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Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Giant-Slayer, written by Iain Lawrence. Random House, 2009. $21.00 ages 10 and up

"If hearts could sing,
Fingal's surely did that
day. He was so happy
that he poured himself
a small nubbin of brandy
and drank a toast to the
Wishman. "Here's to you,
my friend, wherever you
may be," he said. And he
meant it so sincerely that it
brought a tear to his own eye."

I saved this book to read last when I was doing the jury work for the Canadian Children's Book Centre this winter. I did it for good reason. I have NEVER been disappointed by Iain Lawrence's stellar writing.  I wanted the final book to resonate with me, as we met for our last time as a group. What a splendid decision!

Stories often have the power to shape our lives, and we also tell stories that define them. Iain Lawrence sets his tale in the 1950s at the height of the polio epidemic.  He doesn't paint a pretty picture of the toll that this debilitating disease took on its victims, or their families. He writes a taut and fearful piece of historical fiction, and blends it with the fantasy world of Jimmy, his despicable father and the Wishman.

Laurie is an only child and motherless. She lives a solitary life with her distracted and very busy father:

"He was her hero: the second smartest man in the world. Only Santa Claus knew more than Laurie's father. He raised money for the March of Dimes, but she thought of him as some sort of soldier. He was always talking about fighting.

"We're waging a war against polio," he would say. Or, "We've won the battle, but the fight goes on.""

Laurie is seriously overprotected by her father and her nanny, Mrs. Strawberry. They keep her from anything that might harm her. This assures that she has no friends. Then, she meets Dickie, a new neighbor with a zest for life and adventure. Laurie tags along on his adventures, and adds worry at home. Her father remains adamant that she must always be vigilant:

"Polio scares me to death, Laurie. I see all the children with braces and crutches. You see them too: the ones who'll never run again, the ones who'll never walk, the children in wheelchairs. Well, I see the ones in rocking beds, on treatment boards, in iron lungs. So many of them, and another thirty thousand every year. Can you imagine how it haunts them that they got polio just because they went into a swimming pool, or something as frivolous as that?"

It is when Dickie contracts polio that Laurie learns much more about the disease that so terrifies her father.
Dickie is in an iron lung, and shares a room with Carolyn and Chip. Carolyn's stay has been long and arduous, and she holds out little hope for her future. Chip is full of hope and has future goals in mind. While visiting with Dickie, Laurie begins a story meant to entertain and keep his mind off what he life has become. It is this story that forms the other focus for this amazing book of friendship, fear and finding a way to make life better a little bit at a time. As the story grows, so does the audience. They come on treatment boards, and in wheelchairs. Laurie tells her story and her listeners begin to see themselves within it. The story moves forward and life changes for everyone in the polio ward. Things do not always follow a welcome path; but, we are uplifted by what happens there between friends, sick or not.

And so, my admiration for this man and his writing grows. I think he has another Governor General's Award on the horizon, and I fervently hope that I am right. This is a book worthy of many awards and much attention.  I hope you will find your way to buying it, and then sharing it!

I will leave the last words to Iain Lawrence:

"The story shifts back and forth between a grim reality and a fantasy that is perhaps a bit quirky. I found it hard sometimes to leave the world of Jimmy the Giant-Slayer and go back to iron lungs and paralyzed children. It was more fun to write about the imaginary place, where a woman without a name would put on lipstick before heading off to the swamp, where facts didn't matter much."

It all matters, Mr. Lawrence....much!  Bravo!

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