CM . . .
. Volume VIII Number 7 . . . . November 30, 2001
Emily was certain she would get a bicycle for Christmas. In Victoria, BC, in 1896, they were all the rage for the young, and after all, her father worked in a bank, they had a house in James Bay, and a Chinese servant. The bicycle does not materialize, however, either at Christmas or at her birthday which falls soon after. This theme of financial difficulties resulting from the depression in 1893 parallels that of racial prejudice against the Chinese who came to help build the railway and then stayed on mostly as domestic help for the British.
Hing, Emily's family's cook, has worked for ten years since the imposition of the head tax on Chinese immigrants, but he still has not enough money to pay the fifty dollars required to bring each of his wife and three children from China. Emily, on the receiving end of much of Hing's kindness, thinks perhaps her father could be persuaded to pay the tax for Hing, but she never even asks. She realized when her father was prepared to dismiss Hing summarily because of a vase that she, in fact, had broken that he regarded Hing merely as a replaceable convenience, not as a member of the family as Emily does. Her father is, however, a fair man, and when Emily has fetched Hing from Chinatown and confessed that the vase was her fault, Hing is reinstated.
Julie Lawson has created a powerful atmosphere in this book. The overt, and covert, anti-Chinese sentiment, the uneasy financial situation, the gradually emerging freedom for children, especially girls, are all here without lengthy explanations or even direct statements. The storyline is slight, as might be anticipated from an attempt to be strictly factual, and the excitements are low-key. Parties, excursions, dares are not such as to keep the reader on the edge of her chair, and, not having a major conflict in the plot, there is no major resolution either. Emily is an appealing character who has the moral courage to admit her fault rather than have someone else suffer for it. One can be gently pleased that she could give "a little skip, realizing how lucky she was that her father was not off in some distant land [as Hing was for his children]. He was just around the corner, waiting for her to come home."
It is surprising that the illustrator is not named. The cover art is by Janet Wilson, and I assume, the black-and-white illustrations are as well. They certainly are a positive aspect of the book and should be acknowledged.
Emily lacks the excitement that would make it a child's first choice, but it is well written and illuminates a period of Canadian history of which most of us are completely ignorant. Also, it is written at a level that new readers, wanting to expand into chapter books, should be able to read by themselves.
Mary Thomas works in two elementary school libraries in Winnipeg, MB.
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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.