A couple of weeks ago, a Vankleek Hill friend emailed me about a book a friend of hers had just published saying I might like to read it. The book is Letters from Johnny by Wayne Ng of Ottawa. The next week, I got another email from the same friend notifying me about an interview with Ng on “In Town and Out” with Giacomo Panico on CBC radio. My friend reported that the producer of the radio program had loved the book! I listened, and then I ordered and read it.
I, too, loved the book! Letters from Johnny is just what the title says. The book is a compilation of letters from Johnny, first to a school-project pen pal followed by letters to his hockey idol Dave Keon, Captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not only do these letters lay-out for the reader Johnny’s innocent observations about his world, but they also reflect Ng’s ability to delve into and portray the thoughts and concerns of his young protagonist.
Johnny is an 11-year-old fifth grader and the son of Chinese immigrants living in Toronto on Henry Street in the 1970s at the time of the FLQ Crisis in Quebec. In his letters, Johnny expresses his efforts to explain and understand the grown-ups and situations of everyday life surrounding him. The 140 pages of the book reveal not only a coming of age story but also reference part of the self-discovery of Canada. Both Johnny and Canada are similar in experiencing murder, betrayal, crisis and resolution.
I do not want to give readers any prompts, in other words a summary, but I will say that Johnny is an endearing youngster and his writing is filled with humour. Anyone who has dealt with children working in a second language will recognize right away the struggle children sometimes have with spelling and choosing the correct word. Those readers won’t laugh at Johnny but will chuckle in empathy and think, “Oh yeah, I’ve been there!” A reader or two may even remember themselves once having been in Johnny’s shoes.
This is not a Covid story, but it serves to remind us that children at any point in time are trying to make sense of the adult world swirling around them. Johnny often admits to not knowing why, but he doesn’t ask. It behooves all of us as adults to recognize this predicament and truthfully and compassionately fill in with explanation and support where we can.
Wayne Ng works as a social worker in Ottawa, but he and his wife Trish have often enjoyed outings to Vankleek Hill to visit friends. Ng is an award-winning short story and travel writer. He is also the author of two other books of historical fiction Finding the Way: A novel of Lao Tzu and another slated for publication soon. Further information on the author and his books can be found at www.waynengwrites.com.
This book review was written by Eva Levesque, an avid reader and a member of several local book clubs.