by Karen Autio
Sono Nis Press
In 1915 Port Arthur Ontario, Saara Mäki and her younger brother John, from Karen Autio's Second Watch (Sono Nis Press, 2005) and Saara's Passage (Sono Nis Press, 2009), may seem to be typical Finnish children in their community but, with the Great War on in Europe, nothing is typical anymore. John's Ukrainian friend Fred has had his father herded away to an internment camp. Then a man at the grocery store calls the Mäki family "enemy aliens". Even Saara has worries that she may not progress from Junior Fourth to Senior Fourth because she's been away for months helping her aunt who has TB. And the news is rife with the case of Carl Schmidt, a German who participated in dynamiting an armory, a plant and the Nipigon River railway bridge, almost. Suspicions abound.
Alternating chapters in the voices of Saara and John, Sabotage begins at the onset of summer holidays. While Saara, now 14, must work away at delivering her mother’s sewing work and completing assignments that would allow her to pass into the next form, John (9) delivers newspapers with Fred, and keeps his ears open to all the gossip and any news the reporters might share. Though Saara is pestered by John’s pranks and outrageous ideas, she is forced to watch him and even work with him whenever directed by their mother. When a new boy, Peter Schmidt, joins them in playing war, Saara meets his sister, Birgitta, and they become fast friends.
While John’s suspicious but observant nature helps him to find evidence of sabotage and get him rewarded with the moniker of “Scoop”, he and many others see sabotage and saboteurs everywhere, whether it be a fire in a grain elevator (a fairly common occurrence) or a person speaking German. But when their own actions are misinterpreted as suspicious, and their father is accused of attempting to blow up the grain elevator, John and Saara must work together and ask for help of those who disapprove of them if they are to help their father and prove that all landed immigrants are not dangerous enemy aliens.
Although the premise behind Sabotage is, well, sabotage, Karen Autio paints a picture of a Canadian community on the edge: men away at war, never coming back; women need to find work to help support their families and help with household duties previously shared with their spouses; families of internees are left without support, financial and emotional; flagrant prejudice is leveled against those who speak other languages regardless of their loyalties, community connections, and valuable contributions; censorship of letters shows up between children; attempts to unionize workers and institute labour reforms are seen as suspicious; and paranoia about everyone and everything abounds. The little pleasures of an ice cream with a beau are few and far between (though sweet), as is play for children. Youth like Saara and John, as well as Fred, Birgitta, Peter and others are slammed hard with the realization that the world and the adults running it are not always hospitable and generous, or even rational. It was a hard lesson to learn, I’m sure. Credit to those adults who could demonstrate sound judgement during a time of war, and impressed that model upon children, because in a world where there really were saboteurs aiming to do harm, there was enough to worry about.