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Kootenay Silver

by Ann Chandler

Twelve-year-old Addy McLeod’s abusive stepfather has died and her little brother has disappeared, so she leaves home in a panic, camping out in the B.C. woods and eventually landing a job at a hotel in town. She does this disguised as a boy, a necessary manoeuvre for a young girl on her own around the time of the First World War.

Addy’s situation has tremendous narrative potential, but in Ann Chandler’s second novel, the complexities of gender-­concealment are far too easily managed. Simply by cutting her hair and wearing men’s clothing, Addy reinvents herself as Albert, even though the changes brought on by puberty make her disguise increasingly implausible. The book’s gender-related problems go beyond plausibility, however. When dressed as a boy, Addy takes on the cultural characteristics of being male: she is physically strong and knows how to take care of herself and find food, shelter, and work. But her yearning to become a lady is expressed as a wish to “soak up the admiring glances” as she walks down the street. Thankfully, after she resumes her female appearance, she does not become simply a passive object to be looked at, but ends up playing an active role in the Great War effort.

The book’s plot relies too heavily on coincidences to drive the story forward. The woman who left with Addy’s baby brother reappears at a fortuitous moment; a boy who caught her eye happens to be on hand when she needs to be rescued; and the silver alluded to in the novel’s title provides a too-easy solution to her struggles.

The novel also has tremendous strengths, particularly in characterization, setting, and historical detail. Most compelling is Addy herself: not only is she hard-working and determined, but despite having no family, little formal education, and no community, she has an unflappable moral compass. The majority of the secondary characters are also finely drawn, and Chandler employs humour and well-chosen details to make each stand out.