________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 16. . . .December 18, 2009


The Mystery of the Moonlight Murder: An Early Adventure of John Diefenbaker. (Leaders & Legacies, #1).

Roderick Benns.
Whitby, ON: Fireside Publishing House, 2009.
245 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-0-9812433-0-6.

Subject Headings:
Diefenbaker, John G., 1895-1979-Childhood and youth-Juvenile fiction.
Prairie Provinces-History-1905-1945-Juvenile fiction.
Prime ministers-Canada-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.

Review by Mary Thomas.

*** /4



Finally the three of them squatted underneath the kitchen window, which John knew had been open all morning. He held his hand to his lips as the sound of talking filtered through.

"... don't see why you wouldn't think it was a good idea to have her stay with us?" they heard William [John's father] ask.

"Take it easy", said Sergeant English in his deep voice. "Look, we wanted to let you know there are a lot of folks out there who are getting kind of uneasy with the Cree and with the Indians in general."

"Why?" asked [John's uncle].

"Ever since Hans was murdered and we arrested River's Voice," began Sergeant English, "Well, folks are angry that something like this could happen in a town the size of Borden."

"It didn't happen, that's the problem," said William.

The officers looked quizzical.

"The murder itself obviously happened," William continued, "but you've got the wrong man. River's Voice did not murder anyone."

I have a real problem with "historical" fiction about someone I knew, or at least overlapped with me. "That's not history!" I say indignantly, "I was alive then!" And so was John Diefenbaker. However, Mystery of the Moonlight Murder is set a good bit farther back, in the early twentieth century, when Dief the Chief was a young lad on the Saskatchewan prairies. He never did witness the shooting of a neighbour by the light of the moon, but there's no reason why he couldn't have done so, and Roderick Benns has given a nice account of what might have happened if Dief had--how he would have reacted, what he would have felt, given the traits of character he exhibited in his later life.

     More than one mention is made of Diefenbaker’s crinkly hair and piercing gaze, both features that I remember (though I might have said "pop-eyed" rather than "piercing"!). His loyalty to his friends and desire for justice for all, whether red, white, or black, German, Russian, Metis, or undifferentiated, comes through very strongly. The dramatic turn of a political meeting near the end of the book even gives young John his first chance to sway a crowd with the power of his oratory.

     Does all this add up to a super book? Unfortunately, not really. The historical details are as authentic as Benns could make them, and an endnote lists sources for various events and even justifications for making people act as they do. All this is very interesting for those who want to know something about the times. The characters, however, including John himself, somehow don't come across as real people. John's mother is defined by her work ethic, though there is a characteristic tightening of her lips at the mention of alcohol that does bring somehow bring her to life. John's father and uncle are school teachers, again with not much depth to them, but useful in that they are always very keen to explain the historical background of present events.

     Most of the actual plot revolves around John's attempts, with the help of his brother Elmer and their friend Summer Storm, to prove that Summer's father, River's Voice, had not killed the Diefenbakers’ neighbour. It is, therefore, the relationship between the three youngsters that is central to the novel, and it is not convincing. This would matter less if the plot, which is to say, the murder, added the suspense and drama to the action of the book. That it fails to do so is, in part, because of the device that lets the reader know that River's Voice, almost as soon as he has been arrested, was, in fact, not guilty. The man responsible for the shooting is not identified, but the reader has no doubts that he will be. In fact, in the conversation that we 'overhear' between him and the man he was working with/under, he comes across as so stupid that it is slightly surprising that he isn't uncovered sooner than he is!

     All in all, the book is excellent history, but not a very good mystery.


Mary Thomas works in an elementary school library in Winnipeg, MB, and now knows more about the Red River Rebellion and the alienation of the West than she did before.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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