I didn’t discover Dear Canada until I was eighteen and had moved there on a permanent basis, and when I found them by poking through my local library, I had a total lightbulb moment. “A-ha! Look! MORE of these awesome books to read!” and I plowed through a bunch of them right away. This one I skipped for a long while, though, because I thought it looked boring, but that was such a mistake because it’s great.
A Rebel’s Daughter: The 1837 Rebellion Diary of Arabella Stevenson, Toronto, Upper Canada, 1837, Janet Lunn, 2006.
Now, I’ll excuse the fact that my library copy of this book smells weirdly like fried foods and point out that Janet Lunn is an excellently well-regarded writer for Canadian children and a damn treasure to Canada. You know she wrote this nine years ago at the age of 78? And it’s as interesting and enchanting—in fact, far more so—than plenty of kids’ and YA fiction written by much younger authors with fancy degrees. Also I feel a particular love for her because she came to Canada like I did at 18 to go to university, and stayed and stayed and stayed, and she lived in Prince Edward County, which is very close to where I used to live. She’s awesome.
This book is great! My only real quibble with it is that the plot has a lot of echoes of A Little Princess, but I’ll let that pass since it’s a classic of children’s literature and this is more of an homage than anything else. This book does a fantastic job of displaying something rarely seen in children’s lit, too—a mother who is completely uninterested and indifferent to her daughter’s well-being, to the point where she literally gives a servant her daughter’s bed. Most of the time in kids’ books that need a semi-independent protagonist, the parents are either absent from the picture entirely, or benevolent in their allowance of their kids’ roaming habits. Arabella’s mother, by contrast, is almost a villainous character in her utter neglect. It’s so, so, so well done and you almost never see it in books like this.
For those of you (most of you) who are unfamiliar with the minutiae of Canadian history, the 1837 Rebellion was a fairly short-lived rebellion focused in Toronto (okay, there was also rebellion in Lower Canada, i.e., Quebec, but that is not important for the purposes of this book) based on political reform with the goal of responsible government. God, how Canadian. Anyway, it became the foundation for the British North America Act of 1867 that made Canada its own nation. The basic premise is that the rebels of Upper Canada (Ontario) were led by William Lyon Mackenzie and didn’t like that Ontario was governed by elite officials who favoured British-born residents. Mackenzie got together about a thousand rebels on Yonge Street in Toronto in December and had a crappy fight against the militia, and then most of the rebels were captured and Mackenzie fled to America like a punk. The rebellion fizzled out (again, how Canadian), but the majority of the rebels who were captured spent time in prison and about a tenth were sent to Australia.
So at the opening of this book, Arabella, the protagonist, is writing in her diary because she doesn’t know what else to do. Her father got caught up in the rebellion after being influenced by his cousin—a country farmer—and was subsequently taken to prison. Her older brother Charles has disappeared in the confusion, and her mother can do nothing but wander around the house in complete disarray, weeping and wailing. The Stevensons are very wealthy, and live in a beautiful home, and Arabella has had servants her whole life. Her wealthy school friends begin to desert her because her father is in prison, and her mother is just incapable or unwilling to make any effort to reach out and find her father. Arabella tries a couple of times to find her father in prison, but can’t quite make herself do it.
Because nobody is actually doing anything, the servants start coming to Arabella, who is twelve years old, asking for instructions and their pay. She has obviously never had the slightest idea of how to do this, and her mother won’t help, so she has to go to Mr. Dewhurst, a lawyer and friend of their family. He informs Arabella that unfortunately her father’s actions have left her family completely destitute, and the only thing to do is sell their family home and possessions to have a little to live on. The servants, other than the cook, start to leave, and Arabella’s mother starts picking at her daughter to find her a new maid. This, while she’s in negotiations to sell their house. At twelve! They have no Christmas—no one comes to see them, her mother does nothing, and they sell the house just after New Year’s. They move into a couple of rented rooms with a few of their possessions.
Arabella’s mother goes out the very first day they move into their rooms, comes back, and tells Arabella she has “engaged a young person to be my maid.” When Arabella asks where the hell this new girl is going to sleep, her mother says “Well, here of course” meaning Arabella’s room, and when Arabella says WHAT ABOUT ME, her mother says “Arabella, I cannot think of everything.” She throws her out. So Arabella packs her stuff and leaves, finds herself spending the night on the stoop of her old house before fleeing to the Dewhursts’ home again. They keep her for a few days, discussing what a horrible person Mrs. Stevenson is, and then Mr. Dewhurst regretfully tells her that she’ll have to go into service. He finds her a position as a scullery maid in the home of one of her SCHOOL FRIENDS, whose older brother was an annoying friend of her ow brother’s. It’s so awful.
She is, of course, miserable there. The other servants make fun of her relentlessly for her accent and her inability to do anything useful, and Jesse, the son, deliberately messes up her work and tells her that’s what rebel’s daughters deserve. Now, while the basic plot of this is similar to A Little Princess, the reaction is totally different—Arabella is horribly, patently uncomfortable in every single thing she does, and constantly writes about how awful it is, how miserable she is, and how much she wishes things were different. It’s infinitely more relatable. I like ALP as much as the next person, but Sara Crewe can be a bit much to take—Arabella is joyfully normal.
She takes to spending time in the kitchen at night, when it’s quiet and warm and nobody is around to harass her, but she finds that someone keeps brewing coffee late at night. The cook accuses her of doing it, but Arabella waits up one night and finds that Mrs. Parliament, the mistress’s elderly mother, has been sneaking down late at night to brew herself the coffee her daughter thinks is bad for her. She and Arabella chat for a while, but Cook continues to blame Arabella for the mystery coffee. She figures in for a penny, in for a pound, and makes some contraband coffee and sneaks up to Mrs. Parliament’s rooms to bring it to her late one night, and they sit and talk and Mrs. Parliament asks Arabella to come to her rooms twice a week and read to her on account of her failing eyes.
Mrs. Parliament encourages Arabella to see her father before the trial, and Mr. Dewhurst arranges things so that Arabella can go to see him early in April. Jail is, of course, atrocious, but her father believes that she’s living in the rooms with her mother and Charles, because nobody wants to tell him the truth. Ouch. He tells her about how much he truly believes in the rebellion, and Arabella can’t bring herself to tell him the truth. She doesn’t get another chance to see him until May, when he tells her that he thinks he’ll be transported to Australia the following month, and Arabella looks him straight in the eye and tells him that Charlie has run off and that her mother is trying to get her English relatives to pay for her passage back—but she can’t quite tell him she’s a scullery maid.
What really bothers Arabella is that she can’t keep going to school. She has a massive fight with Sukey, the fourteen-year-old maid she shares a room with, who resents the hell out of Arabella for being “uppity” and taking a good job with Mrs. Parliament. Arabella offers to teach her to read, which Sukey declines, and then she changes her mind later and Arabella begins to teach her very slowly. In June, Arabella gets her two pounds’ payment and spends it on all on things for her father, who is being sent to the prison in Kingston. After he’s gone, though, Arabella gets a letter from Charlie (too late to tell her father), saying he’s working for Hudson’s Bay Company in northern Ontario. She writes him back, telling him everything, but strangely enough she gets more and more comfortable with things—teaching Sukey to read, spending time reading to Mrs. Parliament, gradually getting more comfortable in her own skin and her “position.”
In August, Arabella gets a note from her mother, and she goes to see her on her free Sunday, whereupon her mom bitches that she didn’t come immediately. “Diary, I have come to see, very clearly, that my mother’s mind makes of the world what it wishes to find there. Where she does not wish to find unpleasantness, she makes herself believe it is not there.” Wow. What a truth bomb. Her mother’s cousins have agreed to pay for her transport back to England, and her mother wants her to magic Charlie back so they can all go together. When Arabella tells her Charlie is in the far north, her mother hurls a hand mirror at the wall and screams that she wishes Arabella was with her worthless father and brother in the wilderness. But Arabella agrees to go back to England, but strangely enough, she doesn’t really want to. And at the end of the month she decides she won’t, tells her mother so, and her mother’s reaction? “Who will look after me on the journey?” Stone cold bitch.
She tells Mr. Dewhurst she isn’t going anywhere, and his daughters invite Arabella to have tea with them just like a normal girl, and things seem less bleak than they were before. Things continue to improve when Mrs. Parliament asks Arabella to be her “companion,” full-time, as a general lady’s maid, and continue going to school. She gets a tiny little room of her own and considers herself to be quite the princess!
In the epilogue, Arabella finishes school at fourteen and continues to be Mrs. Parliament’s companion until her death, when she leaves Arabella enough money to live on comfortably. She never married, but set up a school for working girls and ran it and taught there until her death—at eighty. Her niece, Charlie’s daughter, took over running it afterwards. Arabella looked after the Dewhursts in their old age after all their children went west, and turned down several proposals from Jesse, but Sukey married a fisherman and all of her children looked on Arabella as a beloved aunt. Her father was indeed sent to Australia and died there in 1847.
Rating: A. Really, it’s great. I think that Dear Canada books in general tend to be both darker and better-written than Dear America books, and this is a pretty prime example. It’s much less a story about the rebellion itself rather than how it affected families, and it’s superbly well-written. But oh man, it’s so dark. Arabella’s mother is poisonous in her utter lack of understanding or caring, but Arabella herself is such an engaging, understandable, relatable character. Both the heroes and villains of the story are beautifully done. It’s a great little story, well told, and depressing with an uplifting aspect.