2017/2018 Red Cedar Fiction nominee Pandas on the Eastside by Gabrielle Prendergast is the story of Journey Wind Song Flanagan, who loves her community and all the people that form it. The year is 1972.
“There’s a Chinese boat down at the docks. You know about it?”
“I heard, yes.”
“I need to speak to someone from that boat,” I said. “I need to ask them about the pandas.”
Mr. Huang folded up his newspaper and took off his glasses. Then he looked at me the way he looks just before he gives me a donut, kind of sad and gentle.
“That boat crew is Hong Kong. Speak Cantonese. I speak Mandarin. Different language,” he said. “You understand?”
“No,” I said honestly. “They’re Chinese. You said you speak Chinese.”
Mr. Huang sighed. “What languages do we speak in Canada?”
“English,” I said. “Oh, and French?”
“Right. What about Belgium?”
I knew this from school. “Dutch and French?”
“Right. In China are many languages but two big ones. Cantonese and Mandarin. I speak one. Boat crew speaks other. Sorry.” He put his glasses on and went back to his paper.
Journey loves her community, the Eastside of Vancouver, BC. She likes her best friend, Nancy Pendleton, who has what the reader will recognize as dyslexia. She likes Miss Bickerstaff, her teacher, and Miss Bickerstaff’s boyfriend, Ben Wallace. She likes Kellie Rae, who hangs out on street corners at night. She likes Kentucky Jack and Contrary Gary, who don’t have homes, and Officer Pete, who does. She likes Mr. Huang, who runs a corner store. When Journey’s father walks back into her life, though, she’s not sure she likes him. Her father had left before Journey was born, and much as she wants to fill that father-shaped hole, Journey isn’t sure how to have a dad after having a mom and no one else for so long.
Less complicated are her feelings for Miss Bickerstaff, who takes a temporary break from teaching when her 19 year old brother is killed in the Vietnam War. When a ship containing a pair of pandas destined for Washington, D.C., is docked in Vancouver due to a diplomatic scuffle between China and the USA, Journey worries that the pandas are cold and hungry in the shipyard. She persuades Mr. Huang to write to the ship’s crew, and sticks the posters around town near where she had left a trail of bamboo leaves. Journey and Nancy are sure that seeing the pandas will make Miss Bickerstaff happy again.
Journey’s photojournalist father gets her poster in the newspaper, which raises the ire of the Chinese consulate, who wants the pandas to go back to communist China instead of to capitalist America. Ultimately, with the help of both her parents and her whole community, Journey gets Miss Bickerstaff – and everybody she knows – to see the pandas before they head to the American zoo awaiting their arrival.
The cast of characters and their situations are complex. Ben Wallace, for instance, is in Canada to avoid being drafted into the war in Vietnam, which he disagrees with on ethical and practical grounds. Miss Bickerstaff is unable to go to her brother’s funeral because her family disapproves of her relationship with Ben, since she is white and he is black. Some parents in Vancouver want Miss Bickerstaff to be fired, since she is living with but not married to her boyfriend.
Journey’s homeless friends are likewise fleshed-out side characters. The reader sees their gentleness toward Journey and Nancy, and the girls’ reciprocal kindness (sometimes with pragmatic motives, as when they help Kentucky Jack panhandle because they need a few coins as well), and their troubles. Journey is matter of fact about the physical unpleasantness of, say, Kentucky Jack vomiting on himself when he drinks to forget the Vietnam War, and entirely practical when dealing with Contrary Gary who generally does the exact opposite of what he thinks anybody wants.
Mr. Huang strikes a fine balance as a realistic character who helps the protagonist, rather than falling into the role of mysterious, gruff yet soft-hearted Asian mentor. Mr. Huang’s insistence that he is Taiwanese, not Chinese, though he writes Chinese and speaks Mandarin, gently touches on Taiwanese-Chinese tension and on the many Asian nations. differentiating between the many Asian nations, rather than defaulting to Asian = Chinese. Mr. Huang opens Journey’s eyes to a few basic facts about Chinese languages, written and spoken, which though common knowledge to most Vancouverites today, were less widely known among Vancouver’s non-Asian population in the 1970s. Mr. Huang is a counter-balance to the stiff Chinese consul, who though antagonistic is in the end shown as one man doing his job in a difficult situation.
Not all parts of the story work as effectively. Journey is remarkably aware of social prejudice against the Eastside and its residence, possibly too aware for a ten year old, and her refrain that things are hard in the Eastside is oddly juxtaposed with her more constant comments on how nice (implicitly, normal) the people in her neighbourhood are. Journey’s forced apology to a substitute teacher feels abruptly out of character and a less convincing echo of Anne of Green Gables’ apology to Mrs. Lynde. The first person-narrative tends to tell rather than show in run-on sentences that seem to address the reader yet keep the reader from sharing Journey’s feelings first-hand. Journey’s friendship with Anjali is hardly noted until Anjali and her grandfather become necessary for a certain scene. The few mentions of First Nations people are slightly problematic, notably the correlation between being native Hawaiian and being a princess. Finally, Nancy’s quick comprehension of Chinese characters is a stretch, even taking into account a Chinese babysitter who regularly consulted the I Ching. On the positive side, however, this side-plot offers an interesting, real-life method that people with dyslexia use to read.
There are also a few continuity errors. Journey reports that her mom tells her to ignore Kellie Rae, a fifteen year old prostitute; on a later page Journey quotes her mom as saying that Kellie Rae is a good girl in a bad situation. Journey knows that her black hair and dark eyes must be inherited from her dad, since her mom is red-headed, yet a dozen pages later asks her mom why she has darker colouring.
Character growth throughout the book is subtle. Some minor characters do not change. Some grow in some ways yet remain immature in others, such as Journey’s dad, who begins to act as a parent yet tends to view women as sexual objects. More significant characters, such as Mr. Huang and Nancy, grow; Journey in particular grows in empathy, knowledge, and activity. Character growth is consistently depicted as a result of new or continually developing relationships with other people.
The great strength of this story is the emphasis on community. Journey succeeds because she engages everyone in her community. She strengthens her relationships with the people around her; she listens to them, expresses herself honestly, and thinks about the new ideas and facts she learns. Journey’s limited finances are taken in stride without becoming the centre of the story; ultimately, money has nothing to do with Journey’s adventure, in which everybody, not one lone hero, brings happiness to the community.
An earlier version of this review was published in CM, the Canadian Review of Materials.