Title: The Boy With An R In His Hand
Author: James Reaney
Publisher: Porcupine’s Quill
Age Range: Children (9+)
Time Period: 1826
Location: York, Upper Canada
“The Boy with an R in His Hand tells the story of two orphan brothers who arrive in York from the Red River Settlement in 1826 and quickly become involved with the complex politics of Upper Canada. Joel, the elder brother, aligns himself with the Family Compact and his overbearing, stuffy uncle, while Alex, more imaginative and courageous, becomes an apprentice to William Lyon Mackenzie at the Colonial Advocate. There he (and the reader) learn in some detail about Mackenzie’s press and the art of type-setting. Alex, rather improbably, ‘‘had it set up right, and from that moment on his progress in the skill of type-setting was… like a house on fire.’’”
This book is a quick read, interspersed with illustrations of the story along the way. The art form of printing press is long forgotten and completely taken forgranted in our world of technology – so this book is neat in the sense that it showcases a skill we no longer use. It was interesting to learn how they set type, how they used blocks for build a paper, complete with graphics.
Personally, I found this book a little choppy and hard-to-follow, with the main voice jumping around repeatedly, but I did love the main character of Alec – a lively, young boy who is determined to live life exuberantly and not just going with the mainstream flow of things in order to fit in. He’s curious, vivacious, inquisitive, and not afraid to do what’s right while standing up for other people.
This story begins with Alec and his brother, Joel, arriving in York after having their preacher father disappear into the wilderness surrounding a northern fort on Hudson’s Bay. Believing he’s been killed by the natives, the boys are sent to live with their uncle – who is a ‘Tory’, and considers himself to be upper class. Not doing well at conforming to the expectation of training to become a gentlemen, young Alec discovers something he IS good at – working as an apprentice at the printing press owned by Mr. MacKenzie, who just happens to be a ‘Reformer.’ Tension mounts as the story progresses and an uprising leads to a riot that overturns the press and destroys the shop.
Although this story is just a small little snippet of life in early Canada – it brings raw attention to the conflict between political differences.
Note: This book has reference to various forms of abuse throughout it’s pages – being whipped at school, being “cuffed” and chased with a poker, threats of being tied to a mill stone, and being bound and gagged.