In this edition of Knyzka Corner, we will be discussing Glen Huser’s novel, Firebird.
Firebird is a historical novel written for young adults. It explores Canada’s history of ethnic discrimination during the First World War.
Canada entered the war in August 1914 to aid Great Britain against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many immigrants had come to Canada at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century to escape oppression and poverty in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
When war broke out, they were labelled “enemy aliens,” by the War Measures Act which was passed in August 1914. Many were imprisoned in forced labour camps across Canada. Glen Huser’s novel explores the impact of this unjust imprisonment on one Ukrainian family.
Fourteen-year old Alex Kaminsky and his older brother Marco live with their Uncle Andrew on an Alberta farm. Marco is a talented artist, but he decides he must find work with a threshing crew in September 1915. One night in early December, Alex’s uncle drinks too much moonshine and falls into a deep sleep. During the night, the house catches fire and he perishes. Alex is badly burned but manages to get out of the house. His neighbours, the Wallaces, take him home to nurse him back to health. As he recovers, he remembers the tragedy of his family journey to Canada, and the deaths of his parents in Hamburg. “The medicine hadn’t helped. Both he and Marco had tried desperately to nurse them, but Mama slipped away first and three days later Tato closed his eyes for the last time.” (p. 25)
When the Wallace family learns about the death of their oldest son Robin, who was fighting in Europe, they are devastated. Suddenly, Alex feels as if some of the family is blaming him for Robin’s death, just because he came from Eastern Europe and was now considered an enemy alien. “What were they thinking? That he had somehow been responsible for Robin’s death?” (p. 48) Alex knows he must leave, and he goes to live with Mr. Bayles, the owner of the general store. Alex gets a letter from his brother Marco who is working for Mr. Granger, an abusive employer in Vegreville. Marco has befriended Granger’s young Ukrainian wife Stella. He does not yet know about the fire. Alex decides he must find Marco. “In his heart he knew that he had to go and search for Marco. They were meant to be together; it’s what Mama and Tato would have wanted.” (p. 63)
Alex begins a difficult and dangerous journey to find Marco. He takes the train to Vegreville, but discovers that his brother was arrested for theft and sent to a labour camp for enemy aliens. “Stealing Granger’s money! Alex felt like screaming with the outrage of it. It must have been his wages. Granger must have tried doing him out of what he’s earned in the months he worked for him.” (p. 90) When Alex visits Granger, the farmer manages to steal Alex’s money as well. Now penniless, Alex must once again rely on the kindness of strangers. He is befriended by Karl Arneson, a Norwegian carpenter who takes him home and sends him to school. His grade six teacher Mr. Daillaine adopts him when Karl’s family can no longer support Alex. Eventually, the teacher’s family helps Alex free Marco from the Castle Mountain Internment Camp in Banff.
This well written and exciting story will introduce young readers to the injustice of the internment camps in Canada during the First World War. By 1920, Canada had imprisoned over 8000 men in these forced labour camps. More than 100 of them died of disease and malnutrition. Some, like Marco and his friend Ivan, were injured or even killed trying to escape. However, the most devastating effect of internment was the psychological damage inflicted on the prisoners, who struggled with their unjust imprisonment for the rest of their lives. In recognition of these injustices, in 2008, the Canadian government created a $10 million “First World War Internment Recognition Fund” to support commemoration projects.
This is a very personal novel for Glen Huser. In his dedication, he states, “In memory of my father, Harry Huser, an immigrant boy, artist, and musician.” His parents were Norwegian immigrants who struggled to make a new home for themselves in Canada like the Kaminsky family. Both Alex and Marco are courageous and determined young men who love their family and their Ukrainian culture. Despite the obvious injustice of the forced labour camps, both brothers find good people to help them survive. Marco falls in love with Granger’s brutalized wife Stella. Alex is helped by several Canadian families, and finally finds a home with his teacher’s widowed Aunt Mattie. The image of Marco’s drawing of the firebird (a bird which rises from the ashes and triumphs in the end) reverberates throughout this poignant novel. When asked about the firebird’s magic, Alex states that the bird dies in the fall, but in spring, it rises, “in brilliance from its own ashes.” (p. 138)
Glen Huser has been a teacher, school librarian, journalist, and sessional lecturer in children’s literature and creative writing at the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia. His first novel, Grace Lake, was shortlisted for the 1992 W.H. Smith-Books in Canada First Novel Award. His books for young adult readers have won many awards such as the 2003 Governor General’s Literary Award winner Stitches, and the 2007 Governor General’s Silver Medal Award winner Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen. His short stories have appeared in literary magazines such as Plenitude and The New Quarterly. Glen lives in Vancouver where he continues to write as well as pursue interests in art and film studies.
Firebird is available at Chapters/Indigo and Amazon (affiliate link here).
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