Friday, November 25, 2011
Book Review: I'll Be Watching
Pamela Porter. Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2011.
Young Adult. 280 pages, paperback.
Buy from House of Anansi
About the author
Winter, 1941. Canada has entered World War II. Resources are scarce in the small prairie town of Anger. How long can four children, ages 7 to 16, survive in a house with no electricity, running water, or living parents to provide for them?
Though Addie, Jim, Nora, and Ran Loney have simple needs- food, firewood, education, love- Porter’s book about them is complex and intricate. It is a young adult novel, but it is also a prose poem along the lines of Ellen Hopkins’s Crank. It is a coming-of-age story, a work of historical fiction, and a ghost story, since the Loney kids’ parents Margaret and George stick around and add to the ongoing dialogue after their hardscrabble existence claims both their lives.
That dialogue is mostly one-sided narration, though recalled conversations between characters are important too. At times the book seems like a court document, with each character explaining how she or he helped or abandoned the Loney children in their time of need. If Porter ever decides to write a true oral history, of any era or event, I will want to read it. She has crafted a credible fictional one here.
The large cast of characters, and Porter’s efforts to combine so many different types of books, are sometimes problematic. For example, the citizens of Anger persecute Franz Lahr, the town’s schoolmaster. He is of German descent and was only begrudgingly tolerated even before the start of the war. In one scene, Franz tries to teach the children about propaganda and is met with blank stares. Since the subject never comes up again, and since Franz is soon removed from the narrative, one wonders whether Porter wants to make a point or is just giving her townspeople reason to further ostracize the unfortunate teacher. Either way, I would have liked to see Franz’s story developed more fully, and to see how his students dealt or failed to deal with the subject of propaganda.
In spite of such shortcomings, Porter does a superior job of pulling components from diverse types of texts and integrating them into a seamless unit. I could not find a reading level label on I’ll Be Watching, but I recommend it for eighth graders and up. Its multiple viewpoints and sparse exposition can discourage younger readers. I would definitely use it in my classroom to teach genres, voice, poetic devices, and even types and elements of sentences.