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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wild Geese, written by Caroline Pignat. Red Deer Press, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2010. $12.95 ages 12 and up

"My feet pound the boards as I bolt
to the forbidden aft deck, up the steps,
past Lord and Lady Cunningham's
quarters, past the ship's wheel 'til I
hit the railing and can run no further.
My heart pounds in my chest.
I want to keep running, to jump over
this rail, to go back, back to the way
things were before the famine.
But I can't."

This is the equally compelling and beautifully written sequel to Greener Grass (Red Deer, 2009) which won the Governor General's Literary Award in the year it was published. This second novel follows Mick and Kit as they make their way to Canada...on a terrifying and heartbreaking ocean voyage. Her family has gone ahead and Kit is desperate to find them before there is no chance to do so. The voyage by sea is described in vivid, sensual detail and readers are left incredulous at the plight of those making the voyage. Choosing to tell the story in first person lends poignancy and immediacy, because we have such a strong connection to Kit:

"I dawdle the length of the ship to the hatch. The last one down the wooden steps. I glance back for one more look at the sky, the twinkling sky framed by the hatchway's darkness. Da used to take me to the top of the hill on nights like this, when the fishhook moon hangs from a net of stars. 'Tis as if he is standing here next to me now. "Don't be afraid of the dark, pet. For that's when the stars shine brightest." My glimmer of hope is like that, too. I told it tight. For without it, I'd be utterly lost."

The ocean voyage is long, plagued by bad seas, the threat of typhoid fever spreading throughout the hold, absolute darkness and deplorable living conditions for so many passengers. Accompanied by abject sadness they undertake the journey to a new life in Upper Canada and when they arrive, they land at Grosse Ile, which has been set up as a quarantine station. Many have died or are dying, and Kit is frantic to find her Mam, her brother Jack and her sister Annie. When she does find Jack he is sick with typhus, and she learns that their mother has succumbed to the fever and Annie, a healthy arrival, has been sent to an orphanage for continued care.
Jack chooses a chance at work both summer and winter over staying with Kit and being unable to find work. Kit asks Mick, out of love for her, to go with Jack and keep him safe. She is bent on a mission to find her sister and make a life for them in the new world. Mick does what she asks:

"I look past the wake to the shrinking wharf. Mick stands where I left him on it, still staring after the boat. We've been through so much this past year. Mick and I. Lost so much. Survived so much. I don't know what I would have done without him. Our paths have always intertwined and I just can't picture mine without his. I slowly raise my hand and Mick does the same. But I can't help wondering if I will ever see him again."

Historical fiction, written with such energy and passion and having been so carefully researched, is often the best way to learn about our shared history. Kit is an amazing young woman with a tenacity and spirit that leads her from one adventure to the next one. She does not waver in her search, or give in to helplessness and hopelessness. She is always forward-facing and bent on bringing her family together. The love she has for them, and for her friend Mick, is what gives her the courage to move on despite life's many obstacles. She is a person who is worthy of our admiration. I long to meet her again!

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