________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 14 . . . . March 17, 2006


Johnny Kellock Died Today.

Hadley Dyer.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2006.
152 pp., pbk., $12.99.
ISBN 0-00-639533-3.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12

Review by Caitlin J. Berry.

*** /4

Reviewed from Uncorrected Proof.


I like to get up early in the summertime. Agricola Street was quiet, as if noise was colour and had no place in the blue-grey morning light. Norman would be downstairs already, reading the newspaper, his finger following the lines. I’d sit across from him at the kitchen table and have two drawings finished before I was even all the way waked up. Those were my morning exercises. That what I call the callus on the side of my middle finger on my right hand. If my drawing muscle starts going down, I haven’t been exercising enough.

The Gravedigger started coming to our house every day for an hour or two. He cut the grass, weeded Mama’s flower garden, worked in the vegetable patch. Sometimes Martha got him to help with heavy chores around the house, like taking down the windows and washing them. Then his arms would be two colours where the soap splashed and cut through the dirt. One time Martha offered to add his clothes to the laundry, but he just shook his head.

The year is 1959 and Rosalie Norman, 12-years-of-age, is smack dab in the middle of a Halifax summer. She has an unusual family: an elderly, overly strict mother, and five grown up siblings who themselves are old enough to be her parents. Rosalie whiles away the hours doing what she loves most: drawing, but when she accidentally leaves her pencils on the staircase, her mother slips on one and breaks her leg.

     The summer takes a worse turn yet when Rosalie’s father hires the 13-year-old boy from across the street to help out with the yard work. His name is David Flynn, but he’s been nicknamed the Gravedigger by the kids at school because he works at a cemetery tending to gravesites. Although Rosalie has never actually spoken to him (he’s Catholic and has sporadically attended St. Stephen’s school; she’s Protestant and, therefore, has attended Mulgrave Park), she is suspicious of him, if even a little frightened. Rumour has it that he dug up his deceased mother and keeps her in his jelly cupboard.

     It is then that Rosalie finds out that her beloved 17-year-old cousin, Johnny, has gone missing. As Rosalie and David begin to forge a friendship, they set out to solve the mystery behind Johnny’s disappearance. What Rosalie finds turns out to be very disconcerting. Johnny has run away and feigned his own death so that he might escape his alcoholic, abusive father -- Rosalie's uncle Ezra. In the end, Rosalie discovers that, in order to truly understand life’s complexities – those both beautiful and terrible -- one must be willing to let old perspectives die away.

     Narrated in the first-person, Rosalie’s voice is bright, witty and in the end, infinitely wise. The story moves forward in a meandering, exploratory fashion that, in a sense, mimics the ethereal quality of a summer afternoon. This may, however, cause a younger reader to work harder than normal to understand who is who, and where each character fits in terms of plot. Further “on-stage” presence of Johnny and his family’s dynamic, perhaps, could have proven to create more tension and emotional impact regarding his disappearance. That said, with Johnny Kellock Died Today, Hadley Dyer brings us characters who are full of life. Through her clean, evocative imagery, Dyer renders a touching picture of Halifax in the 1950’s.


Caitlin Berry is a graduate of Vermont College’s Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She is also a regular reviewer for
The Horn Book Magazine and is finishing up her first novel. She currently lives in Victoria, BC.

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

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