CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 34. . . .May 12, 2017
The caution to not judge a book by its cover is certainly true of Grace and the Secret Vault. A middle schooler might look at the book’s cover and conclude that the “Secret Vault” portion of the title suggests the book will be a mystery, likely one set in the past as the black and white cover photo of a girl looks “old”. Such a conclusion would be only half right. The book is set in the past and spans a period in Canada from June 1918 through August 1919. The central characters are the Woodsworth family: father James, mother Lucy, and their children, Grace 13, Belva, 12, Charles, 10, Ralph 7, Bruce 5 and baby Howard, with the story being told from Grace’s perspective. The book’s opening finds the family living in Gibson’s Landing, BC, some 20 miles by water from the city of Vancouver. For the last year, Father had been the minister at the Landing’s Methodist Church, and the family had been occupying the church-supplied manse. However, Father, a pacifist, had resigned his church position because he had refused to carry out the expected politically correct act of using his pulpit as a recruiting tool for the war effort. Because Father is no longer employed by the church, the family must vacate the manse, and Grace, like any teen today, worries that such a move will mean losing her friends, especially Anna and Kathy. There is good news for Grace when the local doctor, whom the children call “Dr. Fred”, offers to let the Woodward family live in the upstairs portion of Stonehurst, his 20 room house where he and his wife are raising their own six children. For family income, Grace’s mother, a certified teacher, will begin teaching school in the fall while Father will go to Vancouver to find work on the docks as a stevedore. For most of the story, Father is absent because his increasing involvement in the emerging labour movement takes him on lecture tours in Western Canada, activities which culminate in his participation in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike and, in turn, his being arrested for seditious libel.
What the book’s young readers may not realize is that the Woodsworth family is not a creation of author Latta’s imaginative mind. Today, adult Canadians would [hopefully] recognize “Father” as J. S. Woodsworth, a pioneer in the Canadian social democratic movement and the first leader of the Co operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party that later became the New Democratic Party (NDP). In an “Afterword”, Latta explains:
Latta is certainly well-qualified to write about the Woodsworth family and, in particular, Grace, as Latta earlier co-authored Grace MacInnis: A Woman to Remember. End materials to Grace and the Secret Vault include a four-page “Bibliography” of primary and secondary sources.
History recalls J. S. Woodsworth, the labour “hero”, but, in Grace and the Secret Vault, Latta addresses the impacts an absent husband and father had on the family left behind. Because theirs were not the days of instant messaging and Skyping, the family’s worries about Father and his safety were intensified as they waited for what we now call snail mail. In the same way that today’s teens are often “embarrassed” by their parents, as the excerpt above shows, Grace wished that she had a “normal” father.
Unobtrusively, Latta firmly roots her story in the historical period by providing small bits of historical detail. For example, on Grace’s visit to Vancouver, she is quite impressed by the height of the three story Woodward’s Department Store, and she observes that Vancouver’s streets are being shared by horse-drawn vehicles and a few motor cars. On that same trip, Grace got to use a phone.
It is not uncommon for readers, when they have finished a book, to wonder what happened to the main character following that last page. Because Grace was a real person, Latta can provide an answer, and she does so via a four page “Epilogue”, set in 1966, in which she updates readers on what occurred in Grace’s life following the events in the book, happenings which included Grace’s marriage to a Member of Parliament, her election first to the BC Legislature in the early 1940s as a member of the C.C.F. Party and, following her husband’s death, to the House of Commons in 1966 as an NDP Member of Parliament.
As noted earlier, Latta acknowledged that the part in the book about a “secret vault” was true. Following Father’s arrest in Winnipeg, Mother observed that the North West Mounted Police sometimes searched the home of the accused for evidence. And what evidence might be found in the Woodsworth home? Explains Mother, “We have books about socialism by Marx and Engels and works by people in the British Fabian Society.” And so Grace, with the assistance of her friend Kathy, strips the bookshelves of any potentially damaging “evidence”, packs up the books, and secretly buries them in the forest in a spot she labels with the code name, the Secret Vault.
Grace and the Secret Vault is the perfect read for middle school girls who enjoy an engaging family story while also being exposed to some Canadian history.
Dave Jenkinson, CM’s editor, lives in Winnipeg, MB, where he wonders how the city is going to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike two years from now.
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