In the first story of Governor General’s Literary Award winner Rachna Gilmore’s new collection, young Red MacRae complains about his crotchety grandmother’s penchant for showing off an ancient swatch of her long red hair, preserved since her youth, which she keeps carefully wrapped in a piece of white linen.
You just can’t make this stuff up, and indeed, it turns out the six stories that comprise That Boy Red are based on the reminiscences of Gilmore’s late father-in-law, who grew up on a PEI potato farm during the Great Depression. There’s no telling how closely Gilmore followed the original stories, but at times it’s easy to sense the authenticity behind the artifice.
For example, in “Upside Down and Right Side Up,” Red’s father has an accident, and Red and his brother must complete the tobacco caddies Pa was making for the local shopkeeper. In this day and age, products associated with tobacco are unlikely to find their way into a children’s story. (And what exactly is a tobacco caddy, anyway?) Yet Gilmore avoids the impulse to sanitize, oversimplify, or overexplain; she sticks to her story, believing that the trusted tools of pacing, conflict, and character will pull her readers along.
And they do. Every story builds on the one before, and each draws us a little further into Red’s world. Along the way, we meet Red’s family and become acquainted with the wider community of neighbours, shopkeepers, and classmates.
Between the lines, young readers will pick up a fair bit about island life in the 1930s without ever feeling like they are being given a history lesson. Who knew, for instance, that greeting cards were once a “newfangled notion in big cities”?
Red himself is a sympathetic, believable character, a rough-and-tumble 11-year-old boy for the ages. And like that other famous PEI literary creation, Anne Shirley, his exploits will appeal to young readers even if they have never set foot on a farm or thought about what life was like when their grandparents or great-grandparents were young.