Thursday, July 1, 2010

Review: Grease Town by Ann Towell

Found via: April at Good Books and Good Wine

Grease Town

So the cover here for Grease Town is in some ways the opposite of all the white-washed covers we bloggers have been decrying. As April pointed out in the review that brought this book to my attention, it looks like it's going to have a black protagonist, but in fact the narrator here is a young white Canadian boy who befriends a young black boy.

Tired of living with his prim and proper aunt, when Titus hears his big brother, Lem, is on his way to work in Canada's prosperous new oil fields, Titus is anxious to join him. Of course, since he's just a kid there's no way he'll be allowed to go - so he stows away in Lem's wagon, hoping he'll at least get far enough away that it'd be impractical to send him home once he's discovered.

In the hardscrabble town of Oil Springs, it takes hard work and more than a little bit of luck to stay afloat. As the grown men are focused on striking it rich with oil, Titus meets and befriends Moses, a black boy around his age. On the outskirts of Oil Springs is a small community of rundown shacks and lean-tos that house the black workers, many of whom are escaped slaves from the United States. As the US is fighting its Civil War that will decide the fate of slavery, race relations are tense in Oil Springs as well as local ne'er-do-well John Longman starts stirring up trouble by accusing the black workers of driving down wages and taking jobs that should be going to whites. As tension and anger rise in the community, Titus finds himself torn between defending his friends, and taking the path of least resistance by staying out of the way.

As a US citizen, my history classes tended to ignore the rest of the world when something major was happening in the US, so I honestly have very little idea what was going on in the rest of the world while we were fighting the Civil War (except that there was an English governess in Siam). It was interesting to see the racial tensions that were playing out in Canada on the frontier, and how a few troublemakers can easily make these tensions explode into something much more dangerous.

On the other hand, this was such a short book that sometimes the race relations parts felt shoehorned in. Moses only shows up a few times, and really we're told more than shown how close he and Titus are, so when Moses and his family are in danger I didn't react as emotionally as I felt I would have if we'd actually seen more of the boys' friendship. Instead, Moses disappears for large chunks of the text while Titus deals with Lem and Uncle Angus and their budding romances with the house's kitchen girl and the town's school teacher respectively. This makes it feel much more like a period family drama at times until the final act when the racial tension finally explodes.

Note: I'm including this in the African American tag, even though it's set in Canada, because Moses' family are immigrants from the US.
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