Monday, February 28, 2011

Heroic proportions

A  Black man in the ‘wild’ west of Canada; a freed-slave who makes good as a rancher in southern Alberta; a man with endless integrity and huge physical strength, John Ware has become one of those larger-than-life people who make for good storytelling.

The graphic novel, The Duchess Ranch of Old John Ware by James Davidge (971.23 DaD 2010) portrays the life and times of this man from his release as a slave after the American Civil War, to his early cow-hand days in Texas and Montana up until he establishes his own ranch near Drumheller in Alberta.  We get snapshots of Calgary in its early days (lots of racism, especially for African-Americans) and some of his encounters with First Nations peoples, too.  I doubt many of us would think about the difficulty of establishing a family when there were few Black families with daughters of marrying age in the area, but Ware eventually did marry (happily it seems) to Millie, raising four out of five children.  Life was tough.  Always.

Overall, I liked this book but I didn’t love it.  Occasionally, I found the black and white illustrations a little inconsistent.  The book includes a couple of sections with the author’s poetry which didn’t really appeal to me though once I read the author’s notes about them, I at least could see what he had wanted to achieve with them. For example, the one right at the start of the book speaks to the birth of the universe and the earth, the development of the physical landscapes on earth and evolution of life, up to the 1800s.  I thought this was a little long winded and just wanted to get on with John Ware’s story.  I’m not always the most patient of readers.

I did think the section which included the ‘tall-tales’ about Ware was portrayed in a very interesting way -- as panels of ‘comic-strips’ reminiscent of Buck Rogers from the 25th Century.  Once past the first poem, the narrative keeps moving and does give us a very good sense about the ruggedness of life at this time and Ware’s high standing with those who knew him.  I really liked the way the author handled the death of Ware. It’s fairly stylized but did capture the ‘shock’ of it for me.  In spite of the racism prevalent in Calgary, John Ware had a very large funeral gathering as his casket made its way through the city to what is now Union Cemetery.

The author includes a few pages of notes about each page, or range of pages, giving us lots of insight into the writing process.  The research, deciding what stories to include and how each was to be illustrated, is fascinating to read about. Even though he includes additional information about John Ware’s life, I was left wondering about what happened to the children after his death as Millie predeceased her husband by only a few months.

I recommend this for grades 6 and up.

As my partner says, “this guy deserves a movie.”  John Ware’s life is pretty darn interesting and I, too, think it has potential for either the big or little screen.  Anyone?

Today is Nonfiction Monday at Rasco from RIF.  This is a weekly roundup of children's literature that is focused on nonfiction children's literature.  Well worth a look. 


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