CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 2. . . .September 11, 2015
A Time for Giving: Ten Tales of Christmas includes stories in diary form by nine well-known Canadian authors who write for young people. The writers are Sarah Ellis, Jean Little, Susan Aihochi, Karleen Bradford, Carol Matas, Ruby Slipperjack, Janet McNaughton, Barbara Haworth-Attard and Norah McClintock. As "Dear Canada" series editor Sandra Bogart Johnston says in her introduction, the 10 stories take us "from remote homesteads and internment camps, from towns destroyed to a city bursting with pride."
Nine of the stories are sequels to novels in the "Dear Canada" series; for instance, Jean Little's story, "The Real Blessing" is from All Fall Down: The Landslide Diary of Abby Roberts. The story set earliest in time (in 1847) is "A Proper Christmas" by Norah McClintock; the one set most recently (1965) is "Winter With Grandmother" by Ruby Slipperjack. The others take place during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but are not arranged chronologically.
In each story, the diarist has a problem that interferes with her enjoyment of the festive season. In several cases, it is the loss of brothers; in others, it is heartache for lost loved ones in another land. Usually the central character comes to terms with what is missing from her life by helping someone else.
Some of the stories stand alone well. Others refer to the novels from which they originated. Sometimes, characters from the novel that inspired the story appear with insufficient background, leaving the reader struggling to place them and figure out how they are relevant to the story.
In a collection of stories which are all in diary form, in the first person, it is good when the author gives the narrator/diarist a strong distinctive voice to distinguish her from the other first person narrators. One of my favorites is Carol Matas' character, Rose Rabinowitz, in "The Light and the Dark", who has a unique voice. The story works independently of Pieces of the Past: The Holocaust Diary of Rose Rabinowitz, the novel that preceded it. Rose, a teenage Holocaust survivor and orphan, is adjusting to Canadian life with a kindly Jewish family in Winnipeg. The family encourages their daughter, Susan, and Rose to audition for parts in their school Christmas pageant. Rose is chosen to play Mary, the mother of Jesus.
When hiding from the Nazis in Poland during World War II, Rose pretended to be a Christian. She attended Mass with a woman who gave her refuge. Now she wonders if taking the role of Mary is against Judaism. As the story develops, readers see that Rose grieves for her parents, has vivid memories of her life in hiding, and is suffering from survivor guilt. Brief flashbacks and dreams reveal something of what Rose survived. Rose speaks of her feelings, but her angst is also revealed in scenes like the one quoted at the beginning of this review. In the end, Rose’s discussions with older Jewish orphans at the YMHA help her clarify her theological questions and formulate an approach to life. "The horror will never leave me," she writes, "but I am the luckiest person in the world..."
I admired Karleen Bradford's "A Candle for Christmas" for the author’s effective use of period detail and the distinctive narrative voice of another Rosie - Rosie Dunn, a teenaged Irish servant in a prosperous Ottawa home in 1868. Two clouds hover over her: She worries about the carelessness of the nursery maid toward her employers' toddler, Jonathan. She is also saddened by the sight of a Mrs. Whelan whom she often sees when she is downtown. Mrs. Whelan takes food parcels to her husband who is in jail for the assassination of cabinet minister Thomas D'Arcy McGee. Mr. Whelan, who claims that he is innocent, is to be hanged in February. At the end, a promotion, a proposal and the warmth of Christmas lift Rosie's spirits and lead her to do Mrs. Whelan a kindness.
"Winter with Grandma", Ruby Slipperjack's prequel to her novel, These Are My Words: The Residential School Diary of Violet Pesheens, is unique in that Christmas is incidental to the story. In a sophisticated work of social realism, which shows rather than tells, readers meet 12-year-old Violet who is spending the winter off the reserve in a Northern Ontario railway village with her grandmother. The two of them cut wood, go ice fishing, buy clothes at church rummage sales for the fabric, and befriend a neighbour with a tiny baby. At Violet's village school, the Christmas tree that the teacher introduces is a novelty as "no one celebrates Christmas here." When some older children come home from a residential school, the one which Violet will be attending the following year, they explain some of the rules which sound unappealing to her. Violet is also troubled by the many unwanted dogs around town, particularly one that threatens her. When the foreman's daughter's gentle dog is killed, it is replaced by an expensive purebred pup, leading Violet to muse about inequalities of income and to conclude that "life is a complicated thing."
Another outstanding story is "Snowflakes for Christmas" by Barbara Haworth-Attard. The diarist/narrator has an irritable tone, and justifiably so. Set in Saskatoon in 1937, during the Great Depression, the story shows the inevitable tensions between members of an extended family when a poorer nuclear family takes in formerly rich relatives who have lost their livelihood. Noreen, the central character, who is enduring impaired mobility after a bout of polio, particularly resents sharing her room with her snobbish cousin Jean. The author paints a wonderfully realistic picture of aggressive, formerly privileged relatives being bossy toward the family who gave them refuge. The story also features a wonderful grandfather who writes letters to the newspaper, signed, "Old Fogey", about governmental failure to cope adequately with the economic crisis.
All of the stories in A Time for Giving are well-worth reading. Young readers who have read the "Dear Canada" novels which inspired these stories will be pleased to encounter their heroines again.
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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.