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The Carved Box

by Gillian Chan

With his father’s death, 15-year-old Callum Murdoch is uprooted from his Edinburgh life, where he dreams of being a teacher, and forced to immigrate to the New World to join his Uncle Rory and family. Callum quickly finds himself enveloped in the constant drudgery and gruelling labour of a family farm. His only comfort is the enormous Newfoundland dog he was tricked into buying on first arriving in Upper Canada. Dog seems uncannily able to read Callum’s thoughts and feelings and often helps him cope with the difficulties of life on a pioneer homestead. In fact, Dog is so remarkable that Callum can’t help wondering if she really isn’t a dog at all but a fairy creature trapped in a dog’s body. A devastating accident gives Callum a chance to discover the truth.

The Carved Box is Gillian Chan’s third book and quite a departure in both genre and style from her earlier titles, the linked short story collections Golden Girl and Glory Days, which both focused on the lives of contemporary teens. This is an adeptly written historical novel that’s to be particularly commended for its frank and honest portrayal of pioneer life. Chan dispenses with any romantic notions of life in Upper Canada in the early 1800s and paints the New World for what it was – a wilderness that sometimes broke the men and women trying to build new lives there. Young readers will certainly empathize with Callum’s struggle to meet the physical challenge of working on the farm as well as his sense of isolation. The supernatural element that Dog provides is reminiscent of Janet Lunn’s Shadow in Hawthorn Bay and, like Lunn, Chan has been careful not to turn this novel into a historical fantasy. The Carved Box is thoroughly satisfying historical fiction with just a whiff of fancy.