My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Saara's Passage by Karen Autio, a contemporary Canadian writer, is the second in a well-written, impeccably researched trilogy which features young teenager, Saara Maki, a recent immigrant with her family from Finland to Canada in the early years of the last century. Autio's characters are vivid 3-D creations, each one, adult or child, deeply imagined and with distinct voices. The use of dialogue is true to the era, incorporating Finnish words, and is especially good, at least to my ear, but I grew up with two immigrant parents in a rural community of immigrants so I think I am attuned to voices in this way and appreciate pitch-perfect notes when I hear them, as in this book. Another strength is the weaving of weighty issues like the sinking of the Empress of Ireland (a central fact of the first book in the trilogy), Saara's experience of what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after surviving the sinking, the hardships faced by immigrant men and the effect on their families when they tried to form unions to resolve dangerous and exploitative workplace issues,the devastation caused by tuberculosis in Canada and the long and imperfect methods of treatment, the struggle for immigrant children to adapt to schools with English as a second language... all these issues are central and substantial but are woven skillfully into the narrative itself.
This is a book which should be on school library shelves and is also that rare thing, a book which readers aged ten to one hundred and ten can enjoy, especially if they love "olden times", Canadian history or have northern European roots. But there will be many new immigrants who will read this and recognize themselves in this story of a sturdy young girl who puts her family before a starring role in a school play and who tries to do the right thing, hard though that may be. Tuberculosis is far from being eradicated in the world in 2013. Being an immigrant is tough no matter where you end up. Dealing with mean girls at school and having crushes on boys, well, these are timeless or universal themes, are they not?! I highly recommend it.
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