1940 For YA readers: Halifax in WWI

Out of the Dark
by Julie Lawson

Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 2023
$14.95 / 9781774712344

Reviewed by Alison Acheson


“… just don’t get anything fancy. We are who we are”: words spoken by the main character’s mother in Julie Lawson’s middle grade/young adult novel Out of the Dark. The words reflect a theme to the whole, and elicit the questions: Can we become more? Can we change? Do we grow? And maybe even: Can we be forgiven? Can we forgive?

I write ‘middle-grade-slash-young-adult’ because the range in age for the main character is from age nine to thirteen over the years of World War One, and it’s something of “MG reading ‘up’” and “YA reading ‘down’” as a result. And as such, a reminder that there are no absolutely neat categories for readers—just as there are no neatly categorized humans. 

The sturdy and delightful character of Jane Mooney grows through these pages, and a reader will willingly follow her path; she does grow on you in spite of—or because of—her bullying beginnings. Because we can’t be neat with our definitions of “bully.” Bullies can grow and change, too. And this is a story that, along with other threads running throughout, gives a look at the birth of bullies: where do they come from?

The story opens in year two of the Great War, when it’s been rumbling and killing for a year already. Jane’s fifteen-year-old brother decides to lie about his age and enlist. The reader experiences the anger of the siblings’ father and his reaction to this; and the enlisting, the running away, makes perfect sense, even as it leaves Jane alone as sole girl in the family, and with the realization that in just one day, life can turn around in the most unexpected way and drop you in a completely different place.

That sense of the possibility of a turn-in-a-day carries through the novel, sometimes waiting for the turn, at other times experiencing it. Later, the Spanish flu spreads its nasty stuff—contemporary readers will certainly relate as of 2020—and that flu is not choosey about who it takes; it can be anyone, in brief days, even hours.

And the story is set in Halifax, a town of North End and South End, “haves” and “have-nots.” For the “have-nots” life is exacting and hard. The Halifax Explosion in the early days of December 1917 is yet another incredible hardship of the times and of this story. The trio of major events could be overwhelming. But the truth of such reality is that young people have in fact survived such… and as a result, should be able to read about it, too.

Author Julie Lawson

Victoria writer Lawson brings to life how these events caused societal shift, and she reveals the experience at the level of children’s homes and classrooms, exposing both the cruelty and burgeoning empathy of young people: the neighbourhood busybody can become a source of kindness; the kid from the other side of the tracks might become a friend—or at least a Sunday-afternoon friend; homes can be rebuilt. Improved even.

The questions of “why not be ‘fancy’?” and “can we change who we are?” are in Jane Mooney’s mind as she goes to find furnishings and wares for their new home post-explosion; along with such tangibles, she’s searching for a changed way to be now that the family is free of the fear of their spouse and father, and the cruelty that came of his pain in the world. Why not change it up from being ‘the Bully’? Upheavals can toss up and reveal new layers to being. Work with it, if you can, Jane thinks. But it is hard work, reshaping one’s self.

After the explosion, father and several brothers lost to it, and scarred and injured, life is changed. Jane’s mother’s mental well-being, post-concussion and head injury, is case in point: Will she heal? Is real change possible? What are all her headaches, her need to be in dark rooms, the wanderings of her mind?

The directions of this story are dark, but the writing lightens the whole, and creates depth and caring. There are moments of familial love and friendship and community renewal. There’s even a whiff of romance. Along with these strengths in the work, Out of the Dark is well-researched, both in terms of Lawson’s attention to accuracy as well as in the ways the knowledge is incorporated into the story. With all historical fiction, and especially with writing for young people, it’s key to only give what is needed for the story in that moment of reading and understanding, and for the character to grow within that flow of “real.”

Lawson has hit on all the key pieces for this. The journal-keeping of the young soldier-brother overseas—which frees the novel of any didacticism that could surface with a less skilled hand. These journal entries fill gaps and answer questions that occur to the reader.

Another key piece: the realistic descriptions of the disasters, the explosion, and the epidemic, as well as the words to evoke the end-of-war jubilation!

There is also a scene of other characters bullying the bully—and frankly, that scene is so chilling that I had to squirm my way through it.

Plus, the story is a realistic portrait of the persistent damage of domestic violence and abuse within a family. This aspect is well-handled for the most part, as much as is appropriate for a young reader. There are undercurrents in Out of the Dark, undercurrents of the tumultuous lives of adults; after all, young people are almost always at the mercy of so-called adults, even when said adults are not always the capable and caring people they should be.

Some of the individual characterization slipped somewhat. For most of the novel, Jane is too tough to cry, for instance. When she finally does, though, it goes unnoticed. Yet half a dozen pages later, it is commented on as if for the first time. Is this a slippage of characterization? Writing? Or editing? Here and there through the story there is such repetition: clock hands stopped more than once for instance. Poignancy is about notable moments; it’s enough that such times happen once. Would a young reader notice or care? Probably not. But the undercutting of such moments stood out in an otherwise strong work.

There’s also a Big Reveal storyline that I don’t want to spoil. But it read as if perhaps it had been changed up in some way; I won’t hazard a guess here. But it too could have carried more weight, and resonated more with the shaping of the father’s character and motivation. It left me curious about the choices made to bring the story to the world. Again, the intended readers are unlikely to question.

These points aside, Out of the Dark is a layered and rich age-appropriate story of an historical time, led by a main character who grows as a result of those times, with all the resilience needed. It is an inspiring story, and one that can engender good discussions at home and in the classroom.

Throughout, as Jane learns to value others, even as she manages with the concussive brain injuries of her mother, and with piecing together the past and future of her overseas-brother, she remains true to “we are who we are.” She is Jane. Her earlier bullying evolves into something more aware, but she’ll never be a softie; the toughness she’s always had as a proud Mooney has made her resilient and strong, and serves her. This is real, and how life works.

Even as she does get a wee bit fancy! As should be. 


Alison Acheson is the author of almost a dozen books for all ages, with the most recent being a memoir of caregiving: Dance Me to the End: Ten Months and Ten Days with ALS (TouchWood, 2019). She writes a newsletter on Substack, The Unschool for Writers, and lives on the East Side of Vancouver. [Editor’s note: Alison Acheson has also reviewed books by George M. Johnson, Janice Lynn Mather, Jacqueline Firkins, Barbara Nickel, and Caroline Adderson for BCR; and Dance Me to the End: Ten Months and Ten Days with ALS was reviewed by Lee Reid.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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