Red River Raging

11 February 2015

Red River Raging
by Penny Draper
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$10.95 ISBN 9-781550-505849

It’s a dull, wet day and I’ve nowhere to be but home-hurray!-because today I’ve had the distinct pleasure of reading Penny Draper’s novel Red River Raging cover-to-cover, and it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Coteau Books published Red River Raging as part of its Disaster Strikes! Series, which includes six other Draper titles. After reading this latest book, I certainly see why Coteau keeps Draper on its publication roster: this “Juvenile Fiction” is a terrific story, skillfully told, and I’m happy to sing its praises to readers of any age.

The back cover copy whet my appetite for this gripping Manitoba-flood-based, coming-of-age story. Thirteen-year-old Finn is the only child of Vancouver scientists, and while his parents are off to Russia, their reluctant son’s exiled to the rural, St. Agathe MB home of his cookie-baking grandmother and crusty-but mysterious-great grandfather.

Finn quickly makes friends at school, including Clara, who becomes his girlfriend (and has an interesting side-story herself); and Aaron, who “got run over by a bale of hay” and is in a wheelchair. When a major flood threatens, Finn initially feels “It’s about as exciting as reading a murder mystery when you already know who the murderer is and when he’s going to strike,” but he soon learns how real and devastating it will be when the Red River becomes the Red Sea. He rallies classmates to create a sandbag-filling “Flood Club,” the military helps out, and even Peter Mansbridge arrives: “everybody’s saying that his being here officially makes this a disaster. Now we can panic.”

One of Draper’s greatest achievements is how she seamlessly unrolls the plot of this adventure story-about the 1997 Red River flood disaster-and also spins out a very credible character story. I became completely entranced by the likeable and humorous narrator, Finn, but the author also does a bang-up job of developing secondary characters, like Aaron, and the young geography teacher, Ned; they seem like real people, not just “extras”.

Finn tries to figure out his 94-year-old great grandfather, who goes by his surname, Armstrong, and “kind of looks like a garden gnome, only mean.” The boy is perceptive. He says “I’ll use my wiles to break into Armstrong’s mind,” and eventually the pair begin bonding over that great game, cribbage. Finn recognizes that when he’s with his parents on global assignments, his anthropologist father hires a grad student “supposedly to be my babysitter. But I’m actually bait. The grad student’s real job is to write a paper about how the local kids live. So they need me to get out there and play with all the kids.”

We witness Finn transform from city boy to country boy, from a child to a young man who loves “to see the walls of white bags grow around somebody’s life and know that I’m helping them protect what they love the most.”

There is an exceptional, other-worldly sub-plot that I don’t want to give away: please buy this eminently satisfying book, and discover it. Wow, wow, wow.


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