By: Jacqueline Guest
Coteau Books, April 2011, 192 pp, Trade paperback $8.95 CDN
Reviewed by: James Onusko
While I have not formally reviewed children’s literature, it remains a genre that I read actively and have done so for more than thirty years. Because I my children have reached reading age, I now have the opportunity to re-read several of my favourite childhood titles such as Treasure Island, Charlotte’s Web, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. While Jacqueline Guest’s latest book may not join the list of children’s ‘classics’, she has written an entertaining novel for young readers that will also provide some basic historical information within the context of the laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.
Jacqueline Guest lives in the foothills of southern Alberta. She has written more than a dozen books with many of her novels featuring either sports or history as themes. She also does several presentations at schools for children with history as a major theme.
Ghost Messages is well written with Guest using language that is accessible for readers from eight or nine and older. While it is accessible, she includes words that will encourage young readers to seek meaning from context – one of the best ways to learn new words and expand a growing vocabulary. Guest is respectful of her readers – never demeaning them or dismissive in her treatment of them as an author.
The main narrative is focused on Ailish, a thirteen-year-old Irish girl with some extra-sensory powers to see the future. In the pursuit of a stolen treasure, she ends up as a stowaway on the Great Eastern ship; a ship that is responsible for laying the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. Once onboard, she is forced to adopt the identity of a cabin boy in her quest – and I use that word with purpose as the narrative arc follows one of the older and more effective plot devices in children’s literature – the quest. While the trip, at least for Ailish, across the Atlantic is unintended, it is an ‘out and back’ journey. Guest also skillfully weaves in the larger narrative drama associated with the laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable on the ship on which Ailish is pursuing her stolen treasure from the thief, Rufus Dalton. Ailish is helped by a number of good people on the ship including a fellow labourer, Davy Jones, as well as a fellow ‘Irishman,’ Paddy Whelan.
In the following excerpt, Ailish witnesses her nemesis, Dalton, stirring up the passions of some of the crewmembers following the sabotage of the telegraph cable by Irish Fenians:
The cable had ceased to work again after having been so laboriously repaired and Ailish, exhausted herself, felt the despair of those around her as mutterings grew louder that the Fenians had struck again.
She was about to try and find Paddy to tell him what was going on, when Dalton jumped atop one of the cannons that lined the deck and called to the crowd.
“This second fault is proof of sabotage and we cannot let it go unchallenged,” he shouted, stoking the unrest. “You have worked as no other crew could and I’m proud of each every one of you. And now tired as we all are, we must splice the cable again. I haven’t left this deck, but someone has and that man is our Fenian traitor. I say we find the dog and deal with him ourselves!”
There was a chorus of agreement and Ailish had to give the devil his due: Dalton had a way of speaking that was very persuasive. The men, frustrated and volatile, were close to rioting and she was sure who Dalton would suggest as a target. She couldn’t believe the cable would have to be spliced again! Her own back ached at the thought. she admired the toughness of these sailors and was very glad she wasn’t the one who would have to fix the blasted thing.
“Wait!” Cyrus Field pushed to the front of the throng. The American raised his hands for silence. “The signal’s started again! The cable is sound once more.”
The book is not only well written, but it is historically accurate – a credit to Guest and her researching abilities. While she admits to some literary creativity at various points in her story, historical fiction always benefits from the imagination of the author. Young readers will certainly be swept up very quickly with the initial crime of Dalton happening in the book’s earliest pages. A final exemplary feature is that Guest uses the vernacular of life on the ship in this era and provides a glossary that explains the terms that she uses throughout the book. I think it is much more effective to do this as a glossary, rather than have it woven into the main text as readers would have felt preached to at these moments.
The strengths of Ghost Messages far outnumber its minor drawbacks. Unfortunately, the book ends rather abruptly and even younger readers may find the final chapters both wanting and rushed. While Guest does not patronize readers with a ‘pat’ ending, at least one significant plot feature seems contrived after several chapters of fine writing. I also found the character development to be thin and simplistic in more than one instance. I think that Guest could have spent some additional time in developing her main characters with both dialogue and character sketching.
Ghost Messages is highly recommended and will be enjoyed by both the novice and sophisticated juvenile readers. Adults will also be entertained if they choose to read this well-researched novel alongside a younger reader. Not all books intended for our youngest readers can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Hopefully Guest continues to write in the genre of historical juvenile fiction – her skills are unquestionable.
*An advance copy of Ghost Messages was sent to me to read and review by Coteau Books. It was not purchased.