CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 10. . . . January, 2003
He led us aft. When he opened the door to what would be our cabin, I peered through the dim light provided by a grate that made up part of the cabin's roof. There was a narrow bed on my right, a hammock on my left, and Father's chest against the wall across the room from the door. The chest took up fully one-third the width of the floor, leaving very little space for us to walk. Neither the bed nor the hammock looked as long as Father was tall.
Father touched the small of my back and we stepped inside. In order to close the door, one of us had to move. I ducked under the hammock. Two iron rings were bolted to the wall behind the door. One ring held a small tin basin, the other a small tin pitcher. On the wall above the rings there was a glass globe with an unlit candle in it. Below the pitcher and basin a small dresser stood bolted to the plank floor. These, plus the hammock and the bed, were all the furnishings.
At Castle Dunharbar there were sixty rooms, the least of which was four times the size of this. Overwhelmed at the prospect of spending even one day in this dank, dark, tiny space, I cried, "Father, the entire cabin is nae bigger that a closet! How ever are we going to live here for months?"
When young, headstrong Tess MacQueen loses her mother and her infant brother, she is devastated. Their sudden deaths leave her and her father reeling. But that is not the only change that life has in store for her. Tess's arrogant uncle, Hammond, decides to sell Castle Dunharbar, the only home Tess has ever known. Now she and her father must leave Scotland and everything that they both hold dear and start afresh in the New World. The lengthy ocean voyage to Vancouver Island is like nothing Tess ever could have imagined. But she is a strong young woman, and she finds and forges new friendships along the way. Moreover, with all of the fire in her nature, Tess fights against the injustices suffered by the Russian lasses that are her fellow passengers aboard this ship. She is appalled when she becomes fully aware of their deplorable treatment and wastes no time in making her feelings known and bringing the situation to the Captain's attention. Once they arrive in British Columbia, however, Tess loses track of her newfound friends as she and her father try to settle into their new lives. Further adventures await them both when Ian MacQueen (Tess's father) goes off to work in a mine, leaving Tess chafing under Uncle Hammond's harsh rules.
Jocelyn Reekie's account of one plucky girl's journey to a new life is action-packed and chock-full of vivid images. Tess, herself, is a bold, immensely likeable character who all but leaps off the page. She is a resilient, daring heroine whose courage and tenacity will win the hearts of readers. Not unlike Avi's Charlotte Doyle, Tess provides us with a strong female role model. With the courage of her convictions, she stubbornly stands up for what she believes in, even when it means going against her own dear father. Reekie has created in her a truly remarkable protagonist and has surrounded her with an equally strong supporting cast of characters. Their lilting Scottish dialect resonates through the story and further captivated me as I read.
I was also delighted with the author's realistic portrayal of the ocean voyage. No romanticized notions here! Her depiction of the squalor and filth aboard ship, even for the upper classes, rang very true. She conveyed a real sense of just how arduous such a voyage must have been, creating a bleak and vivid picture. One can just about smell the salt sea air, along with the mould and the foulness belowdecks. And Tess's story never falters. The book boasts an energetic plot, in fact, perhaps a little too much so. While the reader becomes readily absorbed in the trials and tribulations herein, numerous plot lines are introduced but not adequately explored. For example, the plight of the Russian lasses and the looming threat of their grim futures in the New World seemed to be a central element to much of the story. However, once they arrive in Vancouver, we hear very little more about them. I was fully expecting that aspect of the story to be more fully developed and was disappointed when it wasn't. Moreover, Tess's flight from her Uncle Hammond and her journey with Young Seal ended very abruptly and were somewhat anti-climactic. And, I was surprised that nothing ever came of the documents that Tess found which hinted at the possibility that her uncle had tampered with his father's will. Since Tess had earlier in the book complained about the injustice of the fact that her uncle had inherited everything just because he was firstborn, I thought that it had been very fitting that the whole issue of her grandfather's will should emerge again later. Unfortunately nothing more is ever mentioned after she stuffs the papers back in a drawer. All of these things were highly interesting elements of the story whose potential was not fully realized. Nevertheless, the story was thoroughly engaging and one which will hold great appeal for girls, particularly fans of historical fiction. It would open up many avenues of discussion in a classroom setting and is one that I look forward to sharing with many of the young readers in my life.
Lisa Doucet is a children's bookseller at Woozles in Halifax, NS.
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