Cross My Heart

Patty Osborne

Speaking of characters, for me there is no better way to understand history than to read about it in a good story that shows you what it was like to be alive back then. Lately I’ve read several children’s books that fill the bill. In As Long as the Rivers Flow (Groundwood), Larry Loyie, a Cree from Alberta, describes his early life in Slave Lake, and Heather D. Holmlund adds luscious full-colour illustrations. We meet Larry when he is ten years old and living with his family, both at home in their log cabin and out at their summer camp. Even at this early age Larry is learning the art of living off the land, including what to do when confronted by a huge grizzly bear that rears up in front of him and his grandmother as they are gathering herbs. With one shot from her little rifle, the grandmother kills the bear—which turns out to be one of the biggest grizzlies ever shot in North America. As Long as the Rivers Flow tells of a loving family in a happy time, with background whispers of a school far away and of a prison where parents who do not send their children to the school are sent. The story ends with Larry and his siblings in tears as they are loaded into the back of a truck and driven away from their parents, but the narration of even this trauma is straightforward and matter-of-fact—free of unnecessary comment. Once my emotions had been stirred up by this simple story I was eager to read the epilogue, which consists of photos and a short description of life at St. Bernard’s Mission residential school. The historical notes at the end of Into the Sun (Hodgepog), by Luanne Armstrong, say that the story is based on the life of Reine Lagimodiere. She was an aunt of Louis Riel and the daughter of Marie-Anne Lagimodiere, the first white woman to live in western Canada. But even before I knew these facts I got caught up in this story of pioneering on the banks of the Red River. Marie-Anne is the anchor of the story, a woman who broke the bounds of convention by joining her husband Louis—Reine’s father, the best buffalo hunter in the community—on his hunting and trapping adventures. Her strength flows through the story, and as the characters go about making pemmican, worrying about the fate of the buffalo as farmers plow up the land for crops, and coping with the flooding of the Red, Marie-Anne’s daughter finds her own strength and begins to make her way in the world. Another Hodgepog book, Cross My Heart by Janet Miller, takes place in the 195s in the Pemberton Valley of B.C., where the main character Julie lives with her mother and father on a farm. Julie’s mother has a damaged heart, and while Julie loves her mother and worries about her, she also resents the embarrassing relatives with whom she must spend more and more time. The only hope for the mother is a new surgical procedure, and eventually she takes the train to Vancouver and undergoes the first successful heart operation in B.C. I was surprised how much Julie’s story reminded me of my own childhood in the interior of B.C. and later in Vancouver, but I should have been prepared. After all, the back cover says that the story “contains many historically accurate details about Pemberton and Vancouver.” Great historical details and gripping story, but . . . when did the years of my childhood become “history”?

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