by Gillian Chan
Joan Clark's latest novel The Word for Home tells the story of two sisters, Sadie and Flora Morin, who are, to all intents and purposes, abandoned to the less than kind care of strangers in pre-confederation Newfoundland when their feckless, dreamer of a father abandons his relatively secure job to go in search of gold.
The reader sees everything through the eyes of the older sister, Sadie, as the girls struggle with their miserly landlady, Mrs. Hatch, whose treatment of them borders on the cruel when money for their keep from their father dries up. Sadie's fight to be accepted in the close-knit community of St John's is skillfully represented in microcosm by the school they attend, Bishop Spencer.
Clark shows herself a master of characterization with certain of the characters, notably Sadie, who is a very believable and likeable mass of contradictions, teetering on the edge of growing up and forced to take on responsibility for her family's survival. By turns, Sadie can be shy, yet fierce, as when she stands up to Mrs. Hatch or Eunice Baird, the girl who tries to make her school life a misery. Mrs. Hatch is also a wonderful creation whose petty meanness could so easily have degenerated into melodrama and stereotype. Instead, Clark uses Sadie's growing awareness of the tragedies in Mrs. Hatch's life, her insecurity, to help the reader understand what drives this woman. Unfortunately, Clark does not apply this skill to all the characters, and some seem under-written in comparison. Teddy Dodge, the boy with whom Sadie tentatively explores her first romance is bland. The least successful of all is the depiction of Sadie's errant father, Russ Morin. Hints about his idealistic nature are given, but it is still hard to understand his actions or why the girls are so devoted to him. Particularly puzzling is the way he leaves his children, who have only recently lost their mother, alone, and then breezes back into their lives to provide the obligatory happy endingłalbeit slightly soured because Sadie realizes that she is already more the adult than her father will ever be. It is also left unclear, perhaps deliberately, whether or not he ever did send a cheque to Mrs. Hatch. Despite re-reading the relevant part several times, I could not make up my mind whether the cheque was lost in the mail or, whether, caught up in the fever to find gold, he had forgotten to send it.
The other great strength of this book is the richly descriptive prose that Joan Clark employs to give a sense of both time and place through her detailed descriptions of the clothes worn, and the food eaten. A young reader will come away with a clear picture of what life was like in St. John's in 1926, and with the historical background being seamlessly integrated into a rattling good story, the book teaches without ever being didactic.
Gillian Chan is a children's writer whose most recent novel was The Carved Box.