Valerie Rolfe Lupini,
The Whistle
(Red Deer, 2005)

The Whistle is a story about family secrets. Mary, the novel's protagonist, is a teenager from Ottawa who, while visiting B.C. to help tend to her grandfather and his broken leg, finds an old dog whistle hidden deep in the upholstery of an ancient armchair. The whistle turns out to have the power to whisk Mary back through time. When Mary blows the whistle, as she feels compelled to do, she's pulled out of her own body and is magically deposited into that of her great aunt Mary, her namesake. Under the influence of the whistle's powers Mary experiences, first hand, a family crisis -- one that holds terrible consequences for several members of the Mills family including her grandfather.

Author Valerie Rolfe Lupini does quite a nice job of conjuring up rural British Columbia circa 1914. At this point in time the Mills family has only recently relocated to Canada from England. They're struggling to make their way in their adopted homeland, combining subsistence farming and the running of a ministry in Bircher. But for a minister in a small town, appearances can be critical. So when Rev. Rudyard Mills's eldest daughter, Vera, reveals to her sister Mary that she's with child, it sets in motion events that end in death and despair.

The story Valerie Rolfe Lupini tells in The Whistle is engaging, and young readers will learn a fair bit about life in the early part of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the prose is frequently a bit clunky -- "So she stood beside Aunt Hester, waving and watching until she could see her no more." How Mary can stand beside someone until she can "see her no more" is a bit confusing until one sorts out that the "her" actually refers to Mary's mother, not her Aunt Hester. This roughness in the writing style is a relatively minor irritant and many young readers may be less bothered by it than I am.

The greater difficulty that I have with the The Whistle has to do with the structure of the book. The author sets up the time travel premise so Mary arrives in the body of her great aunt, lives through a period of time in a strictly linear fashion, and is returned to her own time upon hearing the dog whistle blown by her great grandfather Rudyard. This is the way of things for the first half-dozen or so visits to the past. But then suddenly on one trip back Mary experiences the past as excerpts, covering months in her great aunt's life.

Rolfe Lupini may have felt this compacting of time was necessary so that the story didn't bog down in an overabundance of detail, but it breaks the magical rules she'd established for the novel. Magic may allow a writer the freedom to take the reader on an impossible adventure, but there must be an internal logic to the magic if it's going to maintain the reader's suspension of disbelief. The broken manner in which Mary touches down in time through Vera's pregnancy and subsequent illness also causes the reader to lose much of the immediacy of Mary's experience of the past. It blunts what ought to have been the most poignant portion of the story. The author, perhaps, didn't trust that readers would have chosen to follow Mary through these horrific parts of her family's history. If so, I think she's underestimated her audience.

As it stands, The Whistle is a reasonably enjoyable tale, but it could have been a much better book had the author stuck to her magical concept and let it lead her through more difficult, and more powerful, territory.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
26 November 2005

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