Prairie Fire Review - Terror at Turtle Mountain

Reviewed by: Donna Gamache

Terror at Turtle Mountain is an historical novel for young readers aged nine and up by B.C. writer Penny Draper. The event acting as the base for this story is the Frank Slide, which occurred on April 29th, 1903.

Thirteen-year-old Nathalie Vaughan lives with her mother in the mining village of Frnak at the base of Turtle Mountain, in what is now southern Alberta. Nattie's father died from measles when Nattie was four, and times are tough for Nattie and her mother, Caroline, who works long hours as a housekeeper at the Imperial Hotel. Nattie's insecurity is compounded by their poverty and by the memory she has of her grandfather rejecting her and her mother, calling them "a disappointment." But things are beginning to look up. Caroline's sister, Sadie, and her daughter, Helena, are coming to visit. They will arrive early the next morning on the Spokane Flyer, the new passenger railway service coming from Lethbridge, and Helena will stay the Vaughans to attend school with Nattie.

These plans are interrupted at 4:08 a.m. when "nearly ninety million tons of limestone broke away from the mountain and careened down the slope" (57), filling the valley to a depth of 500 feet with rocks and mud, and killing at least 76 people. In the terror and confusion that follows, Nattie proves her worth. She must dig deep to find the courage and skills she needs as she helps in the rescue effort by searching among buried houses where several of her friends lived, and by wading through freezing water with a small child she has saved.

The author has used a variety of viewpoints to show the effect of the massive slide on the people of Frank. She takes us inside the mountain where 17 trapped miners must dig their way out if they hope to live. She shows us the desperate struggles of Sid Choquette, a CPR brakeman, to climb over the huge pile of rocks in order to warn the oncoming Spokane Flyer to prevent it slamming into the slide. She tells us of Nattie's friend, Lester Johnson, who must struggle out from his crushed house.

Young readers will get a real feel for what happened that night, and the human toll it took. The author's note, with historical details, where readers can learn more facts and discover which of the characters actually lived, is a bonus. Although Nattie and her family are fictional, many others included in the novel were real people, including Baby Marion, the most famous survivor; Sid Choquette and his partner, Lowes, who saved the train; and Lester Johnson, who escaped with a stake in his side.

The interesting characters and authentic details bring the story alive. Nattie, particularly, is well shown. Her fears and self-doubts, her crush on Lester and her heroic actions make her an engaging character. My single concern with the story is that I didn't feel Grandfather's reason for rejecting his duaghter and granddaughter was ever adequately explained.

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