Days Of Toil And Tears

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.

flora rutherford

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.

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Nell’s Quilt

Here’s an interesting and fairly little-known novel that was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.

Book: Nell’s Quilt, Susan Terris, 1996.

nells quilt

This book always left me feeling distinctly unsettled when I read it as a teenager and for that reason it wasn’t exactly on my favourites list. It’s a weird hybrid of a historical fiction novel about a girl chafing against societal expectations, and a novel about anorexia. There’s quite a bit of scholarly work done on the topic of girls and women in the Victorian era starving themselves, but it’s more closely related to theories on control and power dynamics than to body image. I do realize that modern anorexia is also very closely related to those things, but the body image thing is significantly a greater factor than in the Victorian period. Let’s dive in.

Nell is eighteen, and her parents have just informed her that her father’s second cousin Anson Tanner has proposed to her. Nell is staunchly opposed to this—she would rather move to Boston and “help people” as her grandmother did, who was a campaigner for women’s rights. Her mother points out gently that her grandmother’s money is gone and she can’t afford to do so, and her younger sister Eliza says that if she marries Anson the whole family will do much better. “I could not believe my ears. Was this truly 1899, only ten months shy of the beginning of the twentieth century? Or had I been catapulted back into the Middle Ages?” Okay, while I understand what they’re driving at here, 1899 wasn’t exactly the modern era we know and love today. Nell’s total shock at this announcement is a little out of place.

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