Let’s return to Dear Canada. I have some well-deserved gushing to do over this book, especially since the author (the incomparable Sarah Ellis) had the amazing Joy Parr help with the historical detail—Joy Parr is one of the absolute leading lights of Canadian children’s history, and I relied very very very heavily on her books during some portions of my Master’s thesis. She’s amazing, Sarah Ellis is amazing, this book is amazing, let’s carry on.
Days Of Toil And Tears: The Child Labour Diary of Flora Rutherford, Almonte, Ontario, 1887, Sarah Ellis, 2008.
I’ve mentioned before how Dear America and Dear Canada take the same events or time periods in history and look at them from different points of view, which I think is an awesome trend and one that would be terrific to include in a school lesson (the Revolutionary War books are particularly interesting for this, but there’s also Japanese internment and Western immigration). This would then be the counterpart to Barry Denenberg’s atrocious So Far From Home. Where that is kitschy and relies heavily on a weird voice and has extremely little detail, Sarah Ellis’s book is so bursting over with detail and intelligent characterization that it’s a totally different experience. Also notable is that this is one of the few children’s books I’ve come across that doesn’t commit the sin of presentism, which I’ll get into during the meat of the review, but Flora is thoroughly realistic as an eleven-year-old in 1887. She doesn’t act, think, or behave like a girl from 2015 transported back in time—it’s very refreshing and I wish all books could pull this off so seamlessly.
At the opening of the novel, Flora is excited because after living in an orphanage for six years, her aunt Janet has finally written to her that she is married and can bring Flora to live with her. While she has mixed feelings about leaving the orphanage in Kingston, she’s thrilled (and a little scared) to finally have a family. Her aunt Janet and uncle James work in one of the mills in Almonte, a mill town, and Flora knows that she will be going to work there as well—and she doesn’t find this strange or abhorrent or anything, it’s just part of her understanding of daily life. That’s all. She has been working in some capacity for years at the orphanage, looking after smaller children, so this is just a different type of work to her.
They put her on a train to Almonte, where Aunt Janet and Uncle James pick her up and take her to the rooms where they live—not fancy, but cozy, and there’s a large family next door with a boy just Flora’s age. Murdo shows her around Almonte, and Janet and James take Flora to church and they have a quiet Sunday afternoon together before Flora starts work on Monday. Janet tells her very seriously that she must always, always, always be careful in the mill, always tie her hair back, never run, and take everything seriously—all mill accidents are bad accidents. (This is foreshadowing, in case you couldn’t tell.)
There’s tons of excellent detail about the doffing room, where Flora works, and the mill itself. The bells, the wool flying through the air, the noise from the machines, and the long day all combine to make Flora exhausted, but proud that she managed a whole day (and she is ELEVEN). This does a great job of showing off how Flora can be a perfectly normal little girl in some ways—she loves fairies and princesses and stories—but very mature for her age in others, like how she is so proud to hold down a job and help out at home.
Because neither Janet or James are very good readers, Flora reads to them out of the paper, which has the bonus of giving us, the reader, fascinating tidbits about life in Almonte—the installation of telephones, the runup to Victoria’s Jubilee celebration, the traveling circus coming to town, etc. One of the things that worries almost everyone in the mill is the fact that “the commissioners” are coming (a group of men to investigate conditions in the woolen mills)—the administrators are afraid they’ll find violations and shut down the mill, while the workers are afraid they’ll lose their jobs.
Flora gets a kitten after the mill cat has a litter, and names him Mungo (after the mungo barrel, or scrap barrel, in the factory—because he is all different colours like a scrap barrel), but even this isn’t enough to distract her from worrying about the commissioners’ visit. There’s a rumour going around that you must be fourteen to work in the mills, and Flora is afraid they’ll make her stop working and she’ll have to go back to the orphanage if she can’t earn her own keep (which is $1.60 per week—that’s about $45 per week in 2015 dollars, which probably seems great if you’re eleven, but less great if you’re not a preteen).
There’s a really excellent bit of writing describing exactly why Flora is so confused—“the Ontario Factories Act says…children are taking the place of other people who would have to be paid more money. A grown woman could not do my job because she would be too big to crawl under to mend the broken threads. And of course children do not earn what adults earn. They are smaller and weaker. That is like saying women should earn the same as men. But if a minister thinks this is right, and ministers are clever and good, how can I disagree? None of these thoughts make it any easier…” I love it, because it’s a fantastic distillation of a realistic actual child labourer’s point of view. She doesn’t know about any sort of labour reform, because this is the first she’s been exposed to it, and she doesn’t fully understand it, and has confused thoughts, but her own impressions make logical sense to her. There’s a Dear America novel that covers shirtwaist workers that I’ll get to one day, that I believe focuses more on unionization, but because this book is so strongly associated with younger children, I think it’s a great way of putting it.
Almonte celebrates Victoria’s Jubilee day with footraces and picnics and a parade and a concert, but the day after Flora gives herself a damn concussion at the mill—while she’s under the machines twisting a thread, a mouse runs over her foot, and she shrieks and cracks her head so hard against the machine it concusses her. Janet takes her home (bleeding and vomiting), and she stays home for a couple of days until she just has to go back to work, terrified of hurting herself again.
The summer wears on, as everyone frets about the commissioners’ visit, and the circus comes to town, and they spend their Sundays by the river in the dreadful heat. The plan for the commissioners’ visit is that when they arrive, Flora and the other underage girl in the room jump into one of the huge wool bins and hide there while everyone else goes on working—the commissioners see nothing amiss, they pass, and Flora gets to continue working—a major weight off her mind. When they discuss it later, Uncle James tells Flora that he doesn’t want her to always have to work in a mill, and he wants her to be able to go to school one day and achieve something with her life. (Progressive!) Flora doesn’t see the point in school—she can read and write quite well and do arithmetic, and she’s afraid the other girls will make fun of her.
In the fall, they construct a toboggan run in Almonte, which is the most thrilling fun Flora has ever had in her life. Things are going pretty smoothly for all of them until mid-December, when James suffers a terrible accident and is mangled in one of the mills. His arm is caught in a pulley and broken and severely abraded, and later becomes infected and three fingers have to be amputated. Flora and Janet go back to work the following Monday, but James stays at home recuperating—it’s a very honest and real depiction of Flora’s fear of how bitter and angry James has become, and his PTSD and depression after the accident. Christmas is just a week or so later, but James refuses to go to the annual Christmas party, or attend the Christmas dinner, or do anything.
When he finally goes back to work, he has to sweep the floor because he can’t do his old job with an injured arm. He’s horribly depressed, and Flora is angry with him in a sort of abstract way for the injury and for being so upset. James is bitter—yells at Janet, throws things across the room, and eventually stops going to work if he has to do what he calls a “boy’s job.” They can barely make ends meet with only Flora and Janet working, so they have to cut out almost everything they can, and Flora begins to worry again that they’ll send her back to the orphanage. When Janet suggests they write to James’s brother in British Columbia for help, he flies into a rage and stomps around the house saying that he won’t take charity, scaring the bejesus out of poor Flora, who doesn’t quite understand why it’s wrong to take charity from a sibling.
Janet comes up with a plan to write Wilfred, James’s brother, in secret, and tell him everything—especially how James is, as they put it, “ailing in spirit,” and ask if there’s anything they can do. So they write the letter and mail it off, and not long after that Flora comes down with a fever and can’t work for a week or so, meaning things are even tighter in the purse for them all.
And then, miracle of miracles, Wilfred writes back! His wife Nellie writes that they are desperate for another child to come live there so they can have the requisite ten children for a school, and Wilfred needs help badly on the farm, since he wants to expand his cattle herd. He asks politely that he knows James has his own plans, but to just consider moving out West, where the future is—and James says yes! And they’re off to Kamloops—as a family.
In the epilogue, we learn that Janet and James have four children of their own, and Wilfred Duncan and his wife have five, so Flora soon has more cousins than she knows what to do with. She attends high school, meets a young man named Ulysses, marries him, and has two children of her own.
Rating: A. I love this book. It’s a long one (nearly 200 pages), but unlike So Far From Home, it’s fascinating and delves into tons and tons of detail about not only working in the mills, but life in Almonte in the late 1800s. For a book about child labour it’s remarkably cheerful—Flora works, yes, but she and the rest of the mill workers enjoy life betimes. She loves having a family and obviously delights in it, and James’s accident is handled with care and an excellent level of comprehension for a preteen/teen audience. I have no complaints, and I would recommend this book a dozen times over before I ever recommended So Far From Home to anyone, for anything, ever. Child labour is treated like a normal fact of life—as it was—and while sometimes Flora wishes things were different, she realizes that that’s just the way life is for her, which is fantastically realistic. I seriously adore this book.