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Book Reviews

If I Just Had Two Wings

by Virginia Frances Schwartz

Flying Geese

by Barbara Haworth-Attard

How tidy is history? It’s a question that every writer of historical fiction must contemplate, especially those who write for the young, for whom the impulse to narrative neatness is strong. The olden-days books that I read as a child were very tidy, partisan, Eurocentric, and simplistic. They were also suspenseful, exciting, and emotionally engaging, inspiring me to fierce loyalties. The challenge for the contemporary writer is to harness that storytelling energy while presenting the past in all its messiness and ambiguity.

If I Just Had Two Wings by Virginia Schwartz, a Canadian living in New York, is the story of Phoebe, a 13-year-old slave who escapes the Alabama plantation to travel the underground railroad to freedom in Canada. Here is a story with a clear trajectory. The goal is freedom. The route to the goal is a physical journey. The barriers to the goal are weather, enemies, and despair. Tools to help achieve the goal are strength, idealism, co-operation, and shared knowledge. The moral landscape is also clear, with cruel slavecatchers on one side and brave underground railroad “conductors” on the other. From this material Schwartz has created a satisfying, well-shaped story, relatively unsophisticated and suited to younger readers. She strikes a good balance between conveying the horror of slavery and protecting the young reader. For example, one slave girl makes a break for freedom because she learns she is about to become a “breeding slave.” Schwartz doesn’t elaborate. A reader old enough to imagine this horror will do so. For the younger child it is simply enough to know that the girl was compelled to leave. Readers of Barbara Smucker’s Underground to Canada will feel right at home in this novel.

In Flying Geese author Barbara Haworth-Attard deals with a much less tidy piece of the past. The Brown family are Saskatchewan farmers. It is 1915. A hailstorm that decimates their crop is the last in a string of disabling misfortunes, forcing the Browns to sell up and move to London, Ontario, where they take refuge with an uncle. Protagonist Margaret is heartbroken to leave her home, her friends and, most of all, her land. Life in London is difficult. Mr. Brown fails to find steady work and his health deteriorates. Mrs. Brown gives birth prematurely and is ill in hospital. Life with the relatives is fraught with tensions for everyone. Margaret’s beloved older brother enlists for the war and leaves. Poverty wearies them all. The turning point in this narrative is not so much a change in external circumstances as a psychological change in Margaret. She makes friends, she discovers her own competencies, she accepts that they will not be returning to the prairies, and she becomes open to the particular beauty of her new home.

Haworth-Attard seems to have deliberately chosen a family out of tune with their times: 1915 was a good year on the prairies, but not for the Browns. When men went off to war there were, ostensibly, lots of jobs for those left behind, but not for Mr. Brown. These are real people, not historical representatives and the complexity of their relationships is the strongest element in the book. In London, for example, the Browns finally get their own place. Their landlady, Mrs. Ferguson, is mean, miserly, and bad-tempered, even with her own son. However, she has strong political views and a deep sense of social justice and she takes a shine to Margaret. All of this is summed up in a scene in which Mrs. Ferguson takes Margaret to hear a lecture by Nellie McClung. In the middle of Mrs. McClung’s ringing plea for votes for women, Mrs. Ferguson whispers loudly and indignantly, “When is she going to speak about temperance?” This is funny, telling, and nicely complicated. Likewise Margaret makes friends with Jean, a tough kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Jean’s mother beats her. Margaret is shocked and reports this to her kindly, understanding teacher. The teacher replies, “I know. Unfortunately there’s nothing I can do.” It is details such as these that place us authentically in the past. Lesser writers rely on fashion or how phones used to work.

Schwartz and Haworth-Attard obviously know their material. Schwartz knows how African-American songs contained secret clues about the route of the underground railroad. Haworth-Attard knows about the social position of the rag-and-bone man in Ontario in 1915. But in each case it felt as if the writers didn’t entirely trust their material to carry the stories, leading to some overwriting. Each book is tied together with one overarching metaphor. In If I Just Had Two Wings the metaphor is of a dream of flying. Flying is freedom and power, spirituality and survival, with an undercurrent of mortality. It is not just Phoebe’s private dream; it’s embedded in the stories of her people. In Flying Geese, a quilt signifies comfort, the heritage of women’s wisdom, and a remaking of the past into new patterns. But in each case our heroines think about these metaphors, and tell us about them, too often. Yes, we are interested in how each girl finds strength. But I think the action could have convinced us much more on its own.

The unevolved books of historical fiction that were my reading as a kid consisted largely of action to the exclusion of feelings. We found out exactly how to make moccasins but we never knew if anybody was lonely or despairing. With these two readable and solid novels the pendulum might have swung a bit far the other way. When Margaret is actually sewing on her quilt and when Phoebe is dancing her flying dance, I felt closer to them than when they were talking about it.


Reviewer: Sarah Ellis

Publisher: Stoddart Kids


Price: $19.95

Page Count: 176 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-7737-3302-7

Released: Feb.

Issue Date: 2001-4

Categories: Children and YA Non-fiction

Age Range: ages 10+

Reviewer: Sarah Ellis

Publisher: HarperCollins Canada


Price: $14

Page Count: 186 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-00-648573-1

Released: Apr.

Issue Date: April 1, 2001

Categories: Children and YA Non-fiction

Age Range: ages 12+