The Belonging Place

by Jean Little,
128 pages,
ISBN: 0140386637

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Children`s Books
by Janet McNaughton

Jean Little wrote evocatively about her mother's past in His Banner Over Me. Now, she goes further back in time, to create an imaginative past for her own early Victorian house, and to present early nineteenth-century British immigration to young readers.

In the opening chapters, which serve as a prologue, we meet Elspet Mary Gordon, a sixteen-year-old who decides to record the story of her life, to relieve the monotony of recovering from a broken leg. She lives with her large, loving family in a stone house of her father's making in Upper Canada in the 1850s. The narrative then shifts back about thirteen years. Through her own eyes, we see Elspet as a child not yet four, on the day her mother goes out to buy food and never returns. Kirsty Iverson, Elspet's young mother, was knocked over by a runaway horse and killed. Luckily, Elspet is taken in by her landlady's family and treated kindly until her father returns from sea five months later. Then, her loving father, whom she barely remembers, takes her to the Gordons, her mother's brother William, and his wife Ailsa, who was her mother's best friend. Elspet is accepted into the family immediately. The Gordons' eventual emigration to Canada is narrated with accurate historical detail.

The underlying theme of the story is belonging: Elspet's need to belong to her new family, and the family's struggle to belong in the new land. Elspet watches for any possible hint of rejection and repeatedly wonders if her adoptive family accepts her, yet there is never the slightest indication that they do not. Her maternal grandparents are cold, but she barely sees them and her adoptive parents condemn this behaviour and protect her from them. If she had come into the family as an older child, if she had suffered some cruelty before coming to the Gordons, or if anyone in her immediate adoptive family was in any way unkind to her, this anxiety might seem justified. As it stands, Elspet's inner struggle seems a bit laboured. Very young children who have not been abused do not question love and acceptance.

This criticism aside, Little creates a vivid picture of life in the early nineteenth century, and presents the problems of disease and child mortality in a way that young readers will find realistic and acceptable. While Elspet's insecurity is hard to understand, she is not a self-pitying character. The novel is short and plainly written and will serve as a good introduction for younger readers to English Canada in the nineteenth century. 

Janet McNaughton's latest book is To Dance at the Palais Royale.


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