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Book Reviews

Red Goodwin

by John Wilson

It’s admirable and delightful that John Wilson engages the deeds of a British Columbian people’s hero and socialist in this novel of historical fiction. Set in July 1918, the story focuses on a week in the life of 16-year-old Charles, orphan nephew of a coalmine manager in Cumberland, Vancouver Island. Recently arrived from Britain and full of patriotism about Britain’s role in the Great War, Charles finds his thinking turned upside down by an encounter in the woods with Red (“Ginger”) Goodwin, a political critic, socialist, and labour organizer. Goodwin’s reasoned arguments about market competition, corporate control, and classism make Charles question his uncle’s methods. Meanwhile, his encounters with a miner’s daughter and the gifted son of a Chinese labourer introduce him to issues of labour and racism firsthand. Enlightened by all this argument, Charles tries to warn Goodwin that the police are after him, only to be present when they get their man.

If this sounds like a lot of talk, it’s because it is, alas. Wilson writes of inherently fascinating matters, but his characters are less complex human beings than they are position-holders, each given the opportunity to declaim in turn. “Tell, don’t show” is the method here, and it’s particularly disappointing given the potential of the subject matter, the historical figures, and the setting (which ought to be, given the terrain, a character in itself).

That said, Wilson’s novel is a speedy, undemanding read that conveys interesting local history and should awaken kids’ minds to certain political issues, then and now. The most powerful moment in the book – and the one that communicates most clearly just how galvanizing and threatening Goodwin was and is to the powers that be – comes in a concluding historical note, which points out that one of the first acts of B.C.’s current Liberal government, upon coming to power in 2001, was to remove all road signs for the section of highway known as “Ginger Goodwin’s Way.”