By Paul Yee
Published by Scholastic Canada Limited, 2010
Ba gave me back my eighteen coins, and jingled another handful of them.
“Surprised?” he sneered. “I won back every coin
I lost, and took even more. Watch me and learn! A man with money, he must make it grow. He has to take it out and put it to use. If he sits on it, he may as well drop it into the outhouse.”
I hated that kind of talk. Instead, I asked quietly about my railway earnings.
He sucked in an angry breath. A coin hit my face and fell to the floor. Ba snapped that there was plenty of time for him to win more money.
That on his last trip, he had bet against his wages and won them back before landing. I had not known that.
“You better win,” I retorted. “Otherwise I will run off and find work elsewhere.”
Ba sneered that I wouldn’t dare because the Company would hunt me down. I told him to wait and watch! He stomped off as I groped for the coin on my hands and knees.
Cannot write. Several days of storms. Even the gambling stopped. The sailors stopped emptying the toilet buckets, so foul smells are spreading through the deck.
Fierce waves cause the ship’s walls to creak and squeal. Men are sick again. Others weep from fear but not me. Others call out to the gods. If our ship sinks, will my journal float to Hong Kong and reach Grandfather?”
Written in the form of a journal, character Lee Heen-gwong relates his immigration experience from Guangdong province, China to British Columbia in the year 1882. As Heen works to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, we learn of the poor conditions, unfair wages and complicated relationship between labourer and supervisor. Real, yet nameless multitudes of Chinese railway workers are given a voice through Yee’s detailed research and knowledge of Chinese-Canadian history. It’s unfortunate this historical subject has been ignored for so long as a topic for children’s or young adult’s literature, and that important details (such as how many Chinese labourers actually died in the building of the CPR), were left undocumented and can only be estimated.
Intermediate-aged students will be swept into Heen’s world and his graphic accounts of life on the CPR will definitely hold their interest. Heen’s frustrations with a gambling-addict father, his friendships with other young men in the camp, and the frequency of horrific accidents that occur during the construction of the railway lend themselves to a variety of interesting class discussions. Obviously, Blood and Iron is a perfect fit for the grade five social studies curriculum, and would make an excellent class novel or read-aloud alongside a unit on the Canadian Pacific Railway. One suggestion I must make is to have students keep a list of characters as they read. Unfortunately, Yee creates an overwhelmingly large cast of CPR labourers, many of whom are referred to by nickname, making it difficult to keep track of who’s who in Heen’s world. Most likely he uses this tactic to demonstrate the vast amount of Chinese immigrants who lived this difficult existence on the railway, but the lack of any real character development makes for a confusing read. Blood and Iron does contain some nifty additions to extend student learning, such as photographs, a glossary, a map of the region and an excellent historical note at the end of Heen’s “journal”. As with the other novels in the I am Canada series, the book has a good physical feel to it (the hardcover is smooth and compact; you believe you are holding an actual journal), and the historical accuracy make Blood and Iron a sound choice for the classroom.
Check out Paul Yee’s website at: http://www.paulyee.ca/
(Includes teacher resources for many of his other books!)
View the I am Canada series website at: http://www.scholastic.ca/iamcanada/
(Includes discussion guides, videos and activities!)