Friday, September 30, 2016

I Am Not A Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer

I Am Not A Number is a picture book that presents in a way most suitable for young children, the reality of the residential school situation that existed in Canada for a century and a half. The picture book tells the story of author Jenny Kay Dupuis's grandmother Irene Couchie Dupuis who was sent to a residential school for one year.

Irene Couchie was an Anishinaabe girl growing up on the shores of beautiful Lake Nipissing in the early 1920's. She lived with her mother, her father who was chief of their community and her siblings. Their life was simple with plenty of healthy food but none of the basics such as running water or electricity. Aboriginal culture placed a strong emphasis on family.  In 1928 when Irene was a mere eight years old, an Indian Agent came to their home and told Irene's parents they had to give up their children so they could attend the residential school. Irene and her two brothers were placed in the Spanish Indian Residential School for the year, against the wishes of her parents. It was a lonely year for Irene who was separated from her brothers and forbidden to speak her mother tongue.

The residential school system was in existence for some time before the 1800's but by the 1830's most Christian denominations in Canada were running some schools. It was the treaties and agreements from 1870's onward which shaped the residential schools in Canada. The government of Canada was obliged to assimilate aboriginal peoples into "Canadian" culture and it was decided that the residential school system was the best way to accomplish this. At first many First Nations people also agreed that learning how to live in the new European-Canadian culture would be beneficial but the schools did not live up to their expectations. Families were separated, children grew up disconnected from their parents, their culture and their communities. Language and customs were forgotten.

Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer capture all of this and more in this short, simple story based on the life of Dupuis' grandmother. The story is accompanied by Gillian Newland's beautifully expressive watercolour illustrations. The illustrations are done in browns, beige and black mimicking the sad subject matter of the book. The picture book's title is a reference to the common practice in residential schools of assigning aboriginal children a number rather than using their given name.

For those who would like to learn more about the Residential schools check out the Canadian Encyclopedia entry.

To explore the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada please visit this website as well as the archived TRC website.

Book Details:

I Am Not A Number by Jenny Jay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
Toronto: Second Story Press     2016

Friday, September 23, 2016

A Spy's Devotion by Melanie Dickerson

A Spy's Devotion is the first novel in Melanie Dickerson's Regency Spies of London series. A Spy's Devotion is set in 1811 in London, England. It is the first party of the Season and Miss Julia Grey and her wealthy cousin, Miss Phoebe Wilhern are in attendance along with Mr. Nicholas Langdon who has recently recovered from wounds he suffered while fighting in the Peninsula against Napoleon. Phoebe is infatuated with Nicholas and determined to flirt with him and make him fall in love with her. Julia plays the pianoforte and sings, entertaining those at the party.

Meanwhile, Nicholas, who notices Julia's attractiveness, is reminded by the coarse Hugh Edgerton that Julia has no dowry and therefore is not a suitable marriage prospect. Edgerton tells Nicholas that Julia is flirting with Mr. Daniel Dinklage because he has an income of fifteen thousand pounds a year. He suggests that instead Nicholas should be considering Phoebe Wilhern. Edgerton asks Nicholas what he will be doing in the week he has remaining before returning to the war and Nicholas indicates that he must do a favour for a man named Richard Beechum who died in battle. He will be returning a diary to someone he doesn't know. At the same dance, Julia overhears her Uncle Wilhern talking to Edgerton and stating that they must retrieve the diary from Nicholas Langdon.

The next day while waiting for his valet to locate Garrison Greenfield, the man he must return the diary to, Nicholas is visited by Edgerton who behaves strangely. When the valet returns from the War Office without any information about Greenfield Nicholas decides to copy the diary which appears to be written in some kind of code and visit the War Office himself. When he sets out, Nicholas is beaten and robbed of the diary. Devastated at losing the diary Nicholas continues to the War Office where he informs Philip McDowell of what has happened. He learns from Colonel Thomas Stockton of the Foreign Office that Garrison Greenfield was a British spy. Stockton asks Nicholas to investigate Hugh Edgerton and Robert Wilhern and to hand over the copy of the diary to his men.

Meanwhile, Sarah Peck who was Phoebe and Julia's governess is being sent away to a new position. Sarah encourages Julia to secure the affections of Mr. Daniel Dinklage and marry him rather than end up as a governess. She later writes to Julia about her new position and states that the only person who treats her nicely is the son of her employer. This news causes great worry to Julia who fears Sarah may be in danger and she warns her to act prudently.

Parties and balls continue as the Season progresses. Phoebe continues her desperate attempts to win the affections of Nicholas while Julia unwillingly encourages Dinklage in his pursuit. She has promised Phoebe that she will do everything she can to convince Nicholas to focus on her. Nicholas is careful to dance with each young woman only once so as not to show favour to any particular girl but he continues to find himself drawn to Julia. He introduces Julia to his sister Leorah and the two young women quickly become friends. Julia struggles to ignore her attraction to Nicholas as her cousin Phoebe is so determined to win Nicholas. In fact she attempts to direct Nicholas's attention away from herself and to encourage his interest in Phoebe.

At a dinner party at the Wilhern's, Nicholas attempts to search Robert Wilhern's study to locate the missing diary. He is unsuccessful but is saved from discovery by Julia. Julia could have informed her uncle about him, but remained quiet and Nicholas begins to wonder if she might be of help to him.The next morning Julia's uncle informs her that Hugo Edgerton has approached him with a request to marry her. Julia is horrified however, especially after Edgerton accosted her at the ball at the Wilhern's weeks earlier. She tells her uncle that she must refuse his request. In a desperate attempt to save herself, Julia who is a gifted pianist,  visits her old teacher, Monsieur and Madame Bartholdy to ask whether they could take her to the continent to tour and perform, but Monsieur Bartholdy tells her they are now too old for such a venture. At the same time Dinklage's mother refuses to accept her son's interest in Julia and sends him away to Derbyshire.

During her visits to the Bartholdy's Julia discovers that Nicholas Langdon travels in this poor part of town to visit the Children's Aid Mission where he spends time with the children and helps his old friend Mr. Wilson who runs the mission. Nicholas asks Julia to keep his visits a secret. At the next ball, when Julia is accosted by Edgerton, Nicholas rescues her by asking her to dance a second time with him. This sends the Wilherns and especially Phoebe into the depths of despair as a second dance sends the message that Nicholas favours Julia. However Nicholas realizes that as he's investigating Julia's uncle for possible treason she is not a suitable marriage prospect at this time. Also he needs to marry someone with a sizeable income because as the second son he receives little income from his father. Despite this he finds himself increasingly drawn to Julia.

When Julia leaves the ball, Nicholas recognizes the Wilhern's footman as the man who attacked him and stole the diary. At home, Julia's uncle questions her about her relationship with Nicholas and makes certain that she understands that it is Phoebe who will be marrying Nicholas. Julia is forced to tell Phoebe that she is not interested in Nicholas although in her heart she knows this is not true. More and more she is pressured to accept Edgerton's marriage proposal causing Julia great distress. This distress is noticed by Nicholas who one day encourages her to tell him her troubles.This Julia does and Nicholas wonders why it is that her uncle is so keen to have her marry Hugh Edgerton. Nicholas decides to confide in Julia, telling her that her uncle's serious debts place him at risk of losing Wilhern Manor in Warwickshire. He also tells Julia that her uncle is believed to be involved in a plot to assassinate General Wellington and asks for Julia's help. Will Julia be able to discover the truth about her uncle and Edgerton's involvement in the nefarious plot to kill Wellington and at the same time save herself from being forced to marry a man she does not love?


Melanie Dickerson has written another enjoyable romance that involves a touch of adventure for a likeable heroine. Julia Grey is an orphan who has been taken in by her wealthy Uncle Wilhern. Her position is precarious because without a dowry Julia is unlikely to attract a good marriage prospect. Julia is accepting of this and believes that once Phoebe marries she will live with her and her husband. However, this soon seems unlikely because her uncle is determined to force her to marry the unlikeable Hugh Edgerton. Julia does not realize that her uncle, Robert Wilhern is hiding a huge secret - he's financially strapped and is looking to recover his ancestor's estates confiscated during the French Revolution. To accomplish this he has plotted to kill General Wellington who is leading the British in the war against Napoleon. He hopes to help the French towards victory and thus reclaim his property./

Dickerson uses the social conventions common in the early 1800's to create suspense and tension in her novel. For example, a young woman without family or connections had virtually no options other than marriage or becoming a governess. Without a significant income, a woman like Julia could expect few marriage proposals and would often be forced to accept marriage to a man regardless of his character or whether she loved him. Julia's precarious situation as an orphan living in the house of her cruel uncle sets her in exactly that scenario. Her Uncle Wilhern tells her that she has an offer of marriage from Hugh Edgerton, the man who is a drinker and has debts. Julia soon discovers that her uncle will be paying Edgerton money to marry her and that he is determined that she marry Edgerton as quickly as possible. Not only is this a problem for Julia but also for the British government's case against Edgerton and Wilhern whom they believe are involved in an assassination plot against General Wellington. Once married to Edgerton, Julia will be unable to testify in court because British law at this time did not allow for a woman to testify against her husband.

The author also highlights the double standards that existed in 19th century England regarding the behaviour of men and women. When Julia's friend, Sarah Peck is seduced by her employer's son and then abandoned, Julia notes how the upper class considers the matter trivial because of Sarah's class. The fact that Sarah is a lowly governess rather than a gentleman's daughter determines how people react. "Of course, if it had been a gentleman's daughter rather than a governess, it would have been treated in a much more serious manner. There would have been talk of him being made to marry the girl. The papers would have mentioned it discreetly, only giving the first letter of their names. But a gentlemen would be expected to marry a governess, and the papers wouldn't even deem it worthy of mentioning."

The point is further made when Phoebe's mother receives a letter from Mrs. Brumley about what has happened to Sarah. The Smitherman's whose son William seduced and impregnated Sarah are more concerned with the loss of a governess than what their son has done. The governess, Sarah Peck is assigned all the blame and the worry that Phoebe and Julia might possibly be tainted by virtue of having contact with Sarah.While Sarah is considered "ruined" Julia notes that the man she was involved with shares no similar fate. "The gentleman goes on his way as if nothing ever happened. He is full able to make a suitable match. But the governess's reputation is forever ruined."
Indeed, we later learn that William is sent back to Eton to continue his studies as if nothing untoward has ever happened.

Sarah's predicament only serves to emphasize to Julia just how serious things might become for herself. Worried that she may now be abandoned she acts in a way that she later considers wrong. As Phoebe pursues the man Julia secretly loves and it becomes evident that she will not be able to remain with her cousin, Julia goes against her conscience and her better judgement and flirts with Mr. Dinklage. However once she is refused by his mother, Julia comes to realize the motives behind her actions. "It was because she was afraid. She wanted security, respectability, and safety from poverty."

But unlike Sarah, Julia discovers that following all the rules for a woman as set out by 19th century society do not necessarily offer protection for someone of her class. Julia realizes that "She had tried to be so prudent, to conform to society's every rule for young ladies." and that even so she is still at the mercy of the inequality that exists in society for women and for those of her class. Forced to flee from her uncle and then harassed as a governess by Mr. Atherton, Julia decides to take matters into her own hands and writes a letter to Nicholas telling him how she truly feels, breaking social norms by actually going to his room and leaving the letter there.

Julia easily recognizes that God has been looking out for Sarah - through Julia's actions a place is found for Sarah to move to, she finds work and she ends up marrying Mr. Wilson. "Sweet Sarah Peck. God was taking care of her, giving her something useful to do. What a blessing." When she prepares to leave her position as governess at the Atherton's she tells little Timothy that she will continue to pray for them so "that you will be kind and good adults who care about other people, just the way God cares for you." However, Julia doesn't so readily recognize God's actions in her own life. It isn't until the very end that she comes to understand God has been in charge all along.

At times A Spy's Devotion feels like a cross between Jane Austen and a Harlequin romance. However Dickerson's characters are interesting and while her story line is not original, readers will nevertheless be hooked to read to the predictable happy ending. This is a good solid effort that highlights some past social inequalities that thankfully no longer exist.

Book Details:

A Spy's Devotion by Melanie Dickerson
Grand Haven, MI: Waterfall Press    2016
314 pp.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sing by Vivi Greene

Singer Lily Ross gets dumped by her boyfriend, Jed Munroe in a restaurant. Lily met Jed at a party at her manager's Brooklyn loft only a year ago. She had moved to New York from L.A. after her break-up with Caleb. Before Caleb there was Sebastian. Jed is also a musician and their lives seemed to fit together perfectly. Instead Jed tells her the pressure's getting to him and he takes off, leaving Lily a wreck.

Sammy, Lily's best friend since preschool and Tess a friend Lily made at camp when she was twelve are there to help Lily pick up the pieces. Now besides being her friends, they are Lily's paid assistants. Tess suggests they leave the city and spend the summer at her family's cottage on Penobscot Bay.

At first Lily declines. But when she goes into a coffee shop with her bodyguard, Ray and is mobbed with questions about Jed, Lily decides to take up Tess's offer.At the cottage Lily receives a frantic call from her manager, Terry who's concerned about all the negative publicity from her break-up with Jed. Her fall tour, Forever, which is based on songs about her relationship with Jed is ready to go as is her first song off her new album.

The first few days are wonderful until Lily reads about the breakup in the newspapers and discovers that Jed has talked to reporters. On a trip into town, Lily gets into a fender bender with a local - a handsome man driving a pickup truck. She meets the same guy again the following Saturday when Tess takes Lily and Sammy to meet with a bunch of guys she used to hang out with, to go fishing. That guy is Noel Bradley who takes the group out on his fishing boat where they spend the morning hauling in lobster traps. On the boat Noel and Lily become interested in one another. Meanwhile Lily decides not to respond to the texts from Jed.  A night swim leads her to fall asleep on the beach only to be awoken in the morning by Noel walking his dog, Murphy. They talk and Noel tells Lily that he attended college but returned to town where he lives with his father and his younger sister.

After Noel suggests they "hang out" sometime, Lily arranges a secret meeting at night because she doesn't want Tess or Sammy to realize that she's become involved with yet another guy. Noel takes her for a hike and they swim in a nearby pond. Around a campfire, Lily confesses to not being able to write new songs and Noel tells Lily about his mother whom he says is a painter and who abandoned them. On another secret night out, while hauling lobster traps out of the water, Noel tells Lily he was studying art at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design but that he came home. After this night out Lily writes her first new song about beginning a new day and being hopeful rather than about broken relationships and lost love.

Lily soon has several new songs composed: her first one is titled Anchors. After the July 4th holiday Lily's relationship with Noel begins to intensify. Terry contacts Lily and is relieved to learn that she has composed a number of new songs. Lily suggests they record at Tess's house and Terry reluctantly agrees. Terry wants to know who the "anchor" is but Lily not wanting to reveal that the song is about Noel simply tells him it is about the island. However with all of Lily's crew on the island working on the recordings, Noel feels unsettled and unsure of his place in her life. Can Lily and Noel make it work or will their vastly different lives be too much to overcome? Will Lily be forced to choose between her love for Noel and her love of making music?


Sing is a novel whose plot draws comparison to country singer- turned pop star, Taylor Swift, whose songs are frequently about previous relationships and breakups. Sing's cover even suggests Taylor Swift  with its look-a-like complete with blonde hair and pouty red lips. In this version, the famous pop star is fictional Lily Ross whose career has been made by writing songs about her breakups. She's been with a number of men over the years and her latest love, Jed Munroe also a famous singer, has just dumped her. Hoping to find a bit of peace, Lily decamps to her friend Tess's cottage on an island where she quickly falls in love with the best looking guy in town, Noel Bradley. Noel is a rugged artist with a soft heart, who has returned to his family's home to care for his younger sister and his father after their mother was placed in rehab for doing drugs. Greene brings in the love triangle when Jed visits the town to try to win back Lily setting up a conflict that Lily must deal with. Which life does she choose and will Lily Ross ever find happiness and true love?

Lily Ross is a mostly likeable character but she's predictably self-centered and even somewhat shallow. Her friends take her to task when it's discovered she's been having a secret relationship with Noel Bradley and lying to them. Tess in particular feels betrayed because she considers herself Lily's friend, "the only people who don't kiss your ass and tell you what you want to hear all the time." Tess tells Lily that she's not ready for another relationship.

The reappearance of Jed Munroe in her life leaves Lily intensely conflicted. She struggles with the discovery that part of her still loves Jed. "I love the way he knows what he wants and doesn't apologize for being who he is. I love our life together, how seamless and complementary it can be." With regard to Noel, Lily feels that she is making the same mistake once again. But Maya who runs a yoga class on the island tells Lily that she's waiting for her life to be easier. When Lily tells Jed she won't be getting back together with him, he tells her she'll never be happy. But Lily knows she has at least broken the cycle of her music being all about breakups. She also knows that music must remain a part of her life. "No matter how much I try to make things work with Noel, no matter how much I love being here on this island, could I ever truly be happy without making my music, seeing my fans, singing my songs on tour? I can't just pretend that's not a part of me anymore."

At first the solution seems to be to have Noel accompany her on tour, because Lily doesn't want to feel the pain of loss when she leaves Noel behind on the island. But when Lily reveals Noel's identity during an interview and the paparazzi arrive,and then the truth about his mother is made public, Lily begins to realize just how different their lives are. Lily's mother reminds her of the value of sharing her music with others and that this is something special. Lily and Noel repair their relationship and Lily tells him that her time on the island has not been a waste - that she has discovered that her music allows her to connect with others. "My songs are the way I've always made sense of the world, the mistakes I've made, the people I've met and what they've taught me. I'm not done with any of that. I don't know that I ever will be." Lily comes to realize that life isn't full of "perfect, happy endings" but that people do go on, just as she will without Jed and without Noel.
Perhaps unwittingly Greene has written a novel that portrays the reality of the current dating culture for many women in the 21st century: meet a man, live with him and then break-up with no sign of commitment or marriage, a year or two or more of life wasted and a broken heart.  Although the characters in this story are supposedly famous contemporary musicians, the relationships in their lives and the modern problems they face are very much similar to those of everyday people. Their relationships, although subject to the pressures of fame, parallel the patterns seen within society in general today. Many women go through similar experiences of dating for a few weeks/months, then living together without moving towards any sort of commitment. That this can be harmful to women whose hearts and bodies are made for something much different is effectively demonstrated in Sing. When Jed dumps Lily, she looks at the keys to her apartment which Jed just handed back to her she states, "...and when I think about how many times I've done this, handed over my heart, the keys to my home, to my world, I feel dizzy. Over and over again --it's not enough. I'm not enough. "  Lily believes the reason her relationships crash is because she's the problem but by the end of the novel her friendship with Noel has helped her rediscover who she is and that she can be happy in life.

For fans of contemporary romance and singers like Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez, Sing will resonate with them and be an enjoyable, fun read.

Book Details:

Sing by Vivi Greene
New York: HarperTeen   2016
279 pp.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice

Sixteen-year-old Ruth Ann (Roo) McCabe is on her way to pick up her younger sister Mathilda Mae (Tilly) at the river museum. It's four o'clock on a February Saturday afternoon. The Connecticut River is almost frozen over and Roo wants to get a few pictures of the beautiful scene for her portfolio for a scholarship contest. She desperately wants to attend Yale University, where her father studied years earlier. Roo and Tilly's father died last summer from a massive heart attack.Tilly is waiting impatiently and continues to text Roo as does Roo's boyfriend Newton and her best friend, Isabel.

After taking a few photographs, Roo gets in her Volvo and while driving towards the bridge leading into the town of Black Hall, she picks up her phone and sends a text: "mins away." In the three seconds she's looked down at her phone she finds her car has drifted off the road and into the path of a woman walking her dog. Attempting to avoid hitting both, Roo swerves, causing her car to somersault down the bank and lands on its roof in the frozen creek. Hanging upside down in the car, bleeding, Roo passes out.

Tilly is eventually picked up at the museum by Newton who informs her that Roo's been in a car accident. When Tilly sees Roo in the ER she is conscious but nauseous as well as complaining about her head hurting and her neck feeling stiff.  Suddenly Roo has a seizure and suffers what doctors diagnose as a "brain stem stroke affecting the basilar artery system." Roo's doctors tell her family that she is comatose. Roo's eyes are open and protruding, her face covered in bruises and dry spittle and her mouth pulled back, frozen in a silent scream. Doctors say she is "incapable of emotion" and she's on a ventilator to help her breathe. A newspaper story states that Roo who is not named, is "expected to remain in a vegetative state" and that the accident is being investigated to see whether drugs or alcohol were a factor. This upsets Tilly but Isabel tells Roo's mother that she was taking pictures and that they were texting about this. This leads Tilly to wonder if Roo actually pulled over before texting her that afternoon. Could she have been responsible for Roo's accident.

Unknown to Roo's family however, Roo can hear and understand everything but she is unable to respond. "I commanded my limbs to move, but they didn't. How bizarre. I was trapped, mummified." Roo finds she can't speak and she cannot move her limbs. "Then I realized, No, there are no straps. It's me -- I can't move. I can't speak. I can't get anyone to hear me. I must have looked like a lifeless lump, but inside my mind I was wild, alive, in agony, going crazy." Even worse for Roo is "not having my family realize that I was awake and completely conscious, hearing everything. How could they not know?"

Neither her family nor the doctors are aware that Roo is conscious. Dr. Sarah Danforth, a specialist in pediatric neurovascular disease isn't and neither are her nurses. Eventually Roo begins breathing on her own and is taken off the ventilator. Tilly expects that this will mean a big change in her sister but when she arrives at the hospital she finds Roo still unresponsive. Dr. Danforth tells Tilly that Roo still doesn't feel emotion. Tilly struggles with guilt because she believes she is responsible for Roo's accident and she asks her sister if she is guilty of causing her accident. But Newton tells Tilly the accident was partly Roo's fault leading Tilly to become extremely angry at him and getting herself placed on probation at the hospital.   Roo sees all of this but cannot respond.

Being trapped in her body leads Roo to reminisce her how she and Newton first became friends, began dating and planned to attend college together. She wonders what she looks like to him now.; She also remembers how her father died suddenly last summer on a perfect summer day when he came home and went to lie down before dinner and never woke up. As the days wear on, Roo has time to think about the accident and realizes that she was texting before the accident and that she has done this to herself.

Meanwhile at school, Tilly struggles to cope with her sister's situation. This is further complicated by Isabel who takes Tilly to the place where Roo had her accident and reveals that she has found Roo's missing cell phone. Isabel tells Tilly that she felt guilty because she had been texting Roo when she had her accident so she came out to look for Roo's phone. When she found it she took it home, charged it and discovered that it was not her text that caused the accident but Tilly's text. Roo's last text, "5 mins away" was sent to Tilly. Isabel insists that they need to tell someone and Tilly reluctantly agrees to tell her mother. The two girls meet Martha Muirhead who is the woman who was walking her dog Lucan the night of the accident. Martha tells Tilly that she is just like her sister who was concerned for the her dog. Martha asks Tilly to let Roo know Lucan is doing just fine.

Tilly takes Martha's advice and decides to tell Roo that the dog she hit is now doing fine. But she also wants to tell Roo that she was the cause of her accident. As Tilly is talking to Roo and closely watching her sister's face she makes an astonishing discovery. It is one that completely changes the doctors diagnosis and gives tremendous hope to Roo, her family and friends. Life will never be the same, but maybe Roo has a chance to reclaim some of what she lost in the accident with the help of those around her and the bond she shares with her sister Tilly. And at the same time, maybe Roo's tragedy can save others from the danger of texting while driving.


A major message that Luanne Rice conveys in her novel is that texting while driving can lead to unimaginable consequences forever affecting your life and the lives of those around you. In the province of Ontario, distracted driving now outnumbers impaired driving as the leading cause of accidents.Rice pulls no punches in demonstrating just how devastating a few seconds of inattention can be. Roo is an accomplished young woman with a brilliant future ahead of her. She is smart, attractive and accomplished. She has a boyfriend, Newton who adores her. She planned to gain early acceptance at Yale and was in the process of developing her photography portfolio for the Serena Kader Barrois Foundation Photography Contest. This award offers a thousand dollar scholarship which would help her get into Yale.; After her accident readers learn that Roo's photographs are especially captivating, making her injury seem all the more tragic. Dr. Howarth, a specialist in facilitated communication who will help Roo learn to communicate with the world around her, views Roo's photographs and tells her, "Your photos say so much about you Roo. You have a beautiful soul and a brilliant eye. You capture the perfect instant of beauty and action, and somehow you translate that exact moment, and the feeling that goes with it, to the viewer." Yet in mere seconds, Roo loses all this because of texting while driving. The message is not lost; distracted driving kills and ruins lives.

The second issue to be explored in this novel involves an unusual neurological disorder. Although initially it seems that she's just banged up from the accident, Roo has a stroke and passes out. It turns out that although her doctors believe Roo is in a coma and refer to her as being in a vegetative state ( a horrible term to use regarding any human being) she is actually conscious but completely paralyzed and unable to talk.

In Roo's case she cannot blink, but as her sister discovers, Roo is able to move her left eye up and down.
" 'Can you please just,' she began, and I must have been exasperated, because all I could do was look up at the ceiling, a heaven-help-me moment. My eyeball flicked up and down. Tilly stopped mid-sentence, mouth dropping open. And then...
I'm here!
'Oh God,' she said. 'Did you just look up? Did you just move your left eyeball? If you did, and you hear me, do it again.'
I did it again."

This condition of being fully conscious but unable to move or speak is called locked-in syndrome (LIS). In LIS, a person loses the ability to voluntarily move with the exception of vertical eye movement as in Roo's case or blinking. It is extremely rare and is caused by damage in the brain stem as a result of head trauma or a stroke. Generally it is family who makes the discovery that their loved one is aware and capable of understanding everything happening around them. Sometimes neuro-imaging tools such as functional MRI scans are capable of showing that a person may be conscious but locked-in. If a person is medically stable, LIS patients can live for ten to twenty years, although recovery from LIS is rare.

As Rice showcases in The Secret Language of Sisters, those with locked-in syndrome are able to communicate with the world in a few ways. Roo begins with simple yes answers and then onto using a letter board. Also portrayed in the novel is the use of brain-computer interface technology which at this point appears to be an unusual option for someone with LIS. Because she is capable of moving her eye up and down this means that Dr. Howarth can develop an operating system to her Roo communicate. He tells her "...instead of your eye movement telling me which letter you want, your brain waves will speak directly to the laptop, and the words will appear." After Roo has a computer chip implanted in her brain she is able to quickly learn how to communicate. It is this new ability to communicate that really helps Roo because she has many issues to deal with as a result of the accident.

First she must come to terms with the fact that she is partly responsible for the situation she now finds herself in. But she is also angry at her sister. "If I hadn't texted Tilly back, that wouldn't have happened; and if Tilly hadn't barraged me with a thousand impatient texts, I never would have reached for my phone."
She is also upset that what happened to her is in the media and her tragedy is being used in an awareness campaign by her mother and that Isabel has changed her portfolio submission to feature her situation. The pictures of how she now looks horrify Roo. Dr. Howarth puts things into perspective for Roo when he tells her, "As much as it hurts, Roo, this story will help others, keep them from texting behind the wheel. You have to know that. People's lives will be saved because of you." Roo also observes a growing attraction between her sister Tilly and her boyfriend Newton, making her angry, "crazed and jealous." Although Isabel and Newton both deny this possibility, Roo is certain of what she sees.

As Roo struggles to cope with significant changes in both her life and the lives of those around her, Dr. Howarth understands, telling her, "It's very hard to let go of things we love most, to accept that life changes." Roo remembers a line from her favourite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, "We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it." Roo has done this with the father she lost last near and now must do it with Newton.

One of the themes The Secret Language of Sisters focuses on is the special bond sisters have with one another. Roo and Tilly had a special bond before her accident. Roo was the big sister, popular, pretty and smart who always looked out for Tilly. After the accident their roles are reversed as it is now Tilly who must advocate for Roo. Tilly who is wracked with guilt over texting her sister, believes that bond no longer exists. Her guilt over the text is also compounded by her growing attraction to Newton, whom she becomes close to and eventually kisses. Distraught over what has happened between herself and Roo, Tilly goes to see Martha Muirhead. Martha feels they have a connection because they both have sisters and they both feel responsible for what happened to them. She tells Tilly that a person has to use their talents to heal and survive and that it is the same with Roo. For Martha and her sister Althea, their love of singing was their secret language. She tells Tilly their bond may be damaged but it is not broken.

When Martha goes to visit Roo she reveals how similar she and Althea were to her and Tilly. She tells Roo that their relationship can't be broken because they are sisters and they speak the same language - they care about each other. "You get to be a sister only because you have Tilly. Without each other, that goes away. You're still beautiful and talented, but you're not a sister. It's the alchemy of sisters, Roo."

Rice ends her novel in an upbeat way, with Roo focusing on the positive, on what she still has and not on what she has lost. She forgives her sister and Newton, understanding that the relationships between her, Tilly and Newton have changed. Like Martha and Althea situation, Tilly and Newton realize that maybe because they both love Roo, they were hurting and sought solace in each other. Tilly begins to recognize Slater's interest in her and his support of Tilly draws her away from Newton. Meanwhile Newton demonstrates to Roo that he still deeply loves her and he is not planning to abandon her. He tells her, "You are my north star. Will you try to keep going with me?" He recognizes the girl he loves is still there, "Inside, you're the same as ever, so beautiful and smart, making me keep up with you."  and he makes it possible for Roo to continue to use her talent for photography.

The Secret Language of Sisters is a beautiful novel about the connections sisters share, and about how those connections can endure through even the worst of times. It is also a timely warning about the dangers of texting and driving and how life can change in the span of seconds.

The following resources may be helpful:

CAA Distracted Driving Information

The locked-in syndrome: what is it like to be conscious but paralyzed and voiceless?

Book Details:

The Secret Language of Sisters by Luanne Rice
New York: Point, an imprint of Scholastic Canada 2016

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Gospel Truth by Caroline Pignat

Phoebe is a slave on Arnold Duncan's Whitehaven Plantation located in Virginia in 1858. When Phoebe was only six years old,  her mother was sold off to another owner and from that time she's never spoken. Now sixteen years old, Phoebe looks after Tessa Duncan, the daughter of the plantation owner, brushing her hair and laying out her clothes.

The story begins with Will, one of the slaves owned by Duncan, being brought back by the overseer Brutus after attempting to escape. Brutus is ordered to "peel and pickle" him, meaning that Will is to be whipped until there is no skin remaining and then salt water poured on the wounds causing extreme pain. Duncan believes that Will, who is a very large man, is a valuable slave and he's determined to "break" him and then breed him. Duncan also owns Will's younger brother Shadrach.

Over the past year Miss Tessa has been tutored by Mr. Cooke to learn to read. Unknown to anyone else, Phoebe has learned to read while fanning Miss Tessa and Cooke as they study. Since it is against the law for a slave to learn to read and write, Phoebe keeps this a secret. She hopes one day to check the master's red book to learn where her mother has been sent.

One day Shad announces to Beatrice who is the cook and to Phoebe that a doctor is coming to the plantation the following week to study Virginian birds. The arrival of Doctor Ross Bergman, an ornithologist from Canada peeks everyone's interest including Phoebe. Arnold Duncan whose great-great-grandfather came from Scotland, is the first Duncan in five generations to have no son to pass on the plantation. His land is almost spent and he needs fresh land to grow tobacco. To buy land, Arnold Duncan hopes to attract Bergman's money.  Duncan is also keenly aware that times are changing with the North turning on the South and the slaves against their masters. The days of a plantation run on the backs of black slaves may be nearing its end.

Phoebe finds Dr. Bergman most interested in her, but even more so when Miss Tessa informs him that Phoebe seems to "have a way with birds". Master Duncan orders Phoebe to accompany Dr. Bergman to the woods to show him where the cedar waxwings nest. Missus Duncan is not happy about this. The next morning Miss Tessa accompanies Dr. Bergman and Phoebe into the woods. Both Shad and Bea worry about Phoebe going into the woods with the white doctor.  Miss Tessa's constant talking means they find no birds. For Tessa the walk and the heat are tiresome and she's not interested in birds but in attracting Dr. Bergman as a potential husband.

At dinner that night, Master Duncan is angry about a suspected abolitionist who has been showing up at the plantations and helping slaves to escape up north. On another outing to find birds, Bergman draws bird nests and is introduced to a more detailed tour of life on the plantation by Miss Tessa, one that sees him witness a black slave being beaten. He keeps his feelings carefully hidden although he does tell Miss Tessa that her use of the Bible as a justification for keeping slaves is not correct.

Dr. Bergman simply bides his time hoping to get Phoebe alone. His chance comes the very next day when Miss Tessa is made to remain at the house for a lesson with Mr. Cooke. Phoebe takes "Dr. Birdman" as she calls him, out into the woods for more birding. Wary of his intentions, she waits until he takes a nap to go to her "hidey-hole" in the tree where she has hidden her journal. Bergman follows her there and watches Phoebe as she sits quietly with an little bird in her hands. When she returns Bergman tells Phoebe he needs her to help him and to keep a secret. He wants her to bring him a slave who has tried to escape to her hollow tree. Phoebe agrees to do this.

Shad, suspicious of Dr. Bergman's intentions, follows Phoebe and the doctor into the woods. Although nothing happens to Phoebe, Shad remains watchful. The next day Master Duncan releases Will from the shed because he needs his tobacco harvested quickly. Phoebe delivers Bergman's message to Will and they meet him at the hollow tree where the doctor tells Will to bring men he trusts to the tree the following night.  The next night Will brings Levi, Joe and Davey to meet Dr. Bergman. Unknown to them Phoebe is hiding within the tree and hears their plans.  Bergman tells the slaves that not all white men are like Master Duncan, that he is there to help them escape and that many hundreds of slaves have escaped to the north and to freedom. Only they can choose to take the risk and Bergman requests that if they choose not to, that they tell no one. He asks them to meet him at Carson's Corner in ten days. Can Will and his friends and Phoebe trust that the white man is telling the truth? Will they have the courage to grasp this chance at freedom? And will Shad discover the truth of slavery before it's too late?


The Gospel of Truth is told in free verse by six narrators: the slaves Phoebe, Shad and Will as well as Master Duncan and his daughter Tessa Duncan and the abolitionist, Dr. Bergman. The novel is set in 1858, only two years before the election of Abraham Lincoln and three years before the start of the American Civil War. In 1858 America, slavery was ubiquitous in the south where plantation owners used black slaves to work crops of hemp, tobacco and cotton. Slavery had been essentially abolished in the northern states by 1804, but with many plantations in the south switching over to growing cotton, the use of slave labour was firmly entrenched. There were millions of black slaves living in the southern United States by 1958. However, the movement to abolish slavery altogether began to grow rapidly after 1830. At this time free blacks and white abolitionists began actively helping slaves to escape to the northern states or into Canada. The route of safe houses and those willing to help became known as the Underground Railroad.  At this time the southern states were beginning to face an economic crisis as the land began to fail. Those living in the southern United States saw the northern state's abolitionist views as an attack on their way of life. When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, seven southern states left the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. This secession eventually led to the beginning of the Civil War and ultimately to the war becoming about the issue of slavery.

The use of verse to tell the story of courageous men and women who risked everything to escape slavery is an effective means of storytelling because it pares the narrative down to its essentials and focuses on the humanity of the slaves. Pignat does touch on many of the realities of institutionalized slavery: the brutal beatings, whippings and torture undertaken to "break" slaves, the selling of mothers away from their children and children from their mothers, the rape of slave girls by their masters and the use of slave women as concubines.  In The Gospel Truth, Phoebe, Will and the other slaves must overcome their conditioning by their white master to accept their fate and their fear of the white man to realize the truth written in their hearts that she belongs to no one and that "owning people is wrong."  The white plantation owners deliberately keep their black slaves ignorant, unable to read or write, meaning they were completely dependent upon their owners. Phoebe secretly learns to read in the hopes that she can learn what happened to her mother.

Pignat also demonstrates that the racist view of the slaves was part of white family life and passed from generation to generation of Americans. For  example, when Miss Tessa is out birding with Dr. Bergman  they witness the brutal beating of a girl whose fallen behind the line. Tessa tells Dr. Bergman,
"We buy, breed, feed, clothe, house, and train them,"
Miss Tess parrot.
"And if need be, we sell them.
But we take good care of our property."

"Your people," he say.

"Oh, Doctor," she roll her eyes,
and say what master always say,
"they're not people...

they're Negroes."

She attempts to explain that her belief is supported by the Bible to which Dr. Bergman suggests that "...some people misinterpret even God's truth."

Readers also see the effect of slavery on families and marriages. The use of slaves as concubines undermined many marriages. Master Duncan's rape of Ruthie, Phoebe's mother and the birth of Phoebe destroy the Duncan's marriage as Missus Duncan refuses her husband afterwards. This results in Arnold Duncan having no male heir for his plantation.

The theme of truth is woven throughout the novel. When Phoebe is taunted by Ella Mae Bea tells Phoebe that the reason Ella Mae hates her is because Phoebe's father is a white man, Master Duncan.  She tells Phoebe that "I've been protecting you for ten years no. But I see I can't protect you from everything...'Specially not the truth." Bea tells Phoebe it's time she knows the truth.

Later on Shadrach finds the bag containing the items Dr. Bergman gave Will for his escape as well as Phoebe's journal in the hollow tree. Shad tells Phoebe that he thinks Will is going to try to escape again but that he has prevented this by taking the bag and he has given her journal to Master Duncan so he can find out "who been leading my brother astray."  This terrifies Phoebe who tells herself that she cannot run from the truth, she can't hide the truth that she knows how to read and write. Shad is horrified when he learns the truth about the journal - that it belongs to Phoebe who knows how to read and write. As Shad struggles to uncover the truth of what is going on, he is forced to choose between Phoebe who wants to run to freedom and Master Duncan who promises to make him overseer. Phoebe finds her voice to tell Shad the truth of why she's running:
"I ain't Master's shame," she say,
eyes puddled up with tears.
"I ain't Tessa's toy,
or even your girl, Shad."
She shrug.
"I's Phoebe. Just Phoebe. I belong to no one."

She tells Shad,
"--owning people is wrong.
shameful wrong, Shad.
And that's the gospel truth."

In the end Phoebe states that
"It takes courage
                to see truths
                that we'd rather not."

There is plenty of symbolism to explore in this novel particularly around the yellow bird that Phoebe finds injured at the beginning of the novel. She takes the bird, which has a broken wing, home and places it in a cage. Phoebe believes that

"sometimes the safest place to be is 
in a cage."

This is a truth for Phoebe. However as time passes, the bird languishes, refusing to eat or sing. Phoebe returns to where she found the yellow bird and watches the same birds who are free, discovering that they eat worms and bugs. When she brings home a worm, the yellow bird responds and finally moves in the cage. Phoebe comes to understand that although the yellow bird's wing has mended its heart is broken. Miss Tessa wonders why the yellow bird won't sing and makes the connection that like Phoebe, it is mute. However she fails to understand why this might be. When Phoebe plans to run and take Will's bag containing the items he will need to escape to him at Carter's Corner, she remembers to free the yellow bird. She recognizes that although the bird is safe in the cage, it is not living the life it was meant to.
"Sure, I keep her alive,
but I's keeping her
from living like a yellow bird should."

Phoebe also understands how being caged has affected the yellow bird.
"Miss Tessa said the bird is tame.
Tame is just another word for broke.
Her wing is long healed.
But numbed by what life she knows behind these bars,
Yellowbird stopped hoping for one beyond them.
Truth is,
that cage is hurting her in ways I can't fix.
I keep her alive,
but she's living half-dead.

So Phoebe does what she has to - "I throw her at the dark and all its dangers."  She sets the yellow bird free and when free, the bird sings "like a yellow bird should."

The yellow bird represents Phoebe who as a slave, is living in a cage called Whitehaven, unable to leave and unable to live her life as she is meant to. Like the yellow bird, she and Will and the others must flee into the "dark and all its dangers" to escape their cage of slavery. And Phoebe herself, once she makes the choice to escape, finds her voice to tell Shad why it is that she must go. On the verge of freedom she speaks, just as the yellow bird once free, begins to sing again.

The Gospel Truth is a wonderfully crafted novel with a remarkable heroine as its focus. Winner of the 2015 Governor General Award, The Gospel Truth represents historical fiction at its best, capturing the era in a realistic manner with believable characters. Caroline Pignat is a Canadian author whose novel Greener Grass won the 2009 Governor General Award. Pignat is an English teacher in Ottawa.

Book Details:

The Gospel Truth by Caroline Pignat
Brighton, Massachusetts: Red Deer Press    2014
327 pp.