The Landing By John Ibbotson
We have some wonderfully powerful writers of literature for children in Canada, and John Ibbotson is one of them. His most recent novel The Landing is the 2008 winner of the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature – so richly deserved. This is the story of 15-year-old Ben, born and raised in Muskoka. We meet Ben when he is a young child, living in Gravenhurst with his parents. They live a happy life there in the 1920s, taking in a chamber music concert at the Gravenhurst Opera House where Ben is entranced by the music. Life changes when Ben’s father is killed in an accident in a lumber camp. The great depression has come and Ben and his mother move in with her brother, Ben’s Uncle Henry, at The Landing, 40 minutes by boat from Gravenhurst. The Landing is both the family farm, on land too difficult to make a living from farming, and a “business” providing services to the cottages on the lake.
Ben still loves music and plays his violin – in the tool shed, away from his uncle. Uncle Henry is a bitter man, injured physically and emotionally, angry at the world and at his nephew.
There are still some cottagers coming to the lake, although many have closed their cottages for the duration of the Depression. Some things haven’t changed in cottage country. The year round residents made a living, such as it is, from the “cottagers who now own the lake, the sons of pioneers planted the flowers in the cottagers’ window boxes, and took the high and mighty to fishing holes and then cooked them their catch…and made as much money as they could pry from their guests until the guests went south with the first frost leaving the locals to survive as best they could through the long snows until the tourists came back.” Is it any wonder that Uncle Henry is bitter?
Ben’s life changes when a wealthy American buys a big cottage and hires him to help with repairs for the summer. This is a summer of transition for Ben. School has finished at Grade 8. Ben is expected to work and contribute to the family income. As much as he would like to leave, he feels that it is impossible. This summer he has a taste of the outside world as he helps in the cottage when guests arrive from New York and Toronto. Ben wants to be part of this world but sees no way out of his present life. What Ben doesn’t quite realize is that his mother also feels trapped and when the novel climaxes in a tragedy that changes both of their lives, it also releases them from a life of poverty and isolation.
This is a superb novel for readers ages 13-17, especially boys. There is the history of the Muskokas in the age of their grandparents, perhaps encouraging some inter-generational conversation about the lives of their own family members. There is humour, I laughed at the barbershop scene – “Now the Leaf’s - I think they can go all the way.” Some things really haven’t changed. I just about cried at some of the conversations between Ben and his mother, and was held in absolute suspense during the scene of a storm on Lake Muskoka.
Books for young readers have to work for all ages, and this one certainly succeeds.