Review: Yipee’s Gold Mountain

Raquel Rivera
Red Deer Press, 2017

Yipee (a corruption of Yip Yee) and Na-Tio meet under unlikely circumstances. She (dressed as a boy) is searching for ranch work, and he is running from shame after disobeying his father. They decide to travel together, and with their combined resources they find work and come of age in the American West at a pivotal moment in history.

Yipee’s Gold Mountain is historical fiction intended for struggling readers, but its layered issues will also reward strong, contemplative readers. The story unfolds through alternating chapters, Yipee’s told in first person, Na-Tio’s told in third person. But there’s a lot going on narratively besides the plot. The story raises complex questions about what it means to be an American, how people give and receive care over our lives, and how gender and perceptions shape our experiences and the way others value us. The novel is likely to generate substantial conversation and could work well in a small classroom or teen book group (the author offers her own perspectives on some of these questions in the back matter).

I kept thinking about the story, the characters, and the questions the novel raised long after I closed Yipee’s Gold Mountain; for me, that’s the mark of a thoughtful book. As Canadians try to recognize and unpack settler culture and to understand Indigenous concerns, books like this can help readers appreciate nuances of history that may otherwise be lost.

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2018.

 

 

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Review: Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster

Jonathan Auxier
Puffin, 2018

Nan Sparrow is tough: the strongest, nimblest, and luckiest of London’s climbers. She is also nursing private grief. She has lost the Sweep, the kind-hearted man who raised her from infancy, and she is locked in a bitter contest with a boy for the coveted apprenticeship with master chimney sweep Wilkie Crudd. When Nan appears to die in a chimney fire, she finds Charlie, who turns out to be a golem. She also meets Miss Bloom, a teacher at a girls’ school who befriends Nan and supports her new independence. But what will it cost Nan to leave the dangers of the street?

Sweep is a historical fantasy set in Victorian England. The novel is organized in part around William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and portrays the hard life of a chimney sweep, labour that for decades was performed by children tiny enough to fit inside chimneys. The presence of Charlie lends an element of magical realism and underscores the importance of friendship, loyalty, and nurturing in a nasty, brutish world.

Beyond its sprinkling of literary references (after Blake, Miss Bloom presses Nan to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and later Nan and Charlie read The Water-Babies together), the novel tackles big topics: poverty, religion, justice, and death. (The author’s Historical Note points readers to resources for further reading.) Through Nan’s eyes readers see how quickly one’s circumstances can turn upside down and how one may respond to both kindness and cruelty. Well-paced scenes and deft narration hold the telling back from becoming didactic, though. Ultimately, the novel stakes a claim for compassion, its key motif being “We are saved by saving others,” a potent sentiment in our culture that so often puts the self first.

Sweep is a long novel with robust vocabulary for its age group, but the compelling story is sure to be gobbled up by strong readers. The novel would also make an excellent selection for teachers to read aloud in class. It is tenderly written, punctuated by moments of comedy and terror, and its bittersweet ending will stay with readers for a long time. Impressive.

 

 

This review was originally published in Resource Links, October 2018.

 

 

Review: The Journey of Little Charlie

Christopher Paul Curtis
Scholastic Canada, 2018

Twelve-year-old Charlie has a hard life growing up in South Carolina in the mid-nineteenth century, but it’s bearable because Pa is beside him tending the fields, teaching him to shoot, and showing him how to live in an oversize body. When Pa dies under mysterious circumstances, Cap’n Buck, the neighbouring overseer, comes to claim a debt he says Pa had failed to honour. Charlie and Ma are destitute; Cap’n Buck says he’ll take Charlie’s labour in lieu of the money. And so Charlie begins a journey of unimaginable violence, cruelty, and desperation to retrieve a pair of runaway slaves.

I just loved The Journey of Little Charlie. It took me a few pages to adjust to Charlie’s dialect, but I liked his character immediately, and his story was gripping. The voice and plotting combine to let readers’ understanding of events emerge with Charlie’s. With elements of adventure, mystery, personal peril, and family saga, the novel is hard to put down and will appeal to a wide range of readers — and will stand up to repeated reading.

Some readers may need to discuss troubling plot points with an adult. Much of the violence in the story happens offstage, but some elements — for instance, cat-hauling and Ma’s disappearance – occur in Charlie’s narration and provide disturbing examples of Cap’n Buck’s despicableness. Christopher Paul Curtis (author of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, among other novels) depicts pre-Civil War rural life realistically but pulls back appropriately for his audience — and offers a hopeful ending for Charlie in Canada (and ties Charlie to the world of Curtis’ Buxton series).

The book would make an excellent pick for a novel study: it’s eminently readable and sure to provoke discussion. It’s a must for school and classroom libraries. One of my favourite books so far this year, The Journey of Little Charlie is a winner.

This review was originally published in Resource Links, June 2018.