Ear shows up at the meadow by the edge of the forest but the boy does not appear. The meadow is now a corn field and the forest, pastures with fences, filled with four-leggeds. Crooked-Ear seeks the boy Upright at the reserve but he is not there either. So he travels further north where he spends years with the Great Northern wolf pack. But he is restless, returning to his birth den at Clear Lake and missing the boy he has formed a bond with. Likewise as time moves on Red Wolf grows up, graduates from school and moves into the world. He too is restless, unable to find work and returns to the reserve. But the adult Red Wolf will one day meet the son of Crooked Ear and find a way to begin again.


Red Wolf is the fictional account of a young Anishnaabe boy's experience in one of Canada's residential schools but is based on the personal accounts and memories of those who attended and those who worked in the schools. Dance parallels Red Wolf's narrative with that of the wolf, Crooked Ear, who has a red tinge to his fur. Both Red Wolf and Crooked Ear share similar experiences when they encounter the white man.

The residential schools were Canada's attempt to assimilate the indigenous population which was considered inferior and savage. The arrival of European explorers and settlers to North America, meant that the cultural imperialism that was brought to India, Africa and South America also influenced policy in British North America. The indigenous peoples were scattered throughout Canada on land sought after by settlers. In an attempt to remove them from their land and to "civilize" their culture, a policy of assimilation was pursued. The churches were willing to participate because they were in the business of evangelizing souls and schools which removed the children from their "pagan" and "savage" culture were seen as the means to accomplish this.

This exact view was expressed by Canada's first prime minister as quoted in the Official report of the debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada dated May 9, 1883 :
"When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that the Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men."

Throughout the 1800's, the government of pre-confederation Canada began implementing social policies and laws that supported this action. The first residential school to open in Canada was the Mohawk Institute in Brantford in 1831. The Bagot Commission (1842-1844) determined that the best way to assimilate Canada's "Indians" would be by removing them from their homes and the influence of their parents. Methodist minister, Egerton Ryerson recommended that education of "Indian" children focus on religious and agricultural training. Canada's Indian Act was passed in 1876 and it gave the government almost absolute control over the lives of indigenous peoples. In 1879, the Davin Report recommended the creation of residential schools which was authorized in 1883 by Sir. John A. MacDonald, Canada's first prime minister. In 1884, amendments to the 1876 Indian Act allowed for the creation of residential schools. These schools were to be funded by the Government of Canada AND the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and United churches. All traditional indigenous ceremonies were banned. The story of Red Wolf begins in 1885,  just after these amendments became law.
Students and family members, Father Joseph Hugonnard, Principal, staff and Grey Nuns on a hill overlooking the Fort Qu'Appelle Indian Industrial School, Lebret, Saskatchewan, May 1885
In Red Wolf,  Jennifer Dance portrays both the wide-reaching negative effects of the clash of European and indigenous cultures and the implementation of Canada's residential school system. Every character in the novel is affected, but most significantly the indigenous children and their families.  Foreshadowing the coming trouble is the arrival of the white man in the Anishnaabes' lives. Loggers arrive and begin cutting down the great white pines, changing the ecosystem an directly impacting the life of the indigenous people who live off the land. When Red Wolf's people make their summer camp they talk about "reports of a vast dead land where there was no birdsong, no chittering of squirrels and chipmunks, no deer, no elk, nothing!"

The arrival of the Indian agent, whose manner is haughty, brings more disaster. The Anishnaabe are told their land does not belong to them and they must move to the reservation where they will be given land, food and their children educated. The Anishnaabe do not understand this concept of property.  "Why should we move to a new place? Our ancestors have lived and died here since time began...Their bones rest in this soil. We cannot leave their spirits here!"  Despite this HeWhoWhistles decides to enroll his son, Red Wolf into the white man's school so his people will understand the white men and not be further deceived. However, HeWhoWhistles and StarWoman learn their son will be taken far away. HeWhoWhistles feels fear and shame because he is unable to protect his son.

The novel excels at realistically portraying the experiences of young indigenous children in the residential schools through the eyes of  Mishqua Ma'een'gun (Red Wolf). Upon entering the school his sense of identity is attacked and broken down. Red Wolf experiences fear and shame as he is stripped, his clothing, lovingly crafted by his mother burned, his long braids which were to be cut only when someone died are shorn and burned. Like other children entering a residential school, Red Wolf is not allowed to speak his  language and is punished for doing so. This happens when Red Wolf explains his name to Father Thomas in Anishnaabemowin. Each student is assigned a new English name (Red Wolf is given the name George Grant) and a number, by which they were often referred to. Children were not allowed to return home until the summer and their families not allowed to visit during the school year. Letters were often not delivered or destroyed. In the novel, Red Wolf's only friend, Turtle discovers Mother Hall burning the letters sent to the children by their parents. Isolated from the loving care of parents, family and community these children suffered terribly. They forgot their language and their customs.When they returned home during the summer months, the children were often unable to communicate with family and found their own culture now strange.

Perhaps the most insidious damage inflicted by the residential school system was changing how the indigenous children viewed themselves, their families and their culture. Dance shows how almost every aspect of indigenous identity was attacked in the schools. In the novel, Red Wolf and the other children are repeatedly told they are stupid, worthless Indians or filthy savages. After only a year, Red Wolf "...had learned quite thoroughly that he was a filthy Indian and a savage. The knowledge had left him feeling sullied and ashamed." When questioned by his father as to what he has learned at the white man's school, Red Wolf reflects privately, " I learned that I am a savage. That The People are heathens and pagans. That we are all dirty Indians." Unable to express this to his father in his native language and ashamed to tell his parents Red Wolf instead tries to explain to his father about Jesus and Hell. After his first year, Red Wolf along with the other indigenous children has been given an assignment "to turn their parents away from the sinful, savage ways that led to Hell, and guide them instead on the path to Jesus." When Red Wolf is taken to the fields he is told by the farm manager, "The wandering lifestyle you all have, picking berries and hunting, isn't civilized." Dance also portrays many of the other problems that characterized the Indian residential schools; poor nutrition, hard manual labour, cruel teachers and staff  who abused children physically and sexually, and a high rates of illness and death.

The larger effect of the residential schools on the indigenous communities is also demonstrated by what happens to Red Wolf's family over time. When faced with the forced enrollment of their second child, a daughter, HeWhoWhistles fights the Indian agent and kills him. The judicial system, unconcerned with hearing HeWhoWhistles perspective hangs him and StarWoman, now alone, turns to alcohol. This results in her permanently losing custody of her daughter, Lali, Red Wolf's sister. Red Wolf, furious at his father's inability to protect him, begins to abandon his identity as Red Wolf and comes to refer to himself as George.

The ultimate goal of the residential schools, supposedly to assimilate the indigenous population, has the exact opposite effect. Red Wolf graduates from the school but is unable to find work. Instead he is only fit for manual labour and drifts from farm to farm. Red Wolf/George returns to the reservation with the intention of farming the land that is his, except he is unable to get a bank loan to buy the agricultural equipment he needs. He becomes an alcoholic, living on the reserve with others like himself who attended the residential schools but who are now unable to form bonds with spouses and children. Eventually Red Wolf makes the decision to be who he really is - Mishqua Ma'ee'gun - Red Wolf.

Dance attempts to provide a balanced perspective by portraying some of the  white people in the novel as decent.  The neighboring farmer feels pity for the children working in the fields with only shovels and even comes to help them harvest the hay before a storm. Eventually he helps Red Wolf escape from the school, although he does very little else to help Red Wolf and becomes concerned for himself later on. The school nurse, witnessing the lack of compassion for the children and especially for Red Wolf who is the last to leave after Grade One, comforts him, reassuring him that his parents do love him and would come if they could. However, most of the white people are shown to have little understanding or concern for the indigenous families and their children. Father Thomas in particular tries to convince Red Wolf that his parents do not care for him and that being separated from them is "the very reason we take you from your families; to spare you this pain of rejection... Believe me, George, you are better off without them."

Co-narrating the novel is the red wolf Crooked Ear who like Red Wolf, suffers from his contact with the white man whom he calls "Uprights". His family is murdered by the white man and he becomes separated from the pack. His life parallels that of the little "Upright" Red Wolf who is also separated from his family. Just as Red Wolf does not learn the culture of his people, Crooked Ear does not learn the skills necessary to fend for himself in the wild and within a wolf pack until he is older. Both become outsiders, struggling to fit into the world, forever changed by the white man.

There aren't many young adult novels that explore the residential schools and their part in Canadian history. Red Wolf is an excellent starting point for young people and adults alike, to explore the devastating effect of residential schools on Canada's First Nations people. Jennifer Dance can be extremely proud of her attempt to portray the destruction inflicted on generations of indigenous people through the residential schools.

The following resources will be helpful in researching more about Canada's residential schools:

The Canadian Encyclopedia has a wealth of information on residential schools, their history, as well as all aspects of the schools.

Project of Heart is also an excellent resource that focuses on "examining the history and legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada and to seek the truth about that history, leading to the acknowledgement of the extent of loss to former students, their families and communities."

The Inuit Experience of Residential Schools

Residential Schools in Canada Education Guide

The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives has a webpage devoted to residential schools.

The Catholic Church and residential schools.

Book Details:

Red Wolf by Jennifer Dance
Toronto: Dundurn Press,     2014
251 pp.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Way I Used To Be by Amber Smith

"...It's the first day back from winter break. And I'm trying so hard to just go back to my life. The way it used to be. The way I used to be."

The Way I Used To Be is a gritty telling of a young girl's struggles to deal with her rape . The novel follows her over a four year time period, from when the rape occurs in her freshman year to the end of her senior year.

Fourteen-year-old Eden McCrorey is raped one night on the Christmas break by her older brother Caelin's friend, Kevin Armstrong. She is taken by surprise in her bed in the middle of the night and told that if she tells anyone he will harm her family. The next morning Eden finds herself bruised all over, her underwear on the floor and her bed sheets, comforter and nightgown bloodied. When her mother enters, she immediately assumes Eden has been caught unawares by her monthly period. Busy and caught up in her own world Eden's mother doesn't given her the chance to tell her what has happened.

After scrubbing herself clean numerous times in the shower, Eden heads to breakfast where she must face her family AND her rapist, Kevin. Although Eden acts differently no one picks up that something serious is amiss. Instead her mother thinks that Eden is mad at Caelin for not spending enough time with her and she suggests she make new friends. Later on Eden begs Caelin not to return to school but he tells her to stop her school-girl crush on Kevin.  Left alone to deal with what has happened, Eden locks her bedroom door that night and cries herself to sleep.

After Christmas break Eden has difficulty when she returns to school. When she and her friends, Mari and Stephen Reinheiser are bullied in the cafeteria, she runs to the library. Unable to stay there without a pass, the school librarian, Miss Sullivan is sympathetic and suggests to Eden she's going to start up a book club. The first meeting is attended by Eden, Mara, Stephen, a new boy named Cameron who has blue hair and piercings and two other girls. Mara is especially excited because she finds herself attracted to Cameron. On their walk home that night, they pass by Kevin's house and Eden remembers that the Armstrongs moved here because of something that had happened between Mr. Armstrong's brother and Kevin. The following week Eden wants to meet up with Mara at her house to tell her what happened with Kevin but this doesn't happen.

At the beginning of her sophomore year, Edy makes herself over in an attempt to look like she is older and in charge of her life. She ignores her friend Stephen from last year, spends her time smiling and in study hall meets the boy who ran into her in the hall at the end of freshman year. That boy is Joshua Miller, a senior and a star basketball player who repeatedly tracks Edy down, eventually convincing her to go out with him. The morning of the day she's is to meet Josh, Edy arrives at school early only to discover that Kevin Armstrong's younger sister, Amanda and her friends are writing nasty graffitti on the bathroom walls about her. Edy meets Josh after school but refuses to go see a movie or get something to eat. Instead she asks to go to his house and they end up in his bedroom. Edy feels afraid that she might not ever want to have sex after the rape so she decides that she will use Josh to make sure that won't happen. Although she tries to go through with this with Josh it doesn't work out as she freezes up.

The following week Josh smuggles her into his house, night after night. Edy lies to him about her age, telling him she's sixteen and eventually they have sex. However,  Edy is strangely detached, which Josh notices immediately, leading to questions and an argument. Edy has a fight with her parents and ends up at Joshua's home several nights later. During her stay with Josh, he reveals that his father is a drug addict and an alcoholic who is struggling to stay clean. But Edy is unable to tell him anything about herself and lies about her middle name.

Eddy drops band and stops attending the book club she helped found. Josh finally meets Mara but is puzzled as to why Edy seems to be keeping him a secret from people at school, her friends and her family. He soon discovers that Edy has lied about her age when he sees the "Happy 15th Birthday" banner on her locker at school. Furious, Josh tells her that he could be charged with statutory rape. Edy tells him it doesn't matter, Josh tries to impress upon her that this is a criminal charge that could seriously mess up his life. When he questions Edy if she even cares about him, she tells him no and they break up.

On Christmas Eve, Caelin and Kevin arrive home for the break. Left alone in the kitchen, Kevin sexually assaults Eden, touching her inappropriately and leaving her feeling shaken and vulnerable. Early Christmas morning, Caelin comes to Edy's room and asks whether she knows Joshua Miller. Edy tells him she does and Caelin reveals that he was told terrible things about her by the seniors. Eden brushes him off, telling her brother that it might just be her who is using the guys. Caelin asks her to be careful because he's concerned, but Edy's response is cynical, "Wow, well isn't this just a great time to start worrying about me...Thanks a lot, but that really doesn't do me any good now!" Later on during his break, Caelin gets into a fight with Josh at a New Years party, making things worse for Edy at school.

In her junior year, Eden's life continues to spiral downward as she and Mara drink, meet guys and smoke pot and attend more and more parties, during which Edy hooks up with random guys. It's not long before she has a reputation as "that girl" who will have sex with anyone. Each party offers Eden a chance to lose herself, to disconnect but Eden risks losing everything, her friends, her family and her chance to make a life for herself. Until someone steps forward and contacts the police regarding Kevin Armstrong. Will Eden be brave enough to tell her story so she can begin the journey towards self-acceptance and healing?


The Way I Used To Be explores the devastating effects of rape on the lives of girls and their families and the cost of staying silent and not telling anyone what happened. Rape is a crime of control. Men who rape do so because they sense the girl or woman they are about to attack is vulnerable in some way - she is intoxicated, she has a bad reputation, she's socially isolated and has no family or friends to protect her or she won't be heard because she's unlikely to tell someone what happened.

In The Way I Used To Be Smith suggests that this is exactly what happens to fourteen year old Eden McCrorey. Eden's family life revolved around older brother Caelin's basketball. Family interactions all involved Caelin's latest exploits in sports. So when he leaves for college the fall Eden enters high school, Eden remembers that they did not know anymore how to be a family."The truth is, none of us knows how to act around one another without Caelin here. It's like we've become strangers all of a sudden. Caelin was the glue. He gave us purpose -- a reason, a way to be together. Because what are we supposed to do with each other if we're not cheering him on at his basketball games anymore?" The family dynamic is such that Eden is the quiet, good one who's nickname is "Minnie" after Minnie Mouse.She lives her life in the background.

This family dynamic and Eden's personality have an immediate impact on what happens to Eden the morning after the rape, when Eden attempts to tell her mother what has happened to her. Her mother isn't perceptive enough to realize that something has happened to her daughter and  she doesn't give Eden the time to speak and doesn't listen to her. "Clearly, it was time for me to get going so she could deal with this mess. And clearly, nobody was going to hear me. Nobody was going to see me - he knew that. He had been around long enough to know how things work here." Because her family doesn't communicate well, her mother doesn't pick up on Eden's strange behaviour over the holidays and doesn't notice "the one thing that's different or wrong or off or dangerous."

On her return to school, Eden is unable to contend with the usual bullying in the cafeteria, because it reminds her of how she was not able to defend herself at home or at school. Eden begs Miss Sullivan to allow her to say in the library. She won't tell her why, "...the truth is that it's humiliating. It's too humiliating to be in lunch anymore, to have to hide and still get food thrown at you anyway, and not be able to do anything about it, and your friends are too afraid to stand up for you, or themselves. Especially when you just got attacked in your own house -- in your own bed -- and you can't even stand up for yourself there, either, the one place you're supposed to be safe."

Eden is so distraught that she is unable to walk past Kevin's house to spend time after school with Mara. Instead she runs home, crying and is nauseous. Her parents mistakenly believe she is sick. But for Eden, she feels changed. "I feel like I've gone off somewhere else, like I've just sort of slipped into this other realm. ..This alternate reality where I'm not quite in my body, not quite in my mind, either -- it's a place where all I do is think about one thing and one thing only. " Eden feels "Like I"m raw and exposed, and it almost hurts to even be brushed up against." When a boy collides with her in the hallway, Eden is shocked that she feels such rage inside, "In this moment, I am nothing but rage."

Eden's friend Mara begins to change, partly because she's struggling to cope with her parents' divorce and partly because she doesn't want to be bullied anymore. She quits band, gets contacts, begins smoking and has Eden cut and colour her hair. Mara tells Eden that she should get contacts and cut her hair too, that she should stop hiding.  When her parents refuse her request for contacts, Eden pushes back. "...I let them push me around just like I let everyone push me around. I let them a make me into a person who doesn't know when to speak the hell up, a person who gives up control over her life, over her body, over everything. I do what they tell me to do, what everyone tells me to do. Why didn't they ever teach me to stand up for myself ?

Eden blames her parents for what happened to her and hates her parents, Caelin and even herself. "Even though they don't know what happened, what he did to me, they helped to create the situation. In a way, they allowed it. They let it happen by allowing him to be here and making me believe that everyone else in the entire world knows what's good for me better than I do....Most of that hate, though, I save for me. No matter what anyone else did or didn't do, it was ultimately me who gave them permission. I'm the one who's lying, The coward too afraid to stop pretending."

This all leads Eden to try to take control of her life, to make her own decisions, especially about her body. However, because she has not dealt with the rape, Eden's choices gradually become more and more destructive. In her sophomore year Eden initially makes some outward changes. She gets contacts, dresses differently, wears makeup and smiles more. She tries to act normal, even though she's not sure exactly what that entails,  in the hopes that people will starting treating her that way. However graffiti in the bathrooms at school proclaims her a "slutty whore".

Eden begins a relationship with a senior, Joshua Miller and lies to him about her age. She becomes sexually involved with Josh initially because she's afraid that she won't ever be able to have sex again. However, after having sex with Josh, Eden finds that it doesn't help her - she's still sad and angry. In an effort to demonstrate that she is the one in control of the relationship, she tells him she doesn't want to be his girlfriend, but soon she is having sex almost every night with him. When this relationship breaks down, Eden sinks deeper into alcohol and promiscuity.

By the time Eden enters her final year she has hooked up with fifteen different guys. She's a month away from turning seventeen and Eden admits "there isn't the slightest trace left of the frizzy-haired, freckle-faced, clarinet-playing, scared-silent little girl. And her big secret is really not such a huge deal anymore."  As Eden becomes more and more disconnected from her parents she begins referring to them by their names, Vanessa and Conner rather than as Mom and Dad. Her destructive behaviour finally alienates Steve and Mara. When she looks through her ninth grade yearbook, Eden see the "ghost of the girl I used to be." Thinking back on the past three years, Eden realizes "...that things went terribly awry, this wasn't the plan. The plan was to get better, to feel better, by any means. But I don't feel better, I feel empty, empty and broken, still." Neither the drinking nor the hooking up can take away the pain of that night. "...I still feel like I'm back there, always back in my heart I'm still that girl."

Although initially Eden wanted to tell her mother and then her best friend Mara what happened to her, when she is confronted by Caelin about her relationship with Joshua, Eden remains silent. "I'm really beginning to like the silence. It's become my ally. Things happen in silence. If you don't let it get to you, it can make you stronger; it can be your shield, impenetrable." But Eden soon discovers the price of silence. When Kevin's ex-girlfriend accuses him of rape Eden realizes that although she's not the girl she used to be, in one way she still is - she is still silent , she's still the mouse who won't speak up. When she does tell, the first person to learn what happened is Josh. Eden realizes that telling what happened does not destroy her world. " The Earth is still intact. I"m still alive. The floor didn't open up and swallow me whole...I don't know what I thought would happen if I told, if I let that one word exist..." Josh, by believing Eden and telling her the police will believe her too, encourages Eden to report her rape. When she tells her brother Caelin, he is devastated and Eden realizes that her rape has affected more than just herself but also her family. "It touches everyone."

Although the novel ends on a hopeful note - Kevin is charged in the rape of his ex-girlfriend and Edy is able to come forward and finally report her rape,Smith's conclusion to the novel felt rushed and incomplete. As is often the case in rape, once an allegation is made, things move quickly. When Kevin's ex-girlfriend reports the rape, Kevin's family is interviewed and his sister Amanda tells police they should talk to Eden. Finally the catalyst for Eden's rebellious behaviour throughout high school is revealed to the other characters in the novel. However, readers deserved and would have benefited from an Epilogue that detailed what happened to Kevin and perhaps had Edy state how she was doing several years out of high school. In this way readers would have been provided with more closure, especially with regard to Edy's life.

The Way I Used To Be is a powerful novel exploring how a brutal rape changes an innocent, trusting young girl  into someone filled with anger and self-loathing at her inability to tell anyone what happened, to defend herself or standup for herself.Her anger leads to isolation, alienation and some very harmful and dangerous behaviours. The price of silence is high for both herself and those around her. The novel is painful to read but Amber Smith's message comes across: silence is not the answer, tell someone. You deserve to be heard.

Book Details:

The Way I Used To Be by Amber Smith
New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books       2016
367 pp.