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Sunday, March 2, 2014

All Fall Down, written by Jean Little. Scholastic, 2014. $16.99 ages 8 and up

"Less than half of Frank is buried. It seems like more but it is just the southeastern edge, really. Mary Ruth is dead. Her whole family was killed in those two minutes. Jeremiah's parents and his younger brothers died. Polly was at a friend's house and she is still alive, but she was in a coma at first and, although she is conscious now, she does not speak yet."

In the more than thirty volumes of the very popular 'Dear Canada' series concerning real historical events, young readers have been invited into the lives of children who have experienced these events first hand. The diary format gives a very personal picture of the families and their foibles, their struggles and their triumphs.

In her fifth book for this series, Jean Little sets her story in the small town of Frank, where Abby's family finds a new home. Why? Ms. Little grabs the reader's attention with her first diary entry:

"Friday, June 13, 1902
     This morning my father was killed.
      Even though I have written this down in black and
white, I cannot believe it.
       Father was such a strong man. He was a master
stonemason and proud of his iron-hard muscles.
Whenever he challenged John and his friends to an
arm wrestle, they didn't stand a chance.
        But when the scaffolding he was standing on
collapsed and sent him plunging headfirst to the ground,
his strength could not save him. They say he died

Now, that's only the dramatic and heartbreaking start to this story that takes Abby and her family from the familiar to the unknown. Nothing is left from her father's estate to provide for the family, so they move west to help her uncle run his new hotel. While it helps to alleviate some of the difficulties that the family is facing, it sets the scene for even more discord within the family itself.

There are new adventures...friendship, school, new learning. There are also many bumps in the road. Abby's brother Davy was born with Down's Syndrome and he is ostracized because of it. Her new best friend comes from a nearby First Nation community; together, they face the racism that is rampant among certain community  members. The family turmoil is almost insurmountable. Abby is able to use her diary to help her keep a record of the day's events, and to allow her an outlet for the many overwhelming emotions she is experiencing.

Many of her diary entries allow a glimpse at  life lived in a small and growing western community in the early twentieth century. That is the beauty of this book. Jean Little, as she has done time and again in the past, does an incredible job of research. She explains in her author's note that Abby's character exists because of diaries written by her aunt, her grandmother's sister. Those entries gave encouragement for wanting to tell Abby's story. Her visit to the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre gave a true sense of the setting for her work. The disaster that was the Frank slide is carefully constructed by Abby to help the reader feel its effects and see its power.

It is a compelling and beautifully written book. It allows all readers to go back to that place and time in history to note that while much has since changed, some things never seem to do that. The thorough supplemental material includes captioned archival photographs, an informative historical note, a Morse Code message (and a key to decipher it), and a map. There are sure to be those children who want to know more; that is the most rewarding incentive that arises from exceptional historical fiction. Thank you, Ms. Little!

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