“What should we tell the kids?” is a common refrain in troubled times. Children’s writers and parents of young readers often encounter a related question: at what age is a child ready to read about subjects that paint a grim picture of human behaviour?
Ellen Schwartz’s The Princess Dolls leads young readers into difficult terrain with its portrait of Canada during the Second World War. The novel is set in Vancouver in early 1942, and opens with a set of wartime concerns that are distinctly Jewish. The characters we get to know intimately are nine-year-old Esther, her brother Jake, their journalist father, and their homemaking mother whose baking is in demand at wartime fundraisers.
Alongside this family, Schwartz’s novel focuses on that of Michiko, Esther’s best friend. The wartime city is seen through the eyes of the two girls, offering a child’s view of the wickedness taking place abroad alongside cruelties developing on the home front.
Esther and Michiko are captivated by a pair of dolls in a toy shop window – expensive, impressively-turned-out, porcelain-faced versions of the young British princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, whom they know from newsreel features at the neighbourhood theatre.
The dolls evoke Canada’s genteel, time-honoured relationship with Britain and its early entry into war based on that cultural relationship.
Esther’s family is haunted by relatives caught in Hitler’s Germany, and the children learn, by stealthily listening to their parents’ hushed voices, about the fate of German Jews in refugee internment and concentration camps.
The disaster the children witness, however, is homegrown, with the increasing dispossession followed by internment orders directed at British Columbia’s Japanese community. Working age men are targeted first, followed by women and children like Michiko, many of them Canadian citizens with no personal relationship to Japan beyond an ancestral past.
For much of The Princess Dolls Esther and Michiko carry on almost as before these events. It is in the novel’s final movements that Michiko’s family is uprooted to be “resettled” in hastily outfitted cabins at Kaslo, in the B.C. interior. They leave behind a grocery store, which we see when Esther and her mother look in after its owners are gone. “The empty store,” Esther thinks, “with cloths spread over shelves, felt like a dead place.”
At Esther’s school, children disappear: “Michiko’s empty desk at school gave Esther a hollow feeling. She avoided looking at it, but her eyes kept being drawn in that direction … The next day, Noriko’s desk was empty. A few days after that, Helen and George Nishi left. Then Yoko.
More empty desks.
By early April there were no Japanese children left.”
The Princess Dolls does not aim to paint the full historical picture of these times. That would include the grim streetscapes of boarded up homes and businesses on Powell Street in the heart of the Japanese neighbourhood; the looting of these left-behind places; hundreds of fishing boats and family cars impounded and auctioned off at a fraction of their value; the indignity of a gathering point for uprooted families at the big livestock barns at Vancouver’s east-side exhibition grounds.
These details are not in Esther’s view, and the closest we come to them is through the provocative anti-government editorials her father writes for his newspaper in response to such actions.
The age of Schwartz’s readers guides her portrait. She maintains a focus on family life, local street life and public schools, the things a primary school-age child or young teen would have experienced and understood most intimately.
The Princess Dolls is richly illustrated by Vancouver artist Mariko Ando. Her drawings run throughout the text in both full-page format and as decorative details. They follow the ingenious approach of Charles Schulz’s way of drawing Charlie Brown – from the point of view of the kids, with parents and teachers largely off-screen. Adults appear in Ando’s illustrations, but the world her images presents is much like the written world in The Princess Dolls, seen from a child’s eye level.
An adult reader appreciates such decisions, while a youthful reader, possibly with the help of a teacher or parent, comes to understand what was done on the B.C. coast at the same time that Jews were being targeted across German-occupied Europe.