Thursday, January 23, 2014

Canadian Materials weighs in on The Boundless

The Boundless.
Kenneth Oppel.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Canada, 2014.
332 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
ISBN 978-1-44341-026-7.

Grades 5-11 / Ages 10-16.

Review by Michelle Superle.

**** /4


There have been moments—and Will remembers each one—when he has sensed his life shift. He felt it that day in the mountains when he met Maren for the first time. And he feels it again now. The entire world seems much larger and stranger than he could ever have imagined. It now contains not only sasquatch but a muskeg hag—and canvases that can trick time itself. He certainly doesn’t understand it, and he’s not even sure he believes it.

Kenneth Oppel returns with another rip-roaring adventure tale for readers aged 10 through 16. The Boundless is a magic realism re-visioning of one of Canada’s most dramatic historical periods—the completion of the CPR. Sixteen-year-old fictional protagonist William Everett mingles with larger-than-life industrial leaders of the past convincingly brought to life, including Cornelius Van Horne, Donald Smith, and Sandford Fleming. In a dazzling sleight of hand, these real historical figures blur together with imaginary circus folk like tightrope walker Maren and ringleader Mr. Dorian, alongside fantastical creatures such as hags and oh-so-Canadian sasquatch. The mash-up is evidence of Oppel’s exceptional faith in his young readers to sort fiction from fact; it also invites genuine contemplation of the possibility that there is more to life than we can rationally understand.

     Will’s story begins with the last spike, but his journey across the country on the 11-kilometer-long train, The Boundless, starts years later. The story blends reality with imagination to make insightful commentary on the human journeys of growing up and finding oneself. Over the course of a country, Will does both, along with falling in love, saving lives, and exploring many aspects of human existence—from its poorest roots to the most spectacular possibilities glimpsed through magic. The Boundless is a grand, lavish spectacle of proportions as exciting as the train itself, the likes of which is rarely seen in Canadian children’s literature. Perhaps more unusual still is the story’s awareness of (post)colonial issues and the deft way in which Oppel protests corrosive racial attitudes through commentary spoken by plausible characters that believably reflect their views on the real-life pervasive economic, cultural, and political problems of that era in Canadian history.

     As serious as its philosophy and ideology are, at its core The Boundless is a rollicking adventure tale incorporating all the best features of the genre. ... [spoilers removed] Oppel makes a strong suggestion similar to those made in the best children’s stories: follow your dreams by developing your own unique aptitude, and you can’t help but succeed. Now as always, this is a welcome affirmation for readers of all ages. The Boundless will become another timeless Canadian classic, standing in good company with Oppel’s other works.

Highly Recommended.

Michelle Superle is an Assistant Professor at the University of the Fraser Valley where she teaches children’s literature and creative writing courses. She has served twice as a judge for the TD Award for Canadian Children’s Literature and is the author of Black Dog, Dream Dog and Contemporary, English-language Indian Children’s Literature (Routledge, 2011).


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