________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 12 . . . . February 6, 2009

cover Saara’s Passage.

Karen Autio.
Whitlaw, BC: Sono Nis, 2008.
255 pp., pbk., $10.95.
ISBN 978-1-55039-168-8.

Grades 4-6 / Ages 9-11.

Review by Karen Rankin.

*** ½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Reader’s Copy.


Uncle left for the farm as soon as he finished his second cup of coffee. I would miss looking after [the horses] Ace and Copper. Mama let out a most unladylike yawn. Sanni had kept her up most of the night. She handed the baby to me. “Her diaper needs changing.”

“But Helena invited me to go roller skating!” One of the Pekkonens’ boarders spoiled Helena like a favourite niece, giving her pocket money. She was generous enough to share so that I could roller skate for the first time.

“You’re not going today. You need to watch Sanni so I can have a nap.”

“Not again.” I sighed loudly. “I’ve done that three days in a row.” Was I going to miss out on fun all summer because of Sanni?

Mama yawned again. “All right. As soon as you’ve got Sanni napping, you can go. But I expect you to help later.”

Of course the diaper wasn’t just wet. I almost fainted from the stench. Horses’ droppings didn’t smell as bad. There was no doubt I’d rather muck out Ace’s stall than deal with Sanni’s “outhouse” pants. If I could do the chore from a shovel’s distance away, it would spare my nostrils. God, please heal Auntie real soon so I won’t have to do this disgusting chore much longer. I hurried to pin a fresh diaper in place. I tucked Sanni in the carriage parked in the shade beside the porch.

At the Lake City Rink, Helena handed me a pair of rented roller skates. Each metal plate had four tiny wheels. I slid my shoes into the clips, tightened the straps, and tentatively stood. It was easy to balance and walk. The dozens of roller skaters circled the rink with ease. I stepped out to join them and pushed off, thinking, This is simple – like ice skating.

But when I turned to grin at my best friend, my left roller skate veered into my right one. The clips caught and both feet flew out from under me. I landed with a thud on my tailbone. “Ow!” I wasn’t sure I could stand.

Giggles erupted behind me. Senja and Edith. Of all people to see me fall, why did it have to be them? I groaned, more from embarrassment than pain, and accepted Helena’s outstretched hands to pull me up.

Saara’s Passage is historical fiction and a sequel to author Karen Autio’s first novel, Second Watch. Protagonist Saara Mäki is the 12-year old daughter of Finnish immigrants living in northern Ontario. Readers experience life from Saara’s perspective at a time when Wprld War I is getting underway, automobiles are starting to replace horses, and tuberculosis is killing one in seven Canadians.

    It is the beginning of summer, 1914 and a month since Saara survived the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in which over a thousand others drowned. She is still plagued by nightmares and cannot stop wondering why her life has been spared. When her Aunt Marja is diagnosed with tuberculosis, she is sent to a sanatorium in Toronto. Since Aunt Marja’s husband has to continue working, their two-week old baby, Sanni, is left with Saara’s family. Saara helps her mother care for Sanni but occasionally complains and shirks her duties. She expects her aunt to be home by Christmas. Before the end of the summer, World War I has started. Saara wonders who will be home first – the soldiers from her town of Port Arthur or her aunt. She writes to her aunt regularly, keeping her informed of Sanni’s development. Aunt Marja sends letters to Saara and her mother from the sanatorium. Because the letters Saara receives make life sound fine, she wonders why her mother seems upset by the ones she gets from her sister.

    One day, Saara has a chance to read one of these letters. She is shocked to discover that Aunt Marja is miserable: she misses her baby terribly, has seen fellow inmates dying, cannot stand the tedium of being bed-ridden, and fears for her life. Saara resolves to help her mother more, as well as to make her aunt’s hospital stay more enjoyable. She writes to the Blackwells, a family she met on the Empress of Ireland and who live in Toronto. Perhaps they can help relieve Aunt Marja’s tedium. Christmas comes, and neither Aunt Marja nor the soldiers are home.

    In the new year, Saara wins the coveted lead role in her school’s spring drama production. A couple of months later, Aunt Marja – no longer infectious – checks herself out of the sanatorium and, with assistance from the Blackwells, comes home before she is completely cured. Aunt Marja needs help caring for herself and her little family. Even though it means giving up her part in the school play and leaving her mother, father and younger brother, Saara volunteers. While at the farm, she cooks and cleans, makes a new friend who shares her interest in horses, and she struggles to cope with Aunt Marja’s frail physical and emotional health. Saara’s thirteenth year sees her ‘passage’ from child to young woman, able to listen to her conscience and act on her convictions.

    Saara is a well-rounded and entirely believable character. For instance, she chooses to ignore her pangs of conscience and reads her mother’s private mail. Her strength and determination are evident throughout the novel, starting with her first-place finish in a footrace. Despite her ambivalence over housework and baby care, as well as her anguish at giving up her role in the play, she decides to go help on the farm. Autio’s peripheral characters are similarly credible. For example, one can feel the anger and frustration of Saara’s father as he tries to find work, as well as the fear and exhaustion of her mother as she deals - amongst other things – with baby Saani, money shortages, a language barrier, and the stress of her sister’s illness.

    Autio’s tightly-woven and well-crafted story has a number of unexpected yet realistic plot twists. It is followed by brief and informative historical notes on tuberculosis, socialism, and “Canada and the First World War.” Also included in this section are old photographs of – amongst other things – sanatorium patients “taking the cure” and children being taught proper hygiene and baby-care at school.

    Readers, whether new immigrants or not, will be able to relate to Saara’s challenges and interests.

Highly Recommended.

Karen Rankin is a Toronto teacher and writer.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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