Posts Tagged ‘Time Travel’

White Mist by Barbara Smucker ~ 1985. This edition: Puffin Books, 1987. Paperback. Includes research bibliography. ISBN: 0-14-032144-6. 157 pages.

My rating: 5/10. Just barely. It’s more like a 4, but I gave the author an extra point because of her well meaning earnestness. The message is a good one, but the presentation is deeply lacking in finesse.

I wonder what a typical nowadays young reader would think of this one? It might be perfectly acceptable; I’ve read much worse “kid lit”. From my adult perspective it was a tough slog, though. The author tried to pack too much into this one; in my opinion she should have let off a bit on the info-dump and paid more attention to the story.

And the “Indian = good, White Man = bad” thing was oversimplified.

*****

I’ve been trying to cull our overwhelming book collection, and this was one that got a second look when I was sorting through several boxes of kids’ books this week.

Barbara Smucker, as you Canadians with children or schoolroom experience may know, is famously the author of the multi-award-winning Underground to Canada, about the legendary “underground railway” system of helpers and safe houses by which black slaves escaped to freedom in Canada in the mid-19th century. I haven’t read Underground for years; not since my own children were quite young, but in my memory it was a well-done juvenile historical fiction. I may need to review that one after reading White Mist, to see if it holds up to my positive memory of it.

Smucker, born  Barbara Claasen, was a New Order Mennonite from Kansas, where she attended college and received a journalism degree in 1939. After graduation, she married a Mennonite minister, Donavan Smucker, and the two of them, and eventually their three children, travelled widely throughout the United States. In the late 1960s, the Smuckers found themselves in Mississippi, where Barbara became deeply interested in the civil rights movement. As Mennonites, the Smuckers were already passionate about peaceful resolution and non-violent solutions, as well as justice and minority rights. These themes run through every one of  Barbara’s subsequent stories.

In 1969 the Smuckers moved to Ontario, and, while working as a public librarian, Barbara’s writing career took off, at the relatively advance age of sixty-two, with Underground to Canada’s 1977 publication. This was followed by Days of Terror in 1979, about a Russo-Mennonite family fleeing the Russian Revolution in 1917, and Amish Adventure in 1983, about the challenges facing the contemporary Amish. White Mist, 1985, deals with ecological issues, as well as First Nations (“Indian”) displacement and rights.

Here is the plot outline of White Mist, from a review written by Susan Ratcliffe in 1986:

Grades 5-6/Ages 10-11.

The message of Barbara Smucker’s newest novel is clearly stated by one of the main characters: “If we destroy the earth, we destroy ourselves. We are one with the earth.” She has chosen a rather unusual, and somewhat awkward narrative method to convey this theme.

May is a young, dark-skinned, dark-haired teenager, abandoned as a baby on the door-step of the Applebys, who subsequently adopted her. She thus has no knowledge of her parentage or heritage, and suffers the teasing of other kids in her Sarnia [Ontario] school. She feels an outcast from their society. Every summer she and her parents go to work in their nursery on the shores of Lake Michigan, but find the lake changed this year. The beaches are dirty and littered with dead fish; the water is smelly and unfit for swimming. This year too, Lee, an Indian boy from the local reserve, comes to work at the nursery. He and May gradually become the captives of a strange, swirling white mist that eventually takes them back to a time when there were virgin forests on the shores of a clean lake, a thriving lumber town, and a village of the Potawatomi Indians. They are absorbed into the village life and learn pride in their native heritage. May even meets her great-grandmother, and gains a sense of family and roots.

The awkwardness comes in the switch from the present to the past. May and Lee are surprisingly knowledgeable about every detail of the area and people of 1835. At several points in the story, one or the other of them has to give the source of their information: “I studied all winter at the Reserve library about the Potawatomi…”. “I read about it in Uncle Steve’s books on local history…”. “Uncle Steve had told her…”. Their interest and historical retention is astonishing for their age.

The messages of the novel are strong and worthwhile; pollution and the environment, and the prejudices against native peoples. The characters are bright and attractive, but the method chosen to tell the story is too contrived and unbelievable. However, Barbara Smucker’s many fans may forgive her, because of the appeal of the themes.

I was interested to read that this reviewer felt the same way that I did; that the novel was awkwardly presented and the young protagonists unrealistically knowledgeable about local history. I also felt that the “Indian” characters whom May and Lee met in their deeply contrived time travel were presented in a very stereotyped way, as almost impossibly good, noble, and completely in touch with nature at all times, in the literary “noble savage” tradition.

I do appreciate the use of First Nations characters in leading roles, and it was sweet to see May’s relationship with her white foster parents so lovingly depicted. May’s confusion about her racial history and quest for a way to balance her origins and her present life was very exaggerated, but it was good to see those topics addressed head on. Lee’s recent tragic history of losing a close friend to suicide on his troubled reserve doesn’t get much discussion, but is presented in a matter-of-fact fashion; this is Lee’s reality, and explains why he is so ready to embrace a more positive past. Lee’s fierce pride in his ancestry, and his impatience with May’s ambiguity towards her ancestors ring true to Lee’s characterization.

While many of the non-First Nations characters are presented in a negative, one-dimensional way, there are several exceptions: May’s foster parents are seen as unreservedly “good”; May in her distressed first days as a time traveller meets with kindness from a pioneer woman, and from a cook in a logging camp; and many of the “white” lakeside dwellers embrace the ecological message when Lee and May return from their blip into the past and make their heartfelt presentation for a crusade against pollution.

I didn’t enjoy this book, though. Its flaws were too many and too glaring to ignore, and I can’t recommend it.

I give the author a decided nod for her good  intentions, but it’s a very faked-up story, and I ultimately couldn’t get past that. Into the giveaway box.

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