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Island of Hope and Sorrow: The Story of Grosse Ile

by Anne Renaud

During its 105 years of service as a quarantine station, Grosse Île was the first stop in the New World for more than 4 million immigrants. Part of a new Lobster Press series on Canadian immigration, Island of Hope and Sorrow: The Story of Grosse Île situates this national landmark’s history within the wider context of the immigrant experience. Author Anne Renaud explores the economic and social conditions that shaped the migration patterns that caused people to come to Canada – beginning with the timber shortages caused by the Napoleonic Wars, and touching on such experiences as pogroms, the Irish Potato Famine, and England’s “Home Children.” The cholera and typhus epidemics that the Grosse Île station was meant to combat get thorough coverage. We also learn about the island’s interesting afterlife as a research station, where scientists studied biological weapons and, later, quarantined cattle coming into the country.

Renaud, whose first book, A Bloom of Friendship: The Story of the Canadian Tulip Festival, was shortlisted for several awards, packs a great deal of knowledge into an accessible history that’s well suited to strong readers ages 8 and up. Colour illustrations grace each page. Sidebars, signalled by rebus-like symbols in the text, provide additional information, defining key words, such as “Doukhobor” and “semaphore,” and adding interesting tidbits, such as the fact that the telegraph operator on the island picked up the Titanic’s distress signal. While I found the sidebars very effective and surprisingly unobtrusive, I would have liked a “quick facts” summary of the sort often found in children’s non-fiction, giving an overview of the many facts and figures in the narrative proper. These highlights would have helped the reader navigate and recall significant detail, especially since the book has no index. 

While Renaud chronicles voyages to Canada, Elizabeth Quan tells a personal story of a trip from this country back to China with her parents in the 1920s. In Once Upon a Full Moon, the Lee King family travel across Canada by train before boarding a ship to China, where Grandmother awaits. En route, Quan sees whales, hears wondrous tales of her father’s boyhood, and experiences both excitement and homesickness as the boat draws closer to its destination. Quan is an accomplished watercolour artist, and brings alive both the varied landscapes and family portraits in rich, often stunning illustration. Her text is equally skillful, capturing the sounds and smells and sensations of travel, clearly communicating how foreign China is to the child narrator.

The narrative assumes a level of contextual understanding that readers might not share: Grandmother’s bound feet are mentioned but not explained, for instance, and Quan describes “coolies” without defining this word or putting it into historical context. Moreover, Quan touches only obliquely on the racism Asian families faced in Canada during this time; given that the family’s departure came after the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act, which prevented Chinese from coming to Canada, I wondered if they felt forced to leave and planned to make the move a permanent one. Unfortunately, in telling her tale from a childhood perspective, limited to what she understood as a young girl, Quan might leave some readers without the bigger picture necessary to appreciate the magnitude of her story and its implications.