________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 9 . . . . January 6, 2006


The Red Sash.

Jean E. Pendziwol. Illustrated by Nicolas Debon.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2005.
32 pp., cloth, $16.95.
ISBN 0-88899-589-X.

Subject Headings:
Métis-Juvenile fiction.
Fur traders-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 3-6 / Ages 8-11.

Review by Marilynne V. Black.

*** ½ /4


We push our canoe into the river and paddle out onto the great sea. It is not far. I pretend I am a voyageur and paddle hard to a little bay on the largest island. We lift our canoe out of the water and gently place it on the rocky beach. I go to set my snares on the furthest side of the island.

The scent of warm earth and pine fills the air as I explore the woods and climb the great cliffs. From here, I can see across the big bay. A brigade of canoes from Montreal is nearing the foot of Nanabijou. I wait and watch. The canoes are coming closer - the voyageurs are paddling hard.

Behind me, the sky has grown dark. Black clouds boil with eerie green beneath them. I can feel the storm long before it touches the waters of the lake.


This gentle story of a young Métis boy who wants to follow in his father's footsteps and become a voyageur is set on western shore of Lake Superior in the early 1800s. Told in the first person and present tense which purveys a sense of immediacy, this title gives insight into life at a fur fort.

internal art

     On an outing to a nearby island, the boy, his sister, and a friend are caught by a sudden storm. As they watch the storm approach, they see a flotilla of voyageurs' canoes paddling furiously to reach shelter. One of the canut du nord, severely damaged when trying to land on the island's rugged shore, has a North West Company agent aboard. After the storm has passed, the boy offers to transport the agent to Fort William. Once ashore, the children's father also arrives home with a cargo of furs "that have traveled from deep in the wilds of the Indian territories...:That night at the rendevous celebration, the boy is awarded a red sash of his own..."

     The depiction of period and native clothing and artifacts give the story authenticity and set the story within the context of the times. A sense of place is fostered by the inclusion of place names and a good representation of the landscape. In addition, an endnote giving a brief overview of the history of Fort William and the fur trade is useful. The integration of French and Métis vocabulary within the story and the glossary of these terms add important information. The endpapers, a map of the area with an inset locating Fort William, Montreal, and modern cities as well as the Great Lakes, also extend learning.

     Nicolas Debon's illustrations are crisp, clear and brightly coloured gouache paintings rendered in broad strokes. They range from double spreads that detail an aerial view of the fort to vignettes of fort activities such as hewing timbers for the palisade and the work of a blacksmith. Interior views of a kitchen and wigwam, as well as close-ups of a typical outdoor well and fur-laden canoes, capture everyday life in a fur fort. The ferocity of the storm, accented by slashing rain and white-crested waves, is a stark contrast to a previous picture depicting the children paddling a canoe over a placid lake.

     The only weakness of the story, and it is slight, is why the boy had to take the agent to the fort rather than one of the other canoes. Would a person of such importance not be given priority by the voyageurs? Nonetheless, this tale is a good coming-of-age story detailing a historical time and setting that has few, if any, similar tales. In fact, the telling of Canadian history in picture book format is sadly lacking. A recent (2002) study by Dr. Ronald Jobe found, for instance, that only eight of 104 realistic picture books over a three-year period (1998-2002) contained historical themes. In addition, a thesis (2005) by this reviewer found that, of the 124 historically themed picture books published from 1970 to 2002, a mere 34 dealt with general historical events such as exploration and the fur trade as well as specific events such as World War I or II. This story, therefore, fills an important gap for an age group that is just beginning to be introduced to our past. It is thus well suited for both, public and elementary school libraries and will enhance studies of Canadian history, especially that of the fur trade.


Highly Recommended.

Marilynne V. Black is a former B.C. elementary librarian who completed her Master of Arts in Children's Literature at the University of British Columbia in the spring of 2005.


Black, M. V. (2005). Canadian Historical Picture Books as Purveyors of Canadian History and National Identity. M. A. Thesis, U.B.C.

Jobe, R. (2002). Establishing cultural identity through picturebooks. In Styles, M. & Bearne, E. Art, narrative and childhood. (pp. 79-85). Stoke-on-Trent, UK: Trentham.


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

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