Ellen Fremedon

by Joan Givner
ISBN: 0888995571

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A Review of: Ellen Fremedon
by Antony Di Nardo

At one point in the novel, Ellen Fremedon's best friend, Jenny, says, "well, people get tired of the same stories and the same happy endingsthey like reading about something different." That captures how I sometimes felt reading Joan Givner's story. Tired of the same. It's about a precocious, well-mannered, well-educated 12-year old girl who decides one summer to write a book. The book is about herself, her family, including her younger twin brothers who remain nameless throughout, and what happens that summer when a housing development endangers the town's water supply. But, despite the clutch of typical family situations and predictable characters, it's not entirely disappointing. Fortunately, the book that Ellen ends up writing, which is the book we end up reading, benefits from a few well-turned chapters and scenes that pull the reader out of the humdrum of too much familiarity.
Ellen lives in Partridge Cove, a seaside town on Vancouver Island. She learns about writing a novel from how-to books she borrows from the library. As the author of her own story, she reflects on the craft of writing and tells her reader about plot development, how to manage time, the use of dialogue, and the difference between major and minor characters. "Writing a book," she says, "isn't like making a shopping list." Young readers with an interest in writing will find good advice here to help them kick-start their own novels. There is ample evidence in Ellen and Givner's book to suggest that both have command of their craft.
Cleverly embedded in the text of the story are lessons on logic and rational thought. Ellen's father is a professor of philosophy and several father-daughter conversations lead to a lesson on logic, with the appropriate terminology to support the example. The lesson on "false analogy" is particularly enlightening as her father explains to Ellen how life is not a horse race with winners and losers.
At the core of the novel is a mystery requiring some detective work and, with the help of the twins (for whom Ellen has little patience, much less respect), a local environmental disaster is averted. Givner's narrative and use of dialogue to advance the action here builds enough tension and suspense to turn, for a few chapters, Ellen's book into the real thing, a genuine page-turner.
The book starts off light, almost humorous in its caricatures. Ellen at first appears to be cast as a comic figure, but as the story progresses she becomes a girl older than her years. She turns out to be a serious, overly critical, and irritatingly proper. She thinks and behaves more like an adult than a child. The persona we meet at the start, with her sense of humour and wit, is never seen again. She doesn't laugh. Her only joy, it seems, is ice cream. Granted, she is writing herself into a book, "a long one with chapters," and there's nothing to prevent her from assuming a posture of adult seriousness and self-conscious maturity. These are qualities that a girl like Ellen would no doubt find very desirable. But I expected more of the clever Ellen, who, in the first chapter, says to her librarian, "There can't be much money in writing for kids because they don't have money to spend on books. I want to write for grown-ups."
Technically, and taken as a narrative primer on the crafting of a novel, Givner's Ellen Fremedon works well. The fiction is very credible and ideas are compressed into language that a 10-year-old reader will find sophisticated, yet easy to understand. But it lacks the sparkle and verve, the imagination and inspiration of what one would expect from a novel that starts out as "something different."

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