CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 32. . . .April 20, 2018
Halifax, NS: Nimbus, May, 2018.
159 pp., trade pbk., $12.95.
Grades 3-7 / Ages 8-12.
Review by Ruth Latta.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Dougal elbowed a path through the hubbub of angry settlers and screaming children to the hatchway leading down to the accommodations. He couldn't understand why everyone was so mad, until he climbed down the ladder.
The dark, vile-smelling, cavernous space was filled with crudely made wooden bunks. They were stacked three or four high and already cram-packed with settlers. There were no portholes and the only light came from smelly fish-oil lamps hung from the bulkheads. The only air came from the hatch they'd just climbed through.
Mam's face froze in horror as she took in the scene. "Heaven preserve us," she exclaimed. "I can't think of words dreadful enough to describe all this...One bunk for five people! But they're barely two foot wide and there's not enough room to sit up in them. You expect us to live like this for weeks on end? We paid good money for our tickets..."
...Dougal had never seen his mother this wild. It wasn't like her at all...
"If only your Da was here," said Mam.
Piper is the story of a Scottish family's voyage to Nova Scotia in the eighteenth century. The central character, 12-year-old Dougal, is the son of a tenant farm couple struggling to subsist. Dougal contributes by hunting rabbits to provide meat for the table. When the landlord increases the rent, Da, the father, decides that the family must go to North America to a new settlement where the land is free. The family, including Da, Mam, Dougal and his younger sisters, Flora, Maggie and the baby, Wee Mary, prepare to leave their homeland forever.
In New Scotland, says Da, "there'll be no English making up the rules, and stopping me wearing the colours of my clan." Mention is made of the harsh reprisals by the English following the battle of Culloden in 1746, including the ban on wearing clan tartans and playing the bagpipes.
Since readers are told that both Dougal's grandfathers died at Culloden, an opportunity is open for Da to recount the dramatic, romantic rebellions of 1715 and 1745 in which James Stuart, then his son, Bonnie Prince Charlie, tried to reclaim Scotland for the Stuart dynasty. Many Scottish girls were named "Flora" after Flora Macdonald who helped Prince Charlie escape to France. The author, however, chose not to flash back to the colourful past within the story but instead provides information about the Jacobite rebellions in an afterword. The year when the story begins, 1773, appears in the cover blurb. More background information within the narrative would have shown why piping and Da's tartan are so important. The author deserves praise, however, for including a glossary and for showing in her afterword that Dougal's family was not alone in its plight.
When Da is killed in a freak accident, Dougal persuades his mother to make their father's dream come true and continue with plans to leave for the new world. A full-size replica of the Hector, the "tall ship" that brought the first major wave of Scottish settlers to Nova Scotia, may be seen in Halifax today. The original Hector filled the settlers with dismay, because it was only slightly larger than a crofter's house, overcrowded, and rotting.
Prior to embarking, Dougal meets 19-year-old "Johnny Piper", a skilled bagpiper, who can't afford the passage to the new world. Resourcefully, he slips aboard the Hector passing for a member of the crew. He agrees to teach Dougal the pipes and begins by giving him a "practice chanter", a long reed pipe, which one must master first. This information is just one example of interesting authentic detail in the novel. Young readers will be amused to learn that, when on deck, you should know which direction the wind is blowing from before you spit or do anything else over the side.
Aboard ship, Johnny's piping, accompanied by Dougal's drumming, creates a party atmosphere which is sadly short-lived. Later, when illness strikes, Johnny plays at funerals. The foetid, germ-ridden atmosphere in the hold is so unpleasant and unhealthy that Dougal's family end up sleeping on deck under the long boat. Mam, a herbalist, tells her children repeatedly, "Stay out of the hold," but spares no effort in trying to help suffering passengers.
The voyage is beset by one trial after another. While the troubles are predictable, they keep the story moving. At one point, Dougal becomes caregiver for his sisters, including the four-month- old nursing baby. His piping lessons with Johnny are suspended because of family need and when Johnny falls ill.
Although the ending hints of future hardship in the new land, the family's fortitude in surviving the voyage (as well as poverty in Scotland) suggests that they will be able to make a new life. Dougal's sense that his father is with him in spirit ends the novel on an upbeat note. Perhaps a sequel will take the family's story further.
Ruth Latta is the author of three young adult novels. Her most recent novel, Grace in Love, (Ottawa, Baico, 2018, email@example.com) is for grown-ups.
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