June 06, 2012

Acts of Courage: Laura Secord and the War of 1812

by Connie Brummel Crook
Pajama Press
261 pp.
Ages 10-14

With the bicentennial of the War of 1812 starting this year, new volumes of historical fiction and non-fiction related to the war's significant events and personalities will be jumping off the presses for the next two years (after all, the War of 1812 lasted from 1812 to 1814).  An early contribution to this list includes Pajama Press' Acts of Courage: Laura Secord and the War of 1812 by Connie Brummel Crook, author of an impressive list of award-winning historical fiction.

Though most readers will know the basics of Laura Secord's fame (no, not chocolate) from the Heritage Minutes that occasionally pepper Canadian television, many will know little besides Laura's struggle through treacherous conditions to warn of an American attack.  By staying true to Laura's undertaking while adding an interesting twist (fictional, of course), Connie Brummel Crook has taken this book from biography to historical fiction with an "Aha!" moment or two.

This story of Laura begins in 1787 when she is only twelve-years-old and living with her father, first step-mother, Mercy, and little sister, Mira, in Great Barrington, on the boundary between Massachusetts and New York.  Laura's father, Thomas Ingersoll, is the judge and captain of the local militia, and often away dealing with the rebels and farmers forced from their lands by exorbitant taxes put in place after the American Revolutionary War.  Laura evades the notice of one such rebel group with the help of a young boy of twelve, who Laura names Red.  Red had come from Ireland to help his uncle farm but, with unpaid taxes, his uncle lost the farm and they have joined the rebels. In return, when the rebels get taken by the militia, Laura takes Red to a neighbour's to hide him, trying to keep him warm and safe and fed.  Though Red leaves promptly the next day, he reappears months later, again trying to keep Laura safe, as well as rescuing her little sister from a fall in the river.

Eight years later, Thomas Ingersoll decides to move the family, now with third wife, Sally, to Upper Canada, tired of the unfairness of America's taxes and courts.  Settling the family in Queenston, with the assistance of a helpful general-store keeper, James Secord, from St. David's, he takes Laura with him to select and prepare the land they've been granted for farming.  Captain Brant, the Mohawk chief, and his people, generously help them clear the land and build their first cabin, though Laura learns about the inequities levelled against the Mohawks, who'd helped the British, and the resulting hardships.

By 1812, Laura is living in Queenston with her husband, James Secord, and their three children, while across the ocean the British are fighting Napoleon and the French.  With the relentless seizure of American trade ships and seamen by the British, America declares war on Britain and Upper Canada readies itself for attack.  After a failed invasion by General William Hull and the Americans from across the Detroit River, an attack on Queenston has Laura heroically rescuing an injured James from behind enemy lines.  But, it isn't until the spring of 1813 that Laura becomes a fixture on the battle stage.  While tending to James, still recovering from his injuries, and her children, Laura begrudgingly feeds soldiers who request or demand food.  It is while one particular group of nasty soldiers stuff themselves on her food that Laura overhears them talking of a surprise attack on Fitzgibbon and his men.  After James tells her that an attack on Fitzgibbon could lead to the taking of the Niagara Peninsula and all of Upper Canada, Laura sets out on her famous trek to warn Fitzgibbon.

Because Connie Brummel Crook has chosen to introduce a fictional character, Red, from Laura's childhood to her story, the plot-line may leave the reader jerked from one time to another.  First we share in the events of a single time in Laura's childhood, until we read of her family's move to Upper Canada when she is a twenty-year-old single woman, and finally moving through her life as a wife, mother, and heroine.  Though I wish the transitions had seemed flawless, Connie Brummel Crook appropriately streams from one to the other as best as possible while telling a life story, with fictional enhancements, in a mere 261 pages.  As such, no subplot or component of the story is gratuitous, each important in explaining and moving the plot to Laura's climactic walk, probably best described as a combination trudge, plod, wade, slog and creep.  Luckily Connie Brummel Crook's telling of Laura Secord's story lacks the toil and anguish of our heroine's defining moment and instead takes the reader through Laura's life's journey to better understand the choices and connections she has made throughout.

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