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Heroes of Isle Aux Morts

by Alice Walsh, Geoff Butler, illus.

A marvellous, true Canadian story of maritime courage and ingenuity, starring a girl, a dog, and a sinking ship – the idea fairly bursts with potential. All the sharper is the disappointment, then, when the execution falls far short of the possibilities.

Heroes of Isle aux Morts, a middle readers’ picture book, tells the story of Ann Harvey, a 19th-century girl living on the rough coast of a Newfoundland island. She, her fisherman father, and their stalwart Newfoundland dog (oddly named Hairy Man) row to the rescue of a foundering sailing ship in the teeth of a gale. The dog is sent overboard to swim to the ship, where a rope is tied around him before he swims back to the rowboat. Ashore, the line is fixed to a pole so that all the passengers can be taken off, one by one, in a “breeches buoy,” a sort of improvised chairlift.

Unfortunately, Alice Walsh’s matter-of-fact narrative keeps the drama at a distance. The story is emotionally flat, lacking any vivid revelations of Ann’s felt experience. Fear, love, desperation, triumph, relief – all are muted.

Geoff Butler, an award-winning Newfoundland artist, portrays the stormy sea and fog-shrouded ship with suitably tempestuous colours: the deep, briny greens and greys of the roiling waves, the white foam, the lowering sky. Each text page is adorned with a charming pencilled decoration of rope, fish, buoys, or lanterns. The paintings of people, however, are disturbingly lifeless, at times faceless, and their forms (even when struggling through the gale) look static and flaccid.

Between the bland narrative and the expressionless people, life seeps out of what could have been a thrilling saga. Heroism moves the reader most when we are allowed to feel its inner cost. This story keeps the reader resolutely, and regrettably, at arm’s length.