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The Lynching of Louie Sam by E. Stewart

Stewart, Elizabeth. (2012). The Lynching of Louie Sam. Toronto: Annick Press. Print.

In 1884, Louis Sam, a 14-year-old from the Stó:lō nation, was lynched on Canadian soil by American vigilantes. The teen was taken from police custody, where he was being held on suspicion of murder of a Washington Territory settler named James Bell. In this fictionalized account, Elizabeth Stewart tells the story of the lynching of Louie Sam through the eyes of 15-year-old George Gillies, a witness to the event.

At first, George fervently believes that Louie Sam is guilty of the crime. But after he and his best friend Pete Harkness follow the vigilantes north into Canada and witness the hanging of Louie Sam, George’s certainty waivers. Louie Sam is so young, and doesn’t seem like a killer. Could the lynch-mob have killed an innocent boy? Was this murder rather than an act of justice? As George begins to piece together the puzzle of James Bell's death, his uncertainty grows.

Stewart’s prose is clear and concise, the characters believable, and the plot well-paced. The mystery of James Bell's death develops in such a way that observant readers will pick up the clues. The novel's sense of time and place also rings true. Some of the novel’s racist dialogue is upsetting, but as Stewart notes in her foreword, it is reflective of the attitudes of the time, and integral to the plot and theme.

The lynching of Louie Sam occurs within the first 90 pages of the novel, and we never hear Louie Sam speak. This is an interesting choice, and a fitting one. In the novel, as in life, Louie Sam is silenced.

Instead, the tragedy of his short life and violent death is reflected in George’s coming of age; George matures emotionally and morally with his growing awareness of the prejudice and injustice within his community. Elizabeth Stewart has crafted a compelling young adult novel centred on important themes of racism, justice and personal responsibility. These important themes are deftly developed; the tone never becomes preachy or pedantic. Strong curricular ties to both English and social studies programmes will appeal to teachers. The Lynching of Louie Sam is perfect for the senior high school library.

Recommended: 3 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: Nancy Prentice

Nancy Prentice is a teacher-librarian, and the learning leader of the Learning Commons at Forest Lawn High School in Calgary.