This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 21.1.
Eric Walters’s Innocent is part of Orca Publishers Secrets series, a parallel series to Sevens, a set of seven novels by seven different authors, featuring seven male cousins each set on a quest to accomplish in order to claim their portion of their grandfather’s inheritance. The premise of Secrets is that seven self-proclaimed “sisters”—orphans in the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls in Hope, Ontario—are sent out into the world when the orphanage burns down. Each of the “sisters” is given an envelope by their beloved headmistress, Mrs. Hazelton; the envelopes contain information about their pasts, providing paths for them to take towards their futures.
Betty Shirley is unquestionably innocent, but her naïveté is presented at times as an unexpected ignorance—despite her high grades—and always through a narrative voice that seems not naïve so much as infantile. Throughout the book, we are repeatedly reminded of her goodness: Mrs. Hazelton gushes that her “optimism has been a blessing to us all … you always seem to see the positive in everything” (15); Joe, the cook, comments on her internal strength and goodness (26); and the servants of the family she ends up serving welcome her as a daughter: “starting today,” the housekeeper. Mrs. Meyers coos, “you do have a family—us” (54). Little things throughout the text enforce this artificial feeling of security and support: Mrs. Remington invites her servant Betty (now Elizabeth) to sit a the dinner table—“so we can talk and I can get to know you better” (59)—and drinks with her son to Elizabeth’s health at her arrival (84). In fact, Mrs. Remington orchestrates Elizabeth’s return to Kingston, as Elizabeth’s mother, Victoria, had been a maid in their home before she died. “We all knew and loved her” (61), Mrs. Remington tells Elizabeth. When Victoria became pregnant out of wedlock, Elizabeth marvels, “the Remingtons, rather than asking her to leave, … had made a place for us, and the staff had been like my family” (64). When Richie Remington wants to take Elizabeth to visit Victoria’s and his father’s graves, Elizabeth is surprised: “No one … objected to my taking the time off. In fact, Mrs. Remington had not only agreed but had asked Ralph [the gardener] to pick two big bunches of flowers” (93). It is all too lovely to be true, and the enchanted life Elizabeth leads is not sufficiently mitigated by the mystery that darkens her past.
In her envelope, Elizabeth had found a 1950 newspaper clipping describing her father’s conviction for the murder of her mother. Despite her naïveté, and an insecurity that makes her hesitant to walk to the local bank alone (130), she goes to visit him in prison. In keeping with the ethos of the novel, he “burst into tears” at seeing his “little angel” again, as he proclaims his innocence (144-47). The mystery that develops as Elizabeth and her new police-officer boyfriend, David, delve into the history of her father’s conviction is as unsurprising as its conclusion: corruption within the police force and the oligarchy, leading to murder and false conviction. The red herring in the case is the Remington’s son Richie, who has an undefined mental disability sometimes resembling Down’s syndrome, sometimes autism. Richie’s erstwhile affection for Victoria and Elizabeth, combined with his mental deficiency, are suggestive, as is a scene in which he wrings one of his pigeon’s neck—albeit because the bird was dying (172).
Reading Innocent, I couldn’t really get past the literary ghosts of Porter’s Pollyanna (1913) and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937). All in all, the stereotypic characterization and predictable plot suggest that Eric Walters, so capable in many others of his books, was not fully engaged in the production of this story.