These two books are the first fruits of the "I am Canada" series and - not surprisingly, given their authors - they are very good indeed.
Geared to a middle-school readership, one written as a diary, the other as a narrative of events, they offer a deeply personal, fictionalized account of a slice of Canadian history, or history as experienced by Canadians. You might say that this is history made not just palatable, but palpable as well.
Fourteen-year-old Lee Heen-gwong is the diary keeper in Paul Yee's Blood and Iron. His first diary entry, on March 13, 1882, is a vivid description of his departure by ferry from Guangdong province in China: "I fell, face first into the river mud, and Ba cursed me. Sailors laughed until they were bent over, noses to their knees. I say they were bowing to me. Servant girls giggled, so I waved to them. Me, I was going to Gold Mountain!"
In order to reduce his family's heavy debt, a result of his father's and grandfather's gambling, Heen is going to Canada with his father (Ba) to make his fortune by building the most difficult and dangerous section of the transcontinental railway through the Rockies. A year of diary entries follows, each one advancing the harrowing tale of extreme privation suffered by Heen and his fellow Chinese workers. Heen, however, endures and prevails as a character whose physical strength and optimism keep him alive to tell the tale.
"So here, in my own words, is what I remember of what happened on that terrible morning of Aug. 12, 1942, on the beaches of a French town called Dieppe. And on all the miserable days that followed." These words are those of the fictional Alistair Morrison, a soldier and Hugh Brewster's protagonist in Prisoner of Dieppe, who goes on to describe in lively and fascinating detail his enlistment as a teenager in the Royal Regiment of Canada, his endless training in Britain for battle, and the endless wait for the right conditions to launch the raid on Dieppe, in which Canadians played such a significant part. Morrison survives Dieppe and years as a prisoner of war.
In Brewster's book, as in Yee's, the chief characters are eminently likeable and quietly heroic, and their tales utterly engrossing.