Readings from a book lover, teacher, teacher-librarian.
Des lectures d'un bibliophile, enseignante, enseignante-bibliothécaire.
I really enjoyed this book. I especially like the cover. I was tempted to buy the hardcover just because the dust jacket looked so good, but my thriftier self won out. The text of the title drew me at first. It game me a good sense of era, and now that I look at it again, the details are impressinve: the spike (though that's not what a railway spike looks like) and the key, the funeral car at the top, the length of the train represented by the fact it curves from the foreground to the background, and the white figures of Maren and WIll leaping atop the cars.
In terms of the story, I really enjoyed it. Oppel has a great sense of scene. I was initially intrigued because of the golden spike narrative. I live near the original terminus of the CPR, and a local community holds Golden Spike Days every July. So it drew me in, then disappointed when we didn't get further west than Craigellachie. But all the historical characters were interesting, and Will's outsider's view of the execs was refreshing and would certainly be easier for kids to understand.
While the time jump was unexpected, the description of the train was awesome. I didn't have any problems with suspending disbelief as I read this sort of thing often. I enjoyed Will's character and his self-doubt...mostly internalized doubt from the others in his life, which I think is really true for many kids, especially when they're talents and interests lie outside the capitalist status quo. That's something many of my own students struggle with a lot. I also really enjoyed Maren's character, especially the degree to which she controlled her own life. The allusions to Dorian Gray were fun, and if you know the story, foreshadow Mr. Dorian's demise pretty clearly.
The marginalised characters like Dorian (Metis), the Chinese workers, the colonists, and the "Natives", however, don't sit entirely well with me. I like the fact they're included and that Will recognizes the class differenences and the injustices therein, but the fact that the story ends with Will running away to the circus without ever discussing the injustices with his father as he had so wanted to do was disappointing. There's enough information about these groups to recognize their marginalisation, but there's no resolution or real building of the issue. Not that I expect the injustice to be resolved, that wouldn't be consistent with the pot's internal authenticity, but it does mean that students in class will need more direct guidance with those elements than perhaps otherwise. Of course, that's a problem with anything steampunk anyway, as not all students can be expected to tell what's real history from Oppel's revisioning.
In terms of the writing, I enjoyed the dialogue and some of the observations. Maren's description of how playing a character can help you get over stage fright (p. 182) is especially strong for me. I always tell my students that really throwing yourself into a character makes acting for an audience much easier even if they don't always believe me or do it. Of course, their safety isn't at risk like Will's is, so he has more motivation to delve into character than they do.
While some may not enjoy the conclusion of the book, I think it's important that we DO see Will finally assert himself at the end of the story. Throughout the entire story he's been struggling to really find himself, and to assert his own beliefs (over his father's for instance). It's clear even to his father by the end of the book that Will does have what it takes to survive and doesn't think he's "Too soft" (p. 56) anymore. The fact that Will finally recognizes that his fascination with Maren and the circus can be more than just that.
Overall, I'm glad that this is a school-read title for our book battle next year. I'm really interested to hear what the kids think.
Oppel, K. (2014). The Boundless. Toronto, Ontario: HarperTrophy Canada.