Small Bones (2015), by Vicki Grant

20 March 2016

Grant - Small BonesSmall Bones 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 $138 by their beloved headmistress, Mrs. Hazelton, along with often the most vague information about their backgrounds, providing tenuous paths for them to take towards their futures.

In Small Bones, timid, highly imaginative Dot feels like she has been abandoned by Mrs. Hazelton, sent out into a harsh, unwelcoming world when she would rather stay in the comfort of their familiar small town, however socially dead an end that might be. Dot’s insecurity is somewhat assuaged by the seeming simplicity of the clue to her identity, for the new-born Dot had “arrived wrapped in an expensive coat complete with the store label and the initials of the man who owned it” (20), along with an engraved silver mustard spoon hidden in its pocket. Dot travels down to the fictional Buckminster by train, only to discover—unsurprisingly, or we would have little plot—that the store, Howell’s of Buckminster, closed in 1944, three years before Dot had been born. Dot has a birth date: July 8th, 1947, but not even verification of the place.

After a brief prologue set in 1947, the story begins in media res, with Dot on the train, intimidated by a young man who winks at her: “A real wink. Not a there’s-a-little-something-in-my-eye type of flutter … a genuine hey-baby-how’s-it-going wink” (6). The whys and the wherefores of Dot being on the train are revealed in flashback. Again unsurprisingly, Eddie turns out to be the love interest in the story, insinuating himself effortlessly into Dot’s life. Small Bones, more than any of the other of the Secrets series (Innocence perhaps excepted), is centred on the romance; the search for Dot’s parentage slips into the background of her desire to help Eddie produce a good story for the newspaper. As she builds her knowledge of what happened in Buckminster on July 8th, 1947, Dot admits

I wanted to find my parents. I wanted to find out who I was, where I came from, all that stuff. But that was only part of it now and not even the best part.

I was in it now mostly for other reasons. The way Eddie’s face kind of lit up when I mentioned something he hadn’t thought of yet. The way we didn’t even have to look at each other to know we were both thinking the same thing. The way we could sit happily for hours… (168)

Initially in her own interests, Dot maneuvers Eddie into researching the local legend behind the “Bye-Bye Baby party” held every July 8th in the woods near the resort where Dot has found work. There is no question to the reader, once the legend is revealed, that it is real and that Dot is the baby who was spirited away that night. Part of the problem is that the reader really doesn’t’ change focus away from Dot’s mystery the way that she herself does. It’s rather difficult, then, to have patience with Dot continually failing to tell Eddie her own place in the story. Perhaps it is a little of a personal hang-up, but I really do not appreciate narratives founded on either intentional duplicitousness or characters making decisions that have no logical validity; Small Bones contains both. Eddie sees Dot dropped off at the train by Mrs. Welsh, her rich employer, whom he assumes is Dot’s mother. While we can understand why Dot initially sees no reason to dissuade him of this illusion, once she begins to establish a relationship with him, there seems to be no reason for the continued subterfuge. And once they start to try to determine the truth, and Dot’s overcoat and silver spoon become important evidence, her choices become not only ethically questionable but a narratively untenable weakness. This failure to reveal results in Dot’s outright lies to Eddie at the climax of the narrative. That is all works out in the end (again unsurprisingly) does not mitigate the annoyance the reader feels towards Dot’s choices throughout the story.

[spoiler follows]

Small Bones gives us is an almost unmitigatedly happy ending: Dot and Eddie’s relationship recovers from the lies and omissions; Dot’s father is discovered to not be Eddie’s father; and Dot’s mother sends a beautiful letter and meets her new-found daughter with hugs and tears at the end of the book. All in all, I think I prefer any of the other endings (again, Innocent excepted), where the secrets the seven sisters discover lead them into adulthood with a greater maturity and understanding, rather than just the security of love and family that Dot finds.

The Bury Road: Tales from the Bruce Peninsula (2015), by Donna Jansen

13 March 2016

Jansen - Bury Road
The Bury Road Girls is “loosely based on [the author’s] own childhood experiences growing up on the Bruce Peninsula in a family with seven girls” (back cover), which does provide a satisfying degree of verisimilitude to the story. Sadly, though, there isn’t much actual story to be had. What we have, rather, is a series of vignettes loosely held together by characters and setting (Debbie’s family and the Bury road community) that present for the reader some aspects of life in a rural Ontario community in the 1960s.

Jansen tells an Owen Sound Sun Times reporter that it was her grandchildren’s love of her stories that prompted her to write the book, and I can see how the tales of a by-gone era would be engaging both to her own family and modern urban readers, who could well be fascinated learning about girls doing boys’ farmwork, haying and threshing and driving the tractor, and a time when getting the strap was still part of school discipline. I remember those days well; rural BC communities were obviously not all that different from those in Ontario.

As a text, Bury Road Girls falls properly under the genre of the short-story cycle: neither a collection of distinct short stories nor a novel with plot or intertwined plot-lines running start to finish through the course of the single narrative. What is required of the short-story cycle, though, is some form of overarching cohesion that ties the vignettes or stories together into a whole. The Bury Road does try to present this: the concluding paragraph has Debbie revisiting the main points of each incident, searching for the Big Dipper up in the sky (another iconic rural childhood activity), because “finding it made her feel safe.” This safety, the protection and camaraderie of the family unit, is perhaps the glue that holds the narrative together, but it is sufficiently well crafted to cause the narrative to glow. The narrative voice is simple and enjoyable, and the images of rural life that we are given are true-to-life and interesting, but I can envision a more engaging way of delivering the vicarious experience.

The Secrets series (2015), published by Orca Books, Victoria, BC

8 March 2016

Secrets seriesIn 2012, Orca Publishers released Sevens, a set of seven novels by seven different authors, featuring seven male cousins each set on a quest to fulfill in order to claim their portion of their grandfather’s inheritance. Now, in 2015, Orca has released Secrets, a parallel series with female protagonists.

The foundation of this series is the destruction of an orphanage by (we assume) accidental fire. Set in 1964, at a time when national regulations governing child welfare were in flux, the series follows the lives of the seven oldest girls in the orphanage. At eighteen, the girls would have been sent out on their own; the fire merely precipitates their setting out into the world. Each of the self-proclaimed “sisters” is given $138 by their beloved headmistress, Mrs. Hazelton, along with often-vague information tenuously linking their present to their pasts, providing indeterminate paths for them to take towards their futures.

While I really enjoyed the majority of the Secrets novels, the overall premise for the series disturbs me just that little bit. Why is it that the cousins in the Sevens series are sent out into the world on challenging adventures that turn help them grow into independent adulthood, the girls’ stories follow a far more limiting path. To begin with, Sevens is contemporary, while Secrets is set in 1964, a time when—despite second-wave feminism—womanhood was still circumscribed by relatively unyielding patriarchal norms. Miss Webster, Home Economics teacher at the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls, teaches the girls that they “should be happy learning to sew for their future husbands and children … that marriage was a woman’s highest calling” (33). That readers are supposed to recognize this as a social construct to be battled does not mitigate sufficiently against the subtle yet pervasive attitudes that feminists have worked so hard to overcome between the 1964 setting and the 2015 publication of these novels. And sadly, the novels as a whole do quite a good job at recreating mid-1960s social mores. Each of the girls sets out on an adventure, granted, but not to solve a mystery surrounding their grandfather’s past (as in Sevens) but rather to resituate themselves within the safety—both personal and societal—of the family unit. Where the male protagonists’ anxieties play out in the context of a larger ideological world they will have to navigate, the female protagonists’ challenges are constrained by the social and familial.

That being said, a number of books in the series do address interesting historical events or situations. While Eric Walter’s Innocent presents little more than a glimpse into the life of a domestic servant in 1964, caught up in a murder mystery including the romancing of Betty by the local police officer, and Vicki Grant’s Small Bones does the same for life in one of the summer resort towns that dot Ontario’s lake shores, the other novels have far more historical significance. Marthe Jocelyn’s A Big Dose of Lucky presents a fictional look at the early history of artificial insemination research; Norah McClintock’s My Life Before Me looks at race relations in Indiana (one of the early free states) at the time of the murder of three civil rights’ workers in Mississippi; Kathy Kacer’s Stones on a Grave takes readers to what is left of Föhrenwald, Germany, seven years after the Allied Displaced Persons Camp there was closed in 1957; Kelley Armstrong’s An Unquiet Past (perhaps my favourite) looks at early, illicit experimentation in sleep deprivation therapy; and Teresa Toten’s Shattered Glass delves into the vibrant Toronto musical community centred on Gerrard Street in the 1940s and Yorkville in the 1960s. It is these later books, too, that present the strongest female protagonists: Tess, in An Unquiet Past ends up attending McGill university in Montreal (albeit with her Métis boyfriend in tow), and Sara, in Stones on a Grave, takes the brave step of staying in Germany (albeit partially because of young Peter, who helps her on her quest). The only protagonist who doesn’t end up in a romantic relationship at the conclusion of her novel is Cady, in My Life Before Me, who follows in the footsteps of Nellie Bly (why not Sara Jeannette Duncan, I ask myself, the Canadian Nellie Bly? but that is a different topic entirely) and researches what turns out to be her father’s 1948 murder. It is important to note, though, that Cady’s male counterpart in investigation is Daniel, the younger brother of the Black man wrongfully convicted of the murder. Within the context of 1964 Indiana, there would be no way that Cady and Daniel could establish a viable romantic relationship. The relationship between French-Canadian Tess and Métis Jackson in An Unquiet Past pushes the boundaries of believable; a fully interracial relationship in 1964 USA would unquestionably exceed them.

Despite my reservations, I am glad Orca has published this series: mostly, I think, for the valuable historical content that these last five books present. And a little bit because—the inappropriateness of perpetuating gendered narrative expectations aside—I do love a sweet romance. Mea culpa. Save yourselves and your daughters; it is too late for me…

The White Oneida (2014), by Jean Rae Baxter

23 February 2016

Baxter - White O In her earlier young adult historical novels—The Way Lies North (2007), Broken Trail (2011), and Freedom Bound (2012), Jean Baxter explores the lives of the United Empire Loyalists, Native Americans, and African-American slaves during and shortly after the American Revolution. We follow the history of the Cobham family—among others—as they flee persecution in the United States, separated by the turmoil of the conflict. John Cobham and the eldest son, Elijah, left to fight for the British; the second son, Silas, later followed them; the youngest son, Moses, ran away and was found and adopted by an Oneida community; the only girl, Hope was a babe in arms as the family fell apart.

The White Oneida follows this exploration into the aftermath of political decisions made at the time, specifically those regarding the First Nations and land rights. The White Oneida is Moses Cobham, raised from the age of ten as Broken Trail. As the story opens, Broken Trail has been sent by Thayendanegea—known in history books as Joseph Brant—to Sedgewick School in Vermont, where promising young Native youths were being taught the White Man’s ways ostensibly to prepare them to “go forth to preach the Gospel in many tongues” (13). This, however, is neither Thayendanegea’s nor Broken Trail’s intent. Broken Trail is being educated explicitly to help forge alliances between the various First Nations, to gain a “gentleman’s education that will help prepare [him] to assist [Thayendanegea] in negotiations with white diplomats as well as with his plans to make a better future for native people” (5), and Broken Trail approaches his commission very earnestly.

In a twist on the Muscular Christianity “school novel” tradition, lacrosse plays a role in honing Broken Trail’s leadership abilities, but in the interest of promoting unity amongst the native peoples, not in the promulgation of Christian doctrine. This plot element draws also on historical allusion. The story, roughly told, is that at the outset of the Pontiac Rebellion of 1763, lacrosse functioned as a Trojan Horse: the First Nation warriors played lacrosse in the fields outside Fort Michilimackinac so often that the activity was considered harmless. When a ball was sent over the fort walls in a particular match between the Ojibwas and the Sauks, the British opened the door to return it; the natives surged through, decimating the fort. In The White Oneida, the metaphor of lacrosse as “the little brother of war” (49) functions on a deeper level. At Sedgewick School, the game, in traditional fashion, pits the Algonkian Shooting Stars (populated by students from the Mississaugas, Potawatomis, Ottawas, Shawnee, and Mohican nations) against the Six Nations Eagles (with students from the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations: the the Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayugas, Onondaga, and Tuscarora). Recognizing the politically divisive nature of this recreational rivalry, Broken Trail asserts that he will only play if he plays for the Shooting Stars; he is supported by Lean Horse–Abraham, a Mohican who crosses the floor to the Eagles’ team (109). This is Broken Trail’s first success as a leader: despite initial opposition, not only the students but two of the teachers are converted to his position that “with mixed teams we’ll feel more like brothers than rivals … that’s what we need if we’re ever going to stand shoulder to shoulder to defend our lands” (111).

Broken Trail comes to Sedgewick School as a firm acolyte of Thayendanegea, but his hero-worship is disturbed by his teacher, half-Mohawk Mr. Johnson, whose opinion of Brant is less idealized. Thayendanegea, Mr. Johnson tells Broken Trail, means “places-two-bets”: a fitting name for Captain Joseph Brant, who “gambled to become a fine gentleman in the white man’s world and a war chief in ours. He won both bets” (67). Baxter - Haldimand TractIn 1784, Brant “won” for the Six Nations the Haldimand Tract: a grant of land stretching 6 miles either side of the Grand River for its entire length, 950 000 acres, give or take, in total. When Broken Trail comments that “the Haldimand Tract doesn’t belong to Captain Brant. It belongs to the people of the Six Nations,” Mr. Johnson derisively asks “Does Brant know that?” (67). Mr. Johnson further tells Broken Trail that Brant has been “selling off Six Nations land as if it were his own property” (139); it is historical fact that Brant did sell parts of the Haldimand Tract to white settlers. Later in the novel, Brant is given his own voice to respond to such accusations. Brant disillusions Broken Trail of his belief that the Haldimand Tract was granted to the Iroquois in recognition of their loyalty, explaining the military rationale behind the grant (220). He goes on to explain that the grant was “both too small and too large”: “too small for the Six Nations to live in the old way [but] more than what we require for farms. So why not sell land we don’t need in order to raise money for the things we do?” (221). By this point, we are willing to believe that Brant’s rationale is what he believes to be true, but it is to Baxter’s great credit that—like Broken Trail—we are not really sure that any of the versions we are given are actually truth.

In the context of the novel, the cynical Mr. Johnson has a valid perspective. This is another of the strengths of Baxter’s historicity: her fictional characters are constructed such that their knowledge and opinions are justified and believable. Brant, as a historical figure carries his own credibility, but the fictional characters seem equally “real.” Mr. Johnson, for example, is presented as “one of Sir William Johnson’s sons” (27) from his union with Molly Brant, Joseph Brant’s sister. The Dictionary of National Biography verifies Baxter’s information about the Johnson family, should a reader choose to check. They likely wouldn’t: so much of Baxter’s information reads as historical truth.

(An interesting tangential note is that Canadian poet-performer, E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), who adopted her great-grandfather’s native name of “Tekahionwake,” or “Double-Wampum,” was descended from Sir William. Twice widowed, in 1759 Sir William “married” Molly Brant, who bored him eight children. Johnson had 3 children by his first wife, Mary Wisenburgh, and an unspecified number by his second long-term liaison with a Dutch woman whom he married on her death-bed—hence Broken Trail’s classmate’s comment about Johnson making “good provision for all his children, whether their mothers were native or white” (27). In his will, Johnson calls Molly’s children his “natural children” (see Dictionary of National Biography entry, below). Broken Trail’s fictional teacher, Mr. Johnson, was one of these children, as was E. Pauline Johnson’s entirely non-fictional great-grandfather, Jacob George “Tekahionwake” Johnson.)

It is not the well-constructed plot of The White Oneida that renders it such a successful historical novel so much as the weaving together of the threads of political machinations surrounding the history of the Iroquois nations in Canada and the creation of the Six Nations Reserve in what is now Brant County. The objective history of negotiations and decisions is complex; through Broken Trail’s growing insight and ethical interpretations of what he learns, readers can begin to understand the motivations driving those decisions. More politically aware than Broken Trail, Margaret–Yellowbird tells him that she “doesn’t trust” the American tolerance of the Oneida rebuilding the villages destroyed in the Revolution: “Whenever they seem to be treating us better, they’re just softening us up so they can take more of our land. I think their plan is to push us into little reservations surrounded by white settlements, so each band will be cut off from the rest. That way, we’ll lose our power to act as a single nation” (43). This concern underlies Brant’s intent in sending Broken Trail to Sedgewick School. Broken Trail begins his educational journey believing that Brant’s vision is right, his motivations pure and just. As we leave him, we see that Broken Trail’s belief in the vision is just as strong, but he has a far more balanced and realistic view of the complexities of and contradictions in Brant’s—and others’—attitudes and actions. He has seen that too often “the bannock was buttered and spread with strawberry jam” (223), and he moves ever forward in his desire to negotiate the disparate yet entangled worlds he inhabits.


Sir Leslie Stephen, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, 1921–1922. Volumes 1–20, 22 (London, England: Oxford UP, 1921-1922) p. 939:

Baxter - William Johnson DNB