________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 21 . . . . June 23, 2006


Terror at Turtle Mountain.

Penny Draper.
Regina, SK: Coteau Books, 2006.
160 pp., pbk., $8.95.
ISBN 1-55050-343-X.

Subject Heading:
Frank (Alta.)-History-Landslide, 1903-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Lois Brymer.

**** /4


Standing up to her knees in frigid water in the middle of a small, ever-rising lake with a wet, crying baby in her arms, Nathalie gripped tightly to the bit of wood. This wish had to be important. It had to be for everyone. It had to be for all the people waiting to be found. It had to help those who had lost their families or friends. It had to help the train.

Nathalie wondered if one wish could do all that. She wondered if she was strong enough to make the wish. Well, even if she wasn't, Nathalie reasoned, there was no one else to make it. She was the only one with a piece of the bridge, so she had to try.

Nathalie Vaughan considered herself to be a disappointment. A recurring and nagging dream convinced the 13-year-old that she was. Curled next to her mother in their big bed in Frank, a coal-mining town at the base of Turtle Mountain in the North-West Territories, later to be Alberta, Nathalie was transported each night back to 1893 when she was three years of age, cowering behind her mother's long skirt as her grandfather shouted at her mother, “If you leave my house with that man, you can never come back….Imagine your life in a dirty coal town, married to a man who scrabbles for a living in the dark and the dust. Think about having that…that child…hanging on to your skirts for the rest of your life. Think about all the disappointment you have caused!” When Nathalie awoke, there was always that pressure behind her eyes that made her unshed tears sting, and there was always that feeling of being “that child,” and “the disappointment” her mother had caused.

     Sometimes Nathalie even thought she was a disappointment to her mother, now a widow who rarely smiled and who worked long hours as a housekeeper at the Imperial Hotel. Nathalie inadvertently was responsible for her father's death; he caught her measles when she was four. With brown eyes and dark hair, she was a constant reminder to her mother of her father. How she wished she could have had her mother's blonde hair and blue eyes. Nathalie also wished for “smarts in her fingers.” Her mother had hoped that she could help with the mending which would have brought in a little extra money. But no matter how hard she tried, Nathalie could not sew.

     Nathalie admitted that she was certainly a disappointment to herself. She came last in games that required any physical skill. And she did not have the courage to stand up to Toby Wilkinson who not only teased her but bullied her into tutoring him for a history test and doing his before school job of shovelling coal into the stove to get a fire going for the day. This was in addition to her own duty of hauling a pail of milk to school and heating it for morning cocoa.

     But Nathalie Vaughan had other things going for her. She had a warm and loving relationship with her mother. She was smart and was a gifted storyteller. The “Primaries” in her school loved her tales, especially the one about the Rocky Mountain Ogre. She was well-liked and had many friends (they called her Nattie). Nathalie was also good at making wishes. It had become a ritual for her and her friends to stand on the wooden bridge over Gold Creek, throw a pebble into the “cheerful water,” close their eyes, turn around once, and make a wish. For Nathalie, the bridge was a place where her sadness was swept away and where she believed her wishes could come true.

     At 4:10 a.m. on April 29, 1903, when one hundred million tons of limestone rock come crashing down Turtle Mountain onto the town of Frank and the railway track on which the Spokane Flyer would be travelling with her American cousin, Helena, and Aunt Sadie on board, Nathalie is forced to confront her fears, self-doubt, and the devastation of Canada's worst slide disaster. With an overwhelming desire to help, to be needed, and to prove herself, she discovers a courage she never thought she had. Putting her own safety at risk, Nathalie joins the search for survivors and her missing friends and neighbours. In doing so, she finds herself in the frigid waters of Gold Creek with a crying Baby Marion in her arms as she clutches a piece of her beloved washed-out bridge and makes the most important wish of her life.

     Terror at Turtle Mountain epitomizes the Canadian survival story. Suspenseful, fast-paced, and moving, Penny Draper's historical novel about loss, finding self, and reconciliation easily transposes modern-day readers to 1903, to life in the booming coal mining town of Frank and the 90-second slide disaster that killed 76 people and partially buried the community of 600. Through the fears, hopes, wishes, resolve, pluck, and heroics of a believable adolescent protagonist, Draper humanizes and brings to life a snippet of Canadian history. Nathalie Vaughan's well-developed and likeable character invites empathy and allows readers to share her ups and downs, her crush on Lester Johnson, and especially her joy at finding out that 23 people are rescued from the rubble, 17 miners escape from the mine, and the Spokane Flyer, which is headed for destruction, is stopped in time.

     In this character-driven plot, written in the third person narrative, Draper excels at creating a page-turning suspended tension and an underlying premonition of disaster which sets the novel's tone. Aries Cheung's cover painting of the Spokane Flyer heading full speed at sunset into the unknown depths of Crowsnest Pass and the word “Terror” of the book's title which is highlighted in a large white font, also suggest imminent danger.

     Draper further engages the reader through effective dialogue and descriptions that are vivid and poignant. Following is one example of how the author conveys Nathalie's thoughts in the aftermath of the disaster:


Picks and shovels were lifted. Day was breaking, but a day so weak that it did not seem able to push away the night before. It was almost better working in the dark thought Nathalie. Seeing was worse than imagining, she found, for it left less room for hope.

     There is definitely a place in the classroom, school library, and home for Terror at Turtle Mountain. Enhancing the reality of her story, Draper, in her Author's Note, includes resources (about the people of Frank, rock slides, the Blackfoot storytellers, the Canadian Pacific Railway, and coal mining), web sites, and black and white photographs from the Glenbow Archives that “help us to understand and remember the Frank Slide.” She also includes a bibliography of her research.

     While a Table of Contents would have been helpful, Terror at Turtle Mountain is a well-written and great read-aloud book that connects young readers ages 9-12, to, as publisher Coteau Books for Kids suggests, an amazing story involving an amazing kid.

Highly Recommended.

Lois Brymer is a former publicist and recent graduate of the University of British Columbia's Master of Arts in Children's Literature Program.

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

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.