The Red River Flood of 1997 swallowed a large portion of southern Manitoba, leaving in its wake stories of tragedy and heroism. The wall of water that crawled toward Winnipeg caused the evacuation of more than twenty-five thousand people, two thousand head of cattle and forty-five thousand chickens. Tens of thousands more were evacuated in the United States, including forty-six thousand residents of Grand Forks, North Dakota. For most, it was a disaster of epic proportions. For Owen and Andrew, the young protagonists in Kevin Mark Fournier’s first novel, it’s an opportunity for escape.
Sandbag Shuffle outlines the journey experienced by the teenagers after they capitalize on the chaos of the evacuation of Grand Forks in mid-April, 1997. Owen, an adventuresome, wheel-chair bound boy, and Andrew, his best friend, cross into Canada on the flooded Red River at Emerson, Manitoba. From there, the boys set out for Winnipeg and the anonymity of the city. On their way, they meet a cast of characters that portray the determination and selflessness of many Manitobans during their struggle to fight the rising waters.
Anyone living in Winnipeg at that time will recognize the accuracy of Fournier’s tale; the armies of volunteers seeking anyone needing help with building sandbag dikes, the rush of refugees moving into the city from southern Manitoba and the Canadian military’s role in helping with the natural disaster. The novel becomes as much about the 1997 flood and how the battle against it was won – and sometimes lost – as it is about a boyhood adventure.
Owen and Andrew find themselves thrown into the struggle, helping the strangers they encounter fight the rising water as they make their way to Winnipeg. Nevertheless, their ultimate goal is a total escape from their past, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to be successful. They con those they’re helping and follow through on various schemes to earn money, food, and shelter.
Sandbag Shuffle is a quick and adventurous read and a solid first effort by Fournier, a Residential Treatment Worker in Winnipeg. It provides the reader an inside look at the one of Canada’s most notable natural disasters and the heart Manitobans showed in surviving it.
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