The Boy with an R in His Hand

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The Porcupine's Quill, 1980 - History - 112 pages

`It is a pleasure to find that James Reaney's first book for children, first published by Macmillan of Canada in 1965, has just been re-issued in a handsome paperback edition, complete with the original illustrations by Leo Rampen. The Boy with an R in His Hand tells the story of two orphan brothers who arrive in York from the Red River Settlement in 1826 and quickly become involved with the complex politics of Upper Canada. Joel, the elder brother, aligns himself with the Family Compact and his overbearing, stuffy uncle, while Alex, more imaginative and courageous, becomes an apprentice to William Lyon Mackenzie at the Colonial Advocate. There he (and the reader) learn in some detail about Mackenzie's press and the art of type-setting. Alex, rather improbably, ``had it set up right, and from that moment on his progress in the skill of type-setting was... like a house on fire.''

`This is a satisfying, fast-moving story, full of incident and detail about colonial life. It climaxes with the wrecking of Mackenzie's printshop and press by a band of young Tories acting with the implicit approval of the government, at the end of which Alex finds a single capital R, his souvenir of life as a printer's apprentice. Recommended for ages nine and up, as a piece of Canadiana which enlivens history for the young reader.' -- Marilyn Rueter, The Devil's Artisan.


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This is a very cute short novel, a coming of age story really for a young boy named Alec who spends a year living in York. Young Alec is made an type apprentice at William Lyon Mackenzie's printing shop and the book culminates in the ransacking of William Lyon Mackenzie's printing shop. I love personification of some of York's founding families: Bishop Strachan, William Allan, and the Jarvises. I am not sure if the boy's uncle is a historical figure (John Simcoe Macalister) or if he is loosely based on the real John Simcoe Macauley. The novel pits the mean, evil Tories/Family Compact against the Mackenzie and his supporters including young Alec. It does a good job of depicting the animosity that many "gentlemen" must have had towards Mackenzie. The author captures the sense of the smallness, the class distinctions, and the hardships of living in Muddy York. I love the hand drawn pictures too. This book is available online via Google Books. 


Contents Introduction
The Boys Arrive at Muddy Little York
By the way to Uncle Johns
The Girl with an R on Her Hand
A Bear from Its Cage
A Spoon for Doctor Strachan
Alecs Journal
A Very Short Chapter
A Pie for Sunday
An Unexpected Return

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About the author (1980)

James Reaney was born on a farm in South Easthope near Stratford, Ontario in 1926. He has won the Governor General's Award three times for his poetry, though he is perhaps better-known as a playwright, especially for his landmark Donnelly trilogy (1974-75). Reaney's theatrical adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking-Glass returned to the stage at Stratford in the summer of 1996.His work includes: The Red Heart, poems, 1949; A suit of Nettles,

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