Boxcar Kid by Norma Charles is a new young adult/tween novel about family life during the Westward expansion in Canada. Set at Fraser Mills, a lumber mill in British Columbia, in 1909, Boxcar Kid follows Luc and the Godin starting with their arrival from Quebec. While the novel is written as fiction, the location is real, and the situation could really have happened. Coquitlam, British Columbia grew rapidly in 1909-1910 when French loggers from Quebec moved west to work for Fraser Mills and the growing logging industry.
Luc is the thirteen year old oldest child in the Godin family in Boxcar Kid. Luc has a mother, a father, a twelve year old sister Rita, a five year old sister Clara, and a baby brother named Joseph. We soon realize that there was an older son, Leo, who died in an accident within the previous year. The entire family is excited about the move to Fraser Mills, and eager to see the new home that was built for them by the loggers. However, upon their arrival they learn that the homes were not built, and that the four families that moved to the mill will be sharing an empty boxcar in place of a home.
Norma Charles has a wonderful skill for creating characters – each of the main characters jumps off the page, pulling the reader into the story. Facts merge with fiction as we learn about horse care, doctors, schooling, and the object of Luc’s fascination – bicycles! At the beginning of Boxcar Kid, Luc feels worthless – he is nervous around horses after the accident that killed his brother, and his younger sister happily takes his place working with their father. Luc helps a bit with the younger children, but finds himself helping new arrivals, translating between French and English. His academic skills are soon a boon, and a chance for him to help his family and himself.
The world of a lumber mill was completely foreign to me, as was the history of westward expansion in Canada. In Boxcar Kid, Norma Charles does an amazing job of intertwining a wonderful coming-of-age story with a unique historical background. As with Valerie Sherrard’s Three Million Acres of Flame, the story and the characters pull the reader in, and the history lesson sneaks in unexpectedly! Luc, his family, and his friends are wonderful characters – no cardboard cut-outs or stereotypical characters. It feels as if we are peeking through time into the lives of people almost 100 years ago; we see the prejudices against the Chinese, bicycles, and the difficulty of a language barrier that crops up even when moving within the same country.
I loved Boxcar Kid, and recommend it to the 9+ age group of tweens and Young Adult. Parents should know that there is a little flirting, but nothing beyond that. There is some discussion of death, as well as accidents. That said, there is very little violence overall. This is a great read to reinforce the value of family, of being confident in yourself, and in learning some history, too! Boxcar Kid is a wonderful, quick read that kids will enjoy and that can spark some great discussions, too.
This book was received from the publisher for review