CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 5 . . . . October 6, 2017
What is it like to discover that you lived in another body over one hundred years ago? Christine Hart does an intriguing job of showing readers that through Katelyn, the co-protagonist of Secrets from Myself. The dramatic opening scene involving an escape from a steamer trunk floating in the ocean will capture readers' attention, and the prospect of more revelations about Katelyn's past life will keep young readers turning the pages.
Twelve-year-old Katelyn, living in Nelson, BC, in 2017, gradually learns more about her past life as an orphaned Hindu stowaway from the Komagata Maru, a steamship full of would-be immigrants from British India who were turned away by the Canadian immigration authorities in 1914. As the novel opens, Katelyn is in the Adolescent Psychiatric Inpatient Unit of the BC Children's Hospital, thinking about the writing in a strange hand that has appeared in her diary, and of her dreams in which she is someone named Akasha, a teenaged girl in distress.
Long aware that her daughter tunes out, Katelyn's mother took her to their family doctor who referred her to a child psychologist in Vancouver. Confused and upset, Katelyn ditched her mother at a Surrey gas station and took a city bus to the home of her childhood pal, Bryce, whose family had moved from Nelson to Vancouver. When Bryce's parents found her hiding in their basemen, they called the police, and soon Katelyn became an in-patient. This background information is summarized on pages 9-11.
Katelyn is glad to be sent to a group home in Vancouver for ongoing counselling so she can go out on day passes to research the mysterious Komagata Maru that Akasha mentions in Katelyn's diary. Her quest involves a ouija board, a psychic, hypnotherapy, library research, an art class, and a foray into a condemned Edwardian house destined for demolition. Her former babysitter, now, conveniently, a Vancouver social worker, takes Katelyn to various locations associated with Akasha.
Bryce, who visits her at the group home, reveals that his mother has photos and a registration document from the Komagata Maru. Bryce and Katelyn's friendship parallels the 1914 romance of Akasha, a Hindu, with Sanjay, a Sikh, though the former pair are not doomed like the latter. Paternal objections dog both couples. Sanjay's father, who refused to consider as a daughter-in-law an orphan of another faith, brought Sanjay to Canada on the Komagata Maru for an arranged marriage. Bryce's father disapproves of Katelyn as a bad influence.
The author's use of the Komagata Maru incident as backdrop is not entirely successful. It is historically inaccurate that a young woman could have stowed away on the ship; the 376 passengers were adult males except for two wives and some children. It is also farfetched to think that a teenaged girl could hide for three months, unbeknownst to her boyfriend's father, behind a flimsy partition in his cabin.
Actually, this Romeo and Juliet story with a "past lives" twist could have been told without using the Komagata Maru incident. Akasha isn't among the passengers cooped up aboard ship in Vancouver harbour; her dilemma is to survive in Vancouver without becoming a prostitute. The plot doesn't allow a depiction of the passengers' suffering in Vancouver harbour and later, back in India because none of the characters experiences it; Sanjay and his father are among the few allowed into Canada.
In her historical note, the author mentions the "exclusionary and unjust continuous journey regulation" which kept the Komagata Maru passengers out of Canada. This 1908 regulation required that immigrants must come from the country of their birth or citizenship by a continuous journey, using tickets purchased before leaving. Since a direct, continuous ocean voyage from India to Canada was impossible, this regulation kept out immigrants from British India.
In November 1913, when a Canadian court found the continuous journey rule inconsistent with the Immigration Act, Gurdit Singh Sirhali, a Sikh businessman in Hong Kong, decided to test the situation. Convinced that British subjects should have the right to immigrate freely from one country in the Empire to another, he organized a party of would-be immigrants and hired a Japanese ship to bring them to Canada. Mainly Sikhs, the group also included 24 Muslims and 12 Hindus.
Between November 1913 and April 1914, the Canadian government redrafted the "continuous journey" regulation, and it was in force again when the Komagata Maru landed. Immigration officials denied the passengers food and water until conditions became desperate, limited their communications, attempted to block them taking their case to court, and tried to take control of the ship with the aid of police, all with the intention of forcing the ship to return to India. When friends on shore took their case to the BC Court of Appeal, the court decided in favour of the Canadian government. The ship departed July 23, 1914, and by September 29, 1914, when it reached India, Britain was at war with Germany. British authorities used security concerns to imprison most of the passengers. Twenty were killed.
Canada's role in this tragedy was addressed in 2008 when Prime Minister Harper apologized to the Sikh community at a cultural event and again in 2016 when Prime Minister Trudeau formally apologized in the House of Commons. This blot on Canada's history deserves to be the main focus of an historical novel.
Ruth Latta's most recent historical novel is Grace and the Secret Vault (firstname.lastname@example.org).