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The Hollow Tree

by Janet Lunn

Some months ago, writer Janet Lunn published an article about her distress at the trend toward turning Canadian historical sites into tawdry theme parks. In the article, Lunn is modest about her own reputation as a writer of historical fiction but there is no better argument for the value and pleasure of genuine historical consciousness than Lunn’s own novels for young people.

Her latest book, The Hollow Tree, is set during the American Revolutionary War. Fourteen-year-old Phoebe Olcott is caught between opposing sides. Her father, a patriot, is killed in battle, and Phoebe, who’s motherless, goes to live with her Loyalist cousins. When her beloved cousin Gideon is hanged for being a British spy, Phoebe falls heir to a secret message that Gideon was delivering to the British command at Fort Ticonderoga. Grief-stricken at the two deaths and believing herself responsible for Gideon’s execution, Phoebe takes on the mission of delivering the document to the authorities. Thus begins a long journey.

The first section of the novel is a solitary survival story as Phoebe makes her difficult way through the wilderness to the British headquarters. She arrives to discover that the fort has been abandoned. At this point she is reunited with her Loyalist relations who are attempting an escape to Canada and safety. The second section of the story involves their struggles. Part three begins when the group takes prisoner a young man who may or may not be a rebel spy. Phoebe, unable to bear the thought of another hanging, releases the prisoner and then is forced to flee herself. Alone, she reaches Fort St. John’s where she is finally able to deliver the message. In a short coda section, Phoebe begins to make some sense of the deaths she has witnessed, the deprivation she has suffered, and the spiritual confusion of a war that set neighbour against neighbour, brother against brother.

The Hollow Tree is a very engaging book, as suspenseful as The Root Cellar, as emotionally compelling as Shadow in Hawthorn Bay (books that have tantalizing genealogical and geographic connections with this one). How does Lunn manage this? First, she really knows how to orchestrate a story. The first movement is an introspective survival saga, bleak in its setting and sombre in its colouring, relieved only by the comic characters of cat and bear cub. The second movement, the travels with the Loyalists, is more public, full of politics and interpersonal tensions, rich in dialogue and action. In the final movement, we return to the themes of the first – solitude, abandonment, and cold, but at a faster pace and lightened with Phoebe’s realization of her love for Jem Morrissay, a fellow traveller.

Lunn also succeeds by letting her reader relax. In this novel, as in her earlier works, she is so obviously in control of her historical material. She gives a reassuring sense that not only is everything she says accurate but that she knows far more than she is telling. She handles the technical problems of historical fiction with a practiced hand. In her use of language, for example, she sometimes treats us to a tasty bit of historical usage: “It wan’t but a sneeze-up afore the whole clanjamfry of ’em was after me.” More often she very simply conveys the flavour of a time not our own with sentences like: “Teachers and students alike had set to, with a will, to fell the enormous white pines and build their habitations.”

In language and in her portrayal of attitudes, Lunn pays her material and her readers the respect of recreating a time that was genuinely different. Unlike historical theme parks, which hawk the homogenizing notion that people in the past were just like us, except in funny clothes, Lunn takes the risk of inviting us into a world that is other. The death of Phoebe’s father seems like a meaningless sacrifice to us. We see him as carried away by rhetoric. But Phoebe respects his idealistic passion. The phrase that brought me up short occurs when Phoebe, just turned 15 and at a moment of crisis, looks back at her life and says to Jem, “All my life I have never done a thing because it was only I who wanted it.” This sense of duty is so alien from our ideals of independence and self-actualization that I asked myself if any of the young people I know would relate to this idea at all. Then I thought of refugee children I’ve encountered, kids who go to school, learn English, have jobs and translate for their parents, kids who have stories of incredible deprivation and pain in their short pasts. There’s the paradox. Phoebe’s story resonates widely precisely because it is so specifically rooted in its own time and place. Her personal survival strategy, which lies in the elevation of personal relationships over abstract ideals and the building of a community of disparate peoples, is one we might all consider.

Lest this all sound too earnest, however, let me alert all romance readers. Janet Lunn again proves herself the best young adult romance writer we’ve got. If you needed your hankies for Shadow in Hawthorn Bay, get them out again for The Hollow Tree. The dark and selfish one wields a lot of power but it’s the skinny red-headed one who has shared the troubles that offers true love in the end.