CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 1 . . . .September 2, 2005
Sheree Fitch, one of Canada's best-loved storytellers for young children, has intertwined two masterfully told stories in her first novel, The Gravesavers. The contemporary story is about 12-year-old Minn, short for Cinnamon, who is sent to spend the summer in the Maritimes village of Boulder Basin with her curmudgeonly grandmother in order for her parents to heal after the miscarriage of a baby daughter. The past story is about 12-year-old John Hindley, who was the sole child survivor of the SS Atlantic which was shipwrecked more than a century earlier.
Minn and her grandmother, who Minn calls Nana Vinegar, have not seen eye to eye for a long time, but their mutual animosity came to a head some years back during what Minn refers to as the "Night of the Jellied Tongue." Her grandmother had served beef tongue for supper, and Minn refused to eat it and was sent to bed without supper. In retaliation, Minn made an effigy of herself and threw it out her bedroom window so her parents and grandmother would think she was jumping to her death. Since then, Nana Vinegar has had disdain for Minn and her melodrama.
Minn is also somewhat frightened of her grandmother. There is a secret room in her house that Minn is sure holds something evil. Minn's mother has told her that it is just her OI—"overactive imagination." Minn cannot believe that her parents would send her to Nana Vinegar's for the whole summer. She realizes that they are grieving, but it's like they've forgotten she exists.
After her first morning run in Boulder Basin, Minn's eye is caught by what she thinks is an unusual stone. She picks it up and realizes that it is a tiny human skull. When she reveals her find, Nana Vinegar opens up the secret room. It is filled with human bones.
Nana shares with Minn the research she's done on the wreck of the SS Atlantic and also the fact that the local cemetery holding the graves of that wreck is slowly being washed out to sea. Nana has been trying to get the community to raise enough money to fix up the graveyard so the souls of the wreck can rest in peace. Minn channels the grief for her little sister into a plan to save the graves of the SS Atlantic. She meets a mysterious teen on the beach who is just as keen as she is to see the graves saved. Minn begins with a petition, but the method is too slow for her, and so she and her mysterious friend come up with an audacious plan that nearly costs her life.
The past story told in chapters blended skillfully throughout. The reader steps into the shoes of young John Hindley as he leaves Britain in 1873 with his family as they emigrate to the United States. The scenes on the ship are crisply real, and the shipwreck scene itself—with nearly frozen John Hindley amongst the icy corpses of his family and friends—is devastatingly lyrical. The two stories come together in a tight knot in the final dramatic chapters. In the end, Minn and Nana realize how much they love each other and how much they have in common. Minn's parents also realize that their grief over the miscarriage has almost cost their older daughter's life. Minn's plan brings national attention to the disintegrating cemetery, but her mysterious friend suddenly disappears. When Minn happens upon an old newspaper clipping that shows a photograph of John Hindley, she realizes the identity of her mysterious friend. She knows that now the graves are saved, the ghost of John Hindley can rest in peace.
In The Gravesavers, Sheree Fitch has drawn realistic and quirky characters, and the narrative, itself, is a page-turner. Her fresh way with words is such a joy to read that I found myself stopping and rereading just for the way the phrases rolled over my tongue. Both the historical and contemporary portions are well-researched and beautifully written. This novel will appeal to a broad range of readers. The language is simple enough to catch the interest of reluctant readers. Despite the simplicity, more seasoned readers will be captivated by the textured phrases and subtle nuance in both story and voice. The Gravesavers is a new Canadian classic. Bravo!
Marsha Skrypuch is a Canadian children's author from Brantford ON. Her website is www.calla.com
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.