by Julie Lawson
Published by Orca Books
210 pages, 2000
With a Silent Companion
by Florida Ann Town
Published by Red Deer Press
176 pages, 2000
Bloody Moments: Highlights from the Astonishing History of Medicine
by Gael Jennings
illustrated by Roland Harvey
Published by Annick Press
80 pages, 2000
History in a Smaller Package
Reviewed by Monica Stark
There can be few undertakings more noble than the writing of historical fiction for children and young adults. It is, when you think about it, a huge responsibility. Not only is the author required to entertain and inform, their handling of the topic at hand may play a large role in the forming human's appreciation and understanding of their world as they grow. Give a child history that bores and bogs and you've potentially extinguished a potential passion for piecing together the mysteries of the past. Three recent releases take a different approach to fanning that growing passion, but manage to succeed quite well.
Julie Lawson has written a half score of books for young readers. The 20th, Destination Gold!, is a rich romp to and through the gold fields of the Klondike in the late 1800s: if such a challenging journey can be called a romp at all.
For days they'd been climbing through ankle-deep rivers of mud, past sinkholes that sucked in packs and horses and dogs alike. They'd struggled over paths strewn with jagged rocks and boulders and fallen trees, then fought their way along precipices where one careless step meant a five-hundred-foot drop to certain death.
Interestingly interspersed with archival photographs depicting the era and area featured in Destination Gold!, the novel features three main characters: 16-year-old Ned Turner, a would-be miner who sets off for the Klondike sure that he'll soon return with riches enough to ease the life of his widowed mother and his sister, 12-year-old Sarah. Sarah herself plays a major role with a dignified grace that readers her age will admire. The siblings' lives mesh interestingly with that of another 16-year-old. Catherine hasn't hit the Klondike to find gold, but to build herself a cloak of invisibility in order to hide from the very frightening gambler who won her in a card game.
Much has been written about the Klondike, but very little of the fiction that's come out of the gold rush has been aimed at this age group, and little of that has been very successful at recreating the era with any feeling of authenticity. Lawson scores well in this regard, bringing us a highly readable and entertaining story that brings the Klondike back to life in all of its terrible beauty.
With a Silent Companion tackles a different era and ultimately -- and perhaps inadvertently -- brings a strong message of girl power. The novel is the fictionalized account of the life of Margaret Anne Bulkley, a women who spent most of her life masquerading as Dr. James Barry -- a man -- in order to practice medicine. Bulkley/Barry did more than merely practice: over the five decades following her graduation from Edinburgh University, she became a military surgeon and traveled the world practicing her craft in the service of the British military. She would also become one of the earliest surgeons to insist on sterilization and cleanliness for her patients: both the height of outrageous ideas at the time of her medical work.
While some of author Florida Ann Town's prose is dryer than it needs to be, you get a very real sense that Town worked diligently researching this book and was going to take care that nothing too floral detracted from the reality of the experience. With a Silent Companion suffers slightly from this dedication, but it's a fascinating book, nonetheless.
As her job grew more and more demanding, the loss of her mother's comforting presence was more sharply felt.
Now there was no one. It was hard not to have a close friend and always to be so careful of what she said. Some things she could discuss with her fellow surgeons, but there were other things that could never be mentioned. What she needed was a silent companion, someone she could talk to but who could be relied upon never to repeat a word.
The epilogue requires special attention as it's here that Town outlines the international steps she took to unravel the Bulkley/Barry mystery that the doctor herself had managed to take to her grave with her when she died in 1865.
Bloody Moments: Highlights from the Astonishing History of Medicine illustrates and simplifies the history of medicine for its young readers. In Bloody Moments we meet Mabel, a curious child with a geriatric dog who is delivered a mysterious computer CD that magically whisks her from historical medical place to historical medical place.
Whoosh... she's pulled, and sucked, and it's dark and it's cold and it's scary, it's a wet field in the middle of the night! There's a heavy mist and all around Mabel can hear men screaming in agony and the muffled sound of cannons and gunshots.
It's 1536 and poor Mabel is in the middle of the Siege of Turin. Here Mabel -- with a little help from her reader -- gets to decide if she wants to go to page 10 to learn more about the use of leeches and bloodletting in early medicine or skip to page 12 to learn about Ambrose Paré who, through his challenges at Turin, was ultimately termed the father of modern surgery. On this page, Mabel -- and you -- get to decide if you want to learn more about Paré on the following pages, skip ahead to page 16 to read about pain or go page 22 to learn about "body works and bad ends." And so on.
As neurotic as all of this sounds (do you remember whatever happened to the "choose your own adventure" novels that were so popular in the 1980s?) author Gael Jennings pulls it off with a lot of medical knowledge (she's a doctor, which certainly helps) and some very spirited illustrations by Roland Harvey whose style is somewhat reminiscent of the work of Ralph Steadman and Ronald Searle. These aren't pretty pictures -- in fact, some of them are sort of gross -- but then, we're talking about real medicine and how we got here from there. Harvey's playful and aberrant style makes actually looking somewhat palatable. | September 2000
Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.