Edmonton Journal Review - Peacekeepers

Struggling to keep the peace, at home and abroad
Reviewed by: Elena Melnyk

Canada's role in war and its place in the global scheme moves to the forefront every Remembrance Day.

But before she wrote Peacekeepers, her first novel for children, Dianne Linden often felt that juvenile literature did not adequately deal with contemporary world issues or Canada's role in them.

"I just thought that I should give this a try, and after years of procrastination, I actually did," says Linden, who has taught social studies in schools for 23 years as well as literature and literacy courses to teachers at Concordia Uniersity College of Alberta.

In Peacekeepers, Linden has deftly crafted a strong coming-of-age story with such complex themes as a 12-year-old girl enduring cruel bullying at school while her mother, ironically, is on a Canadian peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, thousands of kilometres away.

Linden became intrigued by Canada's peacekeeping mission in Bosnia after meeting a former student, Master Cpl. Leanne Karoles, who had just completed a seven-month tour of duty as a reservist in that country in April 2001. 

Karoles, who is now based in Ottawa, was part of a 1,600-strong Canadian contingent, which included 600 Edmonton troops, that was helping to maintain the fragile peace in the Balkan country still reeling and recovering from a brutal civil war.

Linden was struck by the accounts of Karoles and her colleagues of the jarring poverty they had encountered in Bosnia, where a war-weary and drought-starved people struggled to survive and where basic kindliness and hospitality ran as deep as ethnic hatred and violence.

Some of the young Canadian soldiers wept at the sight of so much poverty and devastation. Others maintained a detached professionalism in order to do their jobs. And still others like Karoles got to know the people on a first-name basis, played with the kids and tried to do whatever they could to make day-to-day life a little easier - repairing the bullet- and graffiti-riddled local school house, giving their bagged lunches away, bringing water to the elderly.

Linden used those experiences as the basis of her fictional character, Cpl. Alice Mackelwain, a peacekeeping single mom trying to keep in touch with Nellie and her younger brother through e-mail.

The world Linden portrays, as seen primarily through young Nellie's eyes, is often a scary and hostile place. But it's a realistic picture, she says, even if it makes adults, especially parents, cringe. 

"Kids are just bombarded with images of violence and sex," she says. "And the place where they act these things out is at school because this is where they gather every day."

Karoles says her old schoolteacher has succeeded remarkably well in recreating the homesickness felt by the soldiers away from their families for months.

But Linden also captured the funny parts, such as Elvis the translator (there were actually two translators named Elvis; the name is popular in Bosnia) and the black humour used by soldiers risking their lives while picking up suppliers from Zagreb. Sometimes they transported food and medicine; other times, toilet paper. 

"It was one of the best experiences of my life," recalls Karoles. "I will never forget the smiles on the faces of the people or how grateful they were.

This book is a great tribute to Canadian peacekeepers in Bosnia, what they experienced as they left their families behind and what their families went through back home."

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