CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 4 . . . .October 14, 2005
September, 1952, finds 15-year-old Cordelia "Delia" Cain attending school in the 1000 person community of Bernhardt, some 150 miles north of North Bay, ON. Over the summer, she and her parents have relocated from Pembroke. ON, so that her pastor father can take up a new ministerial post. Because of her father's occupation, this is Delia's fourth school, but this most recent move has particularly upset her because it has separated her from boyfriend Hugh Richards, 16. Delia is also angry at her mother who didn't support Delia in not wanting to move, saying instead, "it's her [mother's] duty to go with Dad wherever he is called."
Today's adolescent readers will find similarities in, and differences between, the world they know and that experienced by Delia in the 1950's. Like present-day schools, Delia's school population is divided socially along economic lines with Liz Macdonald and Carol Anderson, respectively the daughters of the lumber company owner and the community's doctor, being at the apex of the social order. A further social distinction is made between the townies and the students bussed in from the surrounding agricultural areas. Carol points out that "In a small town like this..., it's important to be part of the right crowd." As a townie and the daughter of a minister, Delia could be considered for membership in the in-group, but instead she elects to make friends with two farm girls, Audrey Cosgrove and Fern Paisley, who live on White Birch Road.
The largest difference that contemporary readers will encounter in The Secret of White Birch Road is in the place of the individual in the society. Unlike today's world which seemingly revolves around the cult of the individual, the Fifties focused on "roles." Consequently, Delia's mother did not question moving to Bernhardt as a Fifties wife went where her husband went. Even today, being a PK, a Preacher's Kid, can be tough, but in the 1950's, Delia's mode of dress and her behaviours, such as wearing lipstick, were subject to the critical observation of her father's parishioners. Therefore, when Delia befriends Audrey, someone she considers to be a rebel, Delia also thinks that Audrey's "the perfect friend, absolutely the sort that my dad's congregation would consider unsuitable for me." Later, when Delia's father takes her for a driving lesson on Sunday, her mother reacts by saying, "A driving lesson on a Sunday. What will people say?" Because the leaky manse proves uninhabitable, the Cains rent a house in White Birch Township, a happening which delights Delia since the distance from town will lessen the public scrutiny she must endure as a PK.
Today's users of cell phones with their text messaging feature might pity Delia who, if she wanted privacy in her communications with boyfriend Hugh, was forced to write a letter because phone service was of the party-line variety. Accustomed to wearing to school pretty much what she wishes, a 2005 girl will likely be surprised to learn that the females in Delia's school could not wear "pants" at school. While they might wear them to school in winter for warmth, they would have to change into more suitable attire, dresses or skirts, before class. Unplanned pregnancies also occurred in the Fifties, but then a girl's choices were fewer. Consequently, when Liz Macdonald becomes pregnant, she drops out of school and marries her unborn child's father, Warren, another student, who is then given a job in his new father-in-law's lumber yard.
The topic of "Sex" was also treated much differently in the 50's, as can be seen in the conversation among Delia, Audrey and Fern, all nearly 16-years-old, as they discuss Liz's pregnancy.
Another 1950's dimension is that which that connects sexual conduct and social standing. When Brian Laflamme, the school council president and part of the school's elite, starts to date Audrey, a jealous Carol Anderson says, "There are two kinds of girls, the sort that boys marry, and those they—use." In case Audrey did not understand the meaning of "use," Carol later calls her a slut.
The word "secret" in the title suggests that the book will likely involve a mystery of some type, but it is not until page 137 that readers learn that Fern is dead, her strangled body having been found by her stepfather, "hidden in some underbrush near the ditch on White Birch Road, a quarter of a mile from the highway." While the OPP arrest a travelling salesman, Delia and Audrey suspect that Earl Paisley, Delia's stepfather, is the real killer. The girls had observed the emotional and physical brutality Earl had directed towards Fern, and they also knew that Fern was planning to escape her home conditions by running off to Kingston to live with a paternal aunt while completing high school and nursing training. The pair of girls, however, realize that, before taking their suspicions to the police, they need a motive for the killing, plus evidence. Delia recalls seeing a black colored notebook that Fern had placed in a secret hiding place in her room. Suspecting that the notebook might be a diary and that it could contain the motive and evidence they need, the girls create a ruse which will allow Delia an opportunity to read the journal. While Delia is successful, the notebook's contents are so disturbing to Delia that she becomes physically ill and leaves the journal behind, a situation which means the girls must return for it. When that happens, they are discovered by Earl Paisley who chases them with a rifle.
Because of today's openness about sex, contemporary readers, unlike Delia, will more likely immediately suspect, correctly, that Paisley had been sexually abusing Fern. The contents of Fern's diary underline another difference between now and the 50's. Though Paisley's sexual abuse of Fern had been occurring for years, Fern could not identify anyone she could safely tell for she feared that, if she did inform on Paisley, she would not be believed and would end up in a foster home. A concluding "Author's Note" reminds readers that the existence of crisis and sexual assault support centres means today that "Nobody should suffer in silence."
Although The Secret of White Birch Road is a good read, it has two handicaps to overcome. Unfortunately, for some readers who are used to books set in the present, the 1950's setting will be off-putting. As well, while sophisticated readers know better than to judge a book by its cover, such is not the case with all adolescent readers, and this book's cover will suffer when compared to the slick art work found on most YA mass market paperbacks.
Accompanying promotional materials explain how The Secret of the White Birch Road came to be. Author Latta writes, "I had already written one novel involving my amateur detective named Delia. In Tea With Delilah, my 2004 novel set in the recent past, Delia is a woman in her mid-sixties who solves two small town murders. In thinking about her nature and personality, I wondered what she was like as a teenager. These musings led me back in time to the early 1950's."
Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in children's and adolescent literature at the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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.