________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 12 . . . .February 18, 2005



Irene N. Watts.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2005.
192 pp., pbk., $12.99.
ISBN 0-88776-710-9.

Subject Heading:
Home children (Canadian immigrants)-Nova Scotia-Juvenile fiction.
World War, 1914-1918-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Kristin Butcher.

*** /4



When the horse was shod, the blacksmith straightened up. He watched the owner lead the mare away and looked at me, waiting patiently to see what I wanted. I had a feeling that I had found what I was looking for. This might be my only opportunity to speak up for myself, and my future in the New World.

"My father worked with horses, and so did my grandfather," I blurted. I hadn't planned what I was going to say, but it all came pouring out: about the orphanage and leaving Frankie behind and being turned down by Mr. Mitchell and how this was the life I'd always wanted to work around horses and one day to be a blacksmith like him.


In her newest novel, Vancouver writer/playwright Irene Watts has left behind the wartorn Europe of her award-winning Marianne trilogy and moved on to new territory. Quite simply titled, flower, Watt's latest story is set in Canada primarily Halifax. It is the summer of 2005, so the book's first audience will experience events as they actually unfold, a feature that will no doubt contribute to the already eerie nature of the book.

     As the story opens, Katie Carr is preparing to visit her grandparents in Halifax while her father and his new wife jet off to London, England, for a holiday without her. Resentful of having to share her father with her stepmother, it doesn't help Katie's frame of mind to learn that there is a baby on the way. Her only solace is The Secret Garden, the play her school plans to produce the following winter. Katie has her heart set on playing the role of Mary Lennox, and she intends to use her time in Halifax to prepare for the upcoming auditions.

     Katie's grandparents have purchased an old home which they are in the process of turning into a bed and breakfast. It is a quaint Victorian house with countless rooms, antiques, and even ghosts. Katie's grandparents tell her about a librarian who is said to wander the corridors, but it is the ghost of a girl her own age that begins to visit Katie in her attic room at night. It is obvious from her appearance and the things she says that the ghost lived a very long time ago. Sometimes she and Katie talk, and sometimes the girl is oblivious to Katie's presence. Interestingly, Katie isn't frightened by these visits.

     Readers aren't frightened either, because they know who the ghost is. Interspersed with chapters narrated by Katie, there are others narrated by Lillie Bridges, an English girl who came to Canada a hundred years earlier as a home child from Dr. Barnardo's Orphanage in London. Another home child who traveled on the same ship as Lillie was William Carr, Katie's great-grandfather, whose story Katie learns from her grandfather.

     Eventually all the pieces come together, and Katie discovers that, after losing touch for many years, Lillie and William eventually meet up again, fall in love, and marry. Lillie is, in fact, Katie's great-grandmother.

     It's a tricky business telling stories within stories, especially when the characters involved are dead. It requires the use of devices such as letters, photographs, and a bounty of narrators. In flower, Watts sometimes employs as many as three narrators at one time in order to relate an event. Katie tells readers her great-grandfather's story as told to her by her grandfather. It can get a bit confusing especially the quotation marks! But aside from a few instances when it was necessary to check back to see who was speaking, Watts has managed the task amazingly well.

     flower is an interesting read a modern problem novel and historical fiction combined, with a dash of fantasy thrown in for good measure. It is too bad that so much of the novel's plot hinges on coincidence. The grandparents buy the home Lillie worked in. The old woman they bought it from has photos of Lillie and relates two stories that provide the connection Katie needs to put all the pieces together. William and Lillie are part of the same shipment of home children and, though being sent to different parts of Canada, accidentally find each other again in a totally different location several years later. And finally, though there doesn't seem to be an obvious connection between Katie's experiences in Halifax and her situation at home, she returns to her everyday life with a more positive outlook.

     It is difficult to say who the central character of the novel is. It might be Katie, as she is the main narrator and the story starts and ends with her, or it might be Lillie, whose story is the mainstay of the novel and for whom the book is titled. Unfortunately, having a nebulous protagonist discourages readers from forming a clear bond with either one. They should probably choose Katie—after all, she's the one who's alive, but Lillie is so much more interesting.

     Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable novel. The historical aspects of the book are especially well-handled, both in plot and character development. The story is sure to send young readers dashing off to the attic in search of family treasures.


Kristin Butcher lives in Victoria, BC, and writes for children and young adults.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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