Quill and Quire


« Back to
Book Reviews

The Shacklands

by Judi Coburn

The Shacklands refers to an area of Toronto that early in this century extended roughly between Oakwood Avenue west to Keele, and from St. Clair north to Eglinton. The name vividly evokes the ramshackle, fledgling community where Judi Coburn’s fictional immigrant family begins life in Canada. Shacklands might have seemed ugly to outsiders, but for those living there it meant their own roof over their heads and neighbours who helped each other over the rough spots. Coburn’s story begins at such a spot, as Kate Robertson is buried in Prospect Cemetery six months after arriving from London. Her husband and children – Jessie, Ned, Thomas, and a newborn girl – must somehow manage without a mother. Though her English teacher urges her to stay on at high school, 16-year-old Jessie is heavily pressed to stay home or take a factory job.

Coburn herself teaches English and history in Toronto; her book will be a boon to high-school history classes. Her recreation of up-and-coming towns and a brave new world of cars and airplanes feels solid and assured. She sets her story amid the landmarks and events of the period, bringing in real-life figures such as suffragist Flora MacDonald Denison in cameo roles. Subplots move the story smartly along: first loves, a factory strike, Jessie’s arrest, and a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-like coincidence involving a long-lost cousin. As a first novel, The Shacklands has its flaws: dialogue is sometimes wooden or unconvincing, the point-of-view occasionally slips from Jessie to other characters, and Coburn’s reflections of contemporary attitudes to race, religion, gender roles, and labour seems self-conscious.

But The Shacklands,/I> has a lot going for it, including design. Its striking cover features the photo of a clear-eyed young woman gazing out over a Shacklands streetscape; inside are a dozen more memorable shots. Despite its elements of tragedy and hardship, Coburn’s lively story of an immigrant family’s first years in Toronto conveys the optimism of youth and the energy and courage of people seizing the chance to make a fresh start.


Reviewer: Maureen Garvie

Publisher: Second Story


Price: $9.95

Page Count: 287 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-896764-13-4

Released: Nov.

Issue Date: 1999-2

Categories: Fiction: Novels

Age Range: ages 12–16