________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 7 . . . . November 23, 2007


The Youngest Spy.

Barry McDivitt.
Saskatoon, SK: Thistledown Press, 2007.
161 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-1-897235-17-1.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Gregory Bryan.

**½ /4


The inspector reached out his hand, causing the boy to recoil. “What you are doing isn’t natural, George. You’ve been providing us with very useful information. You have done your country and your Queen a great service. For God’s sake, take the money!”

George stole a glance at the bills clenched in the Englishman’s hand, then firmly shook his head. Queen Victoria’s secret service operated around the world. It had countless agents, informers and traitors on the payroll. George Duguay was the only one who refused to accept a single penny for his work. Perhaps he was the only spy in the world who still worried about what his mother thought. 

Set in Toronto during the 1860s, The Youngest Spy provides an interesting perspective from which to view the American Civil War. The author, Barry McDivitt, has interestingly elected to focus less on the carnage of that bloody war than on the intrigue and subterfuge of spy networks trying to gain an upper hand for their cause. It makes for an atypical, unique story.

     William Duguay is a Canadian farmer fighting for the Union Army. So that he could buy a farm for his family, Duguay joined up, earning for himself the $200 bounty offered by the U.S. government for enlistment. Each chapter begins with a letter extract from Duguay, writing home to his wife. The letters prove a useful tool in providing glimpses into the war, with references made to such things as casualty lists, discontent at ineffective and incompetent officers, desertion from the ranks, and the slavery issue.

     The story, however, revolves primarily around the exploits of Duguay’s teenaged son, George, who uncovers a plot that could result in an American invasion of Canada. George’s loyalties become conflicted when he befriends a Confederate gentleman whilst simultaneously working with an American detective and a British agent.

     Early in the book, I found that McDivitt was struggling to settle upon a voice for his novel. The letter extracts appropriately provided an additional voice and were a worthwhile inclusion. McDivitt, however, seemed to be undecided as to whether he was primarily writing a fictional narrative or an historical, information text. For instance, on the very first page, after the letter excerpt, the book begins with,

The words were those of a common soldier, composed after a bloody fight in a foreign field. Homesick and dispirited, it comforted him to think that at least his family was safe in Canada. Soldiers were encouraged to write home to prove they were still alive.

     Another example appears at the start of chapter two, after the letter excerpt,

Canadians were fascinated by the bloody war that was tearing apart their American neighbour. They wagered money on their favourite army, just as they would bet on a horse race or wrestling match.

     While these details are of value, I found the style and tone of the writing disparate with the main narrative and, therefore, a distraction.

     The problem of voice is, however, not the main concern with The Youngest Spy. Throughout the novel, the copyediting is shoddy. There are instances of misplaced or missing periods and several occasions where the final word choice was inappropriate. One example appears on page 156, where it says, “His was pointing the gun straight at his friend.” Clearly it should say “he,” rather than “his.” On page 81, it reads, “Mary leaned closer land her voice dropped to a whisper.” Clearly “land” should be “and.” On page 146, an author or editor change of mind is evident. It reads, “As she stood in the doorway Lizzie caught saw a horse and rider.” Either Lizzie caught sight of a horse and rider, or Lizzie saw a horse and rider. One or the other.

     In other places, a word is missing: On page 124, the letter excerpt says, “It didn’t seem likely that they were going to [do] us any more harm.” On page 128, “A man could be sure of hitting the target even [if] he had to use his weak hand.”

     These are just a few of many examples. Such slipshod copyediting is unfortunate and does a great disservice to the author. McDivitt has created what is generally an engaging story told from a perspective that provides a unique twist to the multitude of young adult civil war novels. 

     Young adults with an interest in warfare and/or history will enjoy McDivitt’s story. There are enough distracting problems with the writing and editing, however, for me to have reservations about recommending The Youngest Spy.

Recommended with reservations.

Gregory Bryan teaches children’s literature in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.

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.