Small Bones (2015), by Vicki Grant

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.

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

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…

Innocent (2015), by Eric Walters

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.

Innocent

Walters - InnocentEric 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.

Walking Home (2014), by Eric Walters

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 20.2.

Walters - WalkinghomecoverWhen I first picked up Walking Home to review it, I was concerned. What do I know about Kenya? How could I possibly determine the authenticity of the social and cultural space Eric Walters is describing? Fortunately, Walters includes an “Author’s Note” at the back (should this be at the front?) which tells us about the Creation of Hope Orphanage he founded in Kenya after a 2007 visit to a friend there. “Accompanied by four children from the Creation of Hope Orphanage, four young Canadians and my good friend Henry Kyatha,” Walters tells us in his “Note,” “we walked the route traveled by my characters. … Over six days, we walked more than 150 kilometers so I could know Muchoki.” With such assurance about the author’s personal investment—material and emotional—in his subject, my own approach to the novel changed: what I was about to read was fiction, certainly, but with an underlying truth that elevates the novel from interesting fiction to a reflection of reality that cannot be ignored.

Muchoki, his mother, and his little sister Jata have lost everything. On January 1st, 2008, armed assailants attacked a church in Eloret, over 300 kilometres north west of Nairobi, and burnt it—and all inside—to ashes. Walter’s fictional characters escaped this massacre. When the story opens, they are living in a refugee camp near Nairobi. When his mother dies in the refugee camp, Muchoki makes the decision to escape with Jata rather than face separation. In far away Kikima, his mother’s people live. His only choice, then, is to take Jata and face the long walk through the dangers of war-torn Nairobi, and out the other side, south towards Machakos. From there, they would ask directions to Kikima, where they hope that the family who do not know of their existence will welcome them. Strong for his sister in this and many ways, Muchoki weaves a narrative of hope for Jata: their mother’s people are Kamba, “people of the string,” so they will follow the string of the legend that will lead them unerringly to their family.

Walking Home is more than the story of Muchoki and Jata’s journey. In keeping with this sort of survival story, it is about what Muchoki learns, how he grows, as they travel towards their destination. Before he leaves the refugee camp, a friendly sergeant tells him that Kalenjin or Kamba or Kikuyu, Luo or Maasi, they are all Kenyans: together they must build a stable country. The bitter hatred Muchoki feels for those who killed his father cannot be assuaged by words, and certainly not all who the children meet on their journey help to dissipate the anger and distrust. But the balance is in their favour, and aid comes from many hands: the sergeant is Kalenjin; a Maasi father and son watch over them for a span; they aid a Luo merchant passing through Kibera, a dangerous Narobi community; their experience—far more than the sergeants words—teaches them that there is a Kenya, encompassing all tribes.

Muchoki leads Jata along the invisible string of his mother’s Kamba heritage, and—as in the folktale—it leads them home.