Yay! Canadian kids’ historical fiction that doesn’t involved a) wilderness survival, b) immigrating and finding a home, c) time travel, and especially d) a boring cover. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with any of the aforementioned–except boring covers–but I have had my fill of them lately.
This is a story about Mackenzie Davis, who is twelve, and visiting his aunt and uncle in Lethbridge, in 1912. His mom has come to stay and help out until her aunt has her baby. His uncle a coal miner and has been sick, and is waiting to be cleared by the mining company doctor to go back into the mines. The whole family’s hoping that it’s not black lung from years of breathing in coal dust, which would keep him out of the mines for good. (Annnd I’m not going to link to any pictures associated with black lung; you can google it yourself, or just trust me that it’s pretty gross.)
Even Mackenzie picks up on the family tensions right below the surface. Then, soon after he arrives, his older cousin disappears, and has most likely run away from home. His middle cousin Ruth resents having to do all the house work, and there’s something strange going on with his youngest cousin Francis, too. Francis keeps disappearing and comes home exhausted and dirty, but with everything else happening, Mackenzie is the only one who notices, and Francis isn’t telling him anything. The only one who can tell him more is the old fisherman who says he’s going back to the sea–which is quite the claim, from the middle of the prairies.
Although this is book three of a series, you can pick it up without having read the first two. There’s a lot of historical details about things like coal mining and the High Level Bridge (which turned one hundred last year!), but because Mackenzie’s new to the area, it makes sense in context that people would be telling him about all these things. It helps too that it’s the interesting sort of historical details like how afterdamp can kill a miner rather than what feels like a history lecture.
A nice touch of historical context comes from the 1912 newspaper excerpts from the Lethbridge Herald in between chapters, inserted straight from microfilms of the original newspaper to preserve the font and layout. I think kids will find it neat to see something that comes from almost a hundred years ago–I know I would have and still do! There’s a good sense of time and place, but first and foremost, this is really an adventure story–there are mysteries and cave-ins and rescue missions–that zips along at a quick enough pace to keep the book focused on the story rather than the background history. Give this one to grade four or five kids who want an adventure story, and might not read something historical otherwise.