CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 17 . . . . April 25, 2003
Not many Canadians know that civilians in our own country have been displaced as a result of war. In this edition of the “Our Canadian Girl” series, Penny Reid is being sent to live with relatives because of the disastrous effects of the Halifax Explosion in 1917 when so many houses were destroyed that families had no where to live. The book explores the difficulties of loss, adjustment and reconciliation.
The Halifax Explosion occurred when the Mont Blanc, a ship laden with armaments, collided with the relief ship, the Imo, in Halifax harbour. The resulting explosion killed over 2000 people, injured more than 9000 and obliterated most of the north end of the city. Fire consumed thousands of buildings.
Penny's father and two sisters have been crowded into a broken-down house that they share with another family. Worse, the girls' mother, Elizabeth, died in childbirth the previous year. Penny's father finds it impossible to raise his daughters and work constructing new homes at the same time. His difficulties lead him to an unhappy decision; the girls must be sent to relatives who will raise them. The problem is that his sister and their maternal grandmother both want all three girls. He decides to send the younger two to his sister in Ontario and Penny to the grandmother she has never met.
Penny is disconsolate and experiences even more culture shock when she discovers that Grandmother is a wealthy English Montrealer who lives in a mansion on Mount Royal, replete with servants and chauffeur. Penny's mother was estranged from her family when she married beneath her station. Penny is unfamiliar with the habits and expectations of the upper classes and cannot relate to the distant, imperious grandmother. An adult cousin gives her some affection, and Penny grows close to her.
Penny thinks that no one knows the misery that the war has caused, but her eyes are opened when she learns that a friend of Grandmother's has lost a son in the war and that men in Montreal are signing up to fight. Her personal turmoil about being separated from her sisters and father reaches its climax when she discovers her late mother's toys in the attic. Grandmother is frantic when Penny goes missing. The toys are a starting point for the two to deal with the losses each has experienced, develop a bond and become a family.
The Glass Castle informs the reader about the effects of the Halifax Explosion as well as a strata of society that held a lot of political and economic power in Quebec and Canada. The different attitudes towards the war in Europe and the dangers of the flu are subplots. Penny is a fish out of water. Her discomfort is representative of the way most children would feel as a result of an unwanted move into a structured, apparently unloving environment. The new relationships she starts to build also mirror what happened to other displaced children as they struggled to rebuild a sense of normalcy.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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