CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 12. . . . February 14, 2003
There was a moment's suspended silence in the lobby. Emma felt John press a little closer to her; she herself was looking at Mrs. Delaney but thinking of her aunt and feeling fear and dismay clench her throat. This new life suddenly looked grim and ruthless and incomprehensible, totally different from the little images which she had been formulating as shelters for her spirit, and she didn't know where she would find the courage to deal with it.
Sixteen-year-old Emma and her 11-year-old brother John have been orphaned by fire and forced to leave their farm home to live in York with a woman they have never met - their aunt Mrs. McPhail. Mrs. McPhail runs a hotel, and the children are quickly put to work - Emma as a chambermaid in the hotel and John doing some chores at the hotel as well as working at a nearby livery stable run by Mr. Blackwood.
During her first weeks there, Emma learns a great deal about city life. She experiences shopping at the market, passing by the local taverns, and wandering unintentionally into a rough street full of prostitutes and ruffians. At the hotel, she learns about people as she gets to know various live-in guests such as Miss Morgan, who wants to open a girls' school, and the Heatheringtons and their daughter, Caroline, who want to eventually have their own farm.
Readers are completely swept up in the historic richness of this novel. Suddenly we are in a city in 1830 where there are only horses and feet for transportation and where one must carry a lantern at night since no street lights exist. In the hotel, all marketing, cooking, mending, cleaning and laundry are done by hand, and so the entire days of the servants are spent simply keeping things running smoothly. We comprehend the value of money at the time when Emma is thrilled with even a penny and a fifteen-cent tip seems like a fortune. We understand the value of human life when we meet immigrants who come from Britain and hear their story of a baby who died en route to Canada and whose body was simply thrown overboard.
As well, Brandis has added suspense to her tale. Is Mrs. McPhail who she claims to be? Are she and Blackwood trying to cheat the children out of some of their inheritance? And just who is Mrs. Delaney, the woman who works at the hotel and then is fired and then, oddly, comes back to work again and who seems to know a lot of gossip and ask too many questions? Were Emma's parents the people she thought? The tavern owner, O'Brien, seems to have some answers but doesn't quite tell the whole story.
This is an excellent novel which truly makes readers feel a part of 1830 York society and keeps them turning the pages because there seem to be many unanswered questions along the way. Emma is the narrator, and we relate to her, liking her personality and going through the decisions and difficulties right beside her. There is a coming-of-age theme to the book as Emma gradually learns to take matters into her own hands with help from the talismans she carefully guards: her Dad's tinderbox which links her to the past, the quarter-pie window which helps her when present difficulties seem just too overwhelming, and the ink bottle which points to the future.
Ann Ketcheson is a former teacher of high school English and French and currently is the teacher-librarian at Peterborough Collegiate in Peterborough, ON.
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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.