20 March 2016
Small 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.
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.