by Christine Welldon
Red Deer Press, 2020
ISBN 978-0-88995-616-2 (sc)
$14.95, 431 pp, young adult
Christine Welldon originally set out to write a jazz-based novel set in Canada. But instead, she immersed herself in the world of early twentieth-century New Orleans, and the end product is Kid Sterling. Set around the start of the twentieth century, the 10-year-old shoe shine boy wants to be a popular “musicianeer” like his hero Buddy Holden, said by many to be the founder of modern jazz. Over the course of a few years, Sterling Crawford learns to play piano and write musical scores, but he is constantly faced with a web of problems that stem from Jim Crow discrimination. He ends up beaten, threatened with lynching, and thrown into a home for “colored waifs,” and he is regularly forced to select between terrible life choices that surround his hard-scrabble origins. Welldon spent two years researching this work, learning all she could about the food, homes, smells, sounds, and dialects of old New Orleans. As a historian, I can assure you she knows a tremendous amount about the period and manages to intricately weave these details throughout what is an engrossing and very convincing narrative.
Classroom Connections: This is a fairly lengthy manuscript, but the font is large and is organized via a well-spaced layout. The book also includes a glossary, author interview, and a “Whatever Happened To” section that follows up on the lives of real-life characters in the novel (including minstrel Billy Kersands and educator Booker T. Washington). Welldon’s deeply layered work truly brings this period of history alive with a series of exciting adventures that offer insight into racism, class and castes, and the burdens of systemic poverty. Certainly, these are themes that still resonate today in the era of Black Lives Matter. Whether assigned in a traditional literacy setting for a novel study, or as part of a social studies class, this piece of historical fiction will manage to hold the attention of young adult readers, reluctant or otherwise.
Review by George Sheppard.
This book review is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2021 issue.