CM Magazine Review - Red River Raging
CM: Canadian Review of Materials
Reviewed by: Jonine Bergen
Reviewed by Jonine Bergen for the Canadian Review of Materials.
The plan is to build a wall – a dike – around the whole village. Other villages have permanent dikes but not St. Agathe because it’s already on high ground and doesn’t even flood. Well, hardly ever. I can’t imagine how much water it would take for the river to spill its banks here, but the men have worked it all out. They know how many sandbags they need and where the dike is going to go. There’s nothing left to do but get started.
Newbies, like me, get to fill bags. It’s not hard, you just pour sand into a bag. But then you have to toss the bag to your neighbour, who tosses it to his neighbour, who tosses it to his neighbour – you get it? And these bags are heavy, about twenty kilos. The guy at the end of the line builds the dike by laying the sandbags on top of each other. And that’s it.
With Red River Raging, accomplished author Penny Draper has now written seven of the eight titles in Coteau’s “Disaster Strikes!” series. Each title in “Disaster Strikes!” revolves around the events of a Canadian disaster through the point of view of the young people living through the incident. Using the Manitoba community of St. Agathe as a central focus,Red River Raging depicts the events of the 1997 Flood of the Century which occurred along the Red River.
Thirteen-year-old Finn is not impressed because, instead of spending the summer with his parents in Egypt, he gets to spend six months or more on his grandmother’s farm in Manitoba living with his grandmother and great-grandfather, Armstrong, who is not only a surly grump, but someone who may also be crazy. Finn is expecting to be bored in the little town outside Winnipeg until the unthinkable happens and the river starts to rise.
Finn is not just a newbie in building dikes. In fact, he is something of a professional newbie. With his parents, he has travelled the world, and, while they have researched their areas, Finn’s job has been to make friends with the local children. As he explains, “I’m actually bait. The grad student’s real job is to write a paper about how the local kids live. So they need me to get out there and play with all the kids…. And it’s no joke, you know. Try making new friends over and over again when half the time you don’t even speak the same language.” So when Finn finds himself in yet another new school, he has to decide whether he should play nice and make some friends or not bother. Luckily, it seems that a girl, Clara, has decided to adopt him, and he quickly finds himself as part of a group.
At home, however, things are not going as well. Armstrong has made it clear he does not want anything to do with Finn – to the point of refusing to allow him into the barn. Finn’s life is further complicated by the mysterious stranger, Peter, who routinely meets Finn on the riverbank behind the farmhouse and who seems to know everything about him, his family, and the catfish who call the Red River home. When Peter gives Finn a beautifully carved catfish, he starts a series of events which initiates Finn into the family secret and starts the town preparing for the coming flood – predicted to be the worst in over a century.
Draper has developed a great character with Finn. He is an outsider in the community and with his family. Naturally curious, he wants to understand the grumpy old Armstrong and the mystery in the barn. He is also confident enough to want to make a difference in the community and is instrumental in organizing the students into a Flood Club to help fight the flood. Through his work to save the community, he finds himself as part of the community; committed to helping others survive the flood.
Peter acts as a mentor to Finn and a bridge for Finn and Armstrong to connect through. He introduces Finn to the Red River and the wily catfish swimming in the depths. He also provides the history of the area by telling Finn how his family immigrated to Canada and by describing a flood that he lived through as a child. I really enjoyed the character of Peter. The catfish is also a great symbol. But, as much as I liked this part of the story, I felt, however, that adding this element of fantasy to the story, for me, detracted from the power of the true historical event. For students who have not lived through a flooding event, the idea that a river could rise so high as to flood towns and threaten major cities already seems fantastical. By adding the supernatural component, Draper has taken a great historical novel and turned it into a fantasy, and that is a shame.
Throughout the novel, Draper provides the reader information about the Red River, building dikes, and the devastation that flooding can cause. As importantly, she gives a human face to the tragedy by telling the small stories inside the larger arc. She also provides additional material in the end notes.
Despite of the supernatural element Draper chose to add to her story, Red River Raging is an excellent realistic read-aloud that is extremely timely considering the flooding seen in Manitoba during the summer of 2014.
Jonine Bergen is a librarian in Winnipeg, MB.