Orphans and Ghost-towns
- Constance Horne (Author)
The Accidental Orphan. Beach Holme Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Joan Weir (Author)
The Brideship. Stoddart Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Ann Walsh (Author)
The Doctor's Apprentice. Beach Holme Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gernot R. Wieland
Only recently has the plight of British orphans shipped to Canada made the headlines. It is not surprising, therefore, that novels for young adults follow in the wake of these headlines. Two of the books here discussed, The Accidental Orphan and The Brideship, examine the fears, hopes, defeats, and triumphs of two orphan girls on their passage to, and settlement in, Canada. The third of the books, The Doctor’s Apprentice, follows the fate of a young man whose parents are still very much alive; it does, however, converge with both other novels in the time in which it is set, and with The Brideship in the locale in which it takes place.
An "accidental" orphan? Home’s title raises questions, and even incredulity. Ellen, the heroine of the novel, is an orphan, though she fiercely denies it because she lives with her uncle. In order to earn some extra money, she sells flowers, an activity which seals her fate. Her flower basket seems just the right hiding place for some sausages a street urchin had stolen. He claims that Ellen is his accomplice, and, in her attempt to get away from the strong arm of the law, she finds herself on a boat of orphans ready to set sail for Canada. All her attempts to get off the boat before it leaves England prove futile. Charles Dickens seems to have inspired this first part of the novel: the street urchin, the spotless heroine wrongly accused, the bumbling butcher and policemen, the concatenation of events that prevent the heroine from escaping her seemingly pre-ordained journey to Canada—quite a number of Dickensian characters may see themselves partially mirrored here. Once she is in Canada, Ellen can think of nothing else but to return to England. But here, too, events conspire against her. She is taken in by a kind family in Manitoba, and though she has thus acquired a new father and mother, and even brothers and sisters, she still pines for her uncle. The remainder of the novel chronicles her eventual acceptance of the family’s kindness and of Canada, and, once she has made up her mind to stay with them, she is also re-united with her uncle, who had left England in search for her.
Home writes a suspenseful novel. Though at first she strains our credulity, eventually she convinces us of the probability of the "accident" in the "accidental orphan." The characters are well drawn, the feelings of despair, abandonment, hope, and joy realistically portrayed. This could be the story of an accidental nineteenth century settler in Canada.
There is nothing "accidental" about the orphans of The Brideship. Four dozen of them, some of them as young as sixteen, are sent off to the West Coast of Canada on the vague promise that they will find work there. Sarah eagerly volunteers to go; she will do anything to get out of the hated orphanage. An Anglican clergyman has organized the emigration, and this fact alone seems to guarantee that the promised positions will materialize, and that the four dozen girls are in good hands.
Appearances, however, deceive. A few days before their arrival in Canada, the girls find out that "there aren’t as many jobs available" as had originally been thought, and that they are to be "brides instead." The clergyman, too, is not what he seems: aside from being responsible for deceiving the girls, he is also a thief. He triumphs in the short run, but his dishonesty eventually catches up with him. In these aspects, The Brideship stays closer to the headlines than The Accidental Orphan: children deceived, trust abused, coercion into marriages, dishonest clergymen. Sarah, however, never gets to meet the man intended for her. She escapes to Barkerville, sets up a laundry business there, and falls in love with someone she chooses for herself.
This, too, is a novel full of suspense. In contrast to The Accidental Orphan, The Brideship concentrates more on action than on emotion. While Ellen is the clear focus in the first book, Sarah gets somewhat pushed into the background by the question of whether the Anglican Church really did organize shiploads of female orphans under the pretense of getting them positions as governesses, then offering them as brides to the miners working in British Columbia instead. And if, as Weir contends, the answer is "yes," then one wonders why the author neglects to show some outrage in at least one of the unfortunate "brides." Not even the heroine expresses any offense at such a monumental deception; she is worried that the husband the clergyman has chosen for her might be a brute, but it does not seem to enter her mind that the clergyman had no right to choose a husband for her in the first place. Although The Brideship has a lot of action, it is short on psychological realism.
With Ann Walsh’s The Doctor’s Apprentice we stay in Barkerville, and we return to psychological realism. Ted, the novel’s fourteen-year old protagonist, suffers from nightmares; in Walsh’s earlier novel Moses, Me and Murder, Ted had helped to convict the murderer James Barry, and had seen him hang. In The Doctor’s Apprentice James Barry is back and haunts Ted’s dreams and any dark place he has to pass. As a result, Ted does not get enough sleep, cannot concentrate on the work in his father’s workshop, keeps the family awake at night with his screams, and seems to alienate all his friends. When a doctor is called in, he offers a cure by making Ted his apprentice. What Ted does not know, though the parents do, is that the doctor, "J.B.," has had his own share of nightmares which he fights every now and then with generous doses of opium. The story chronicles how Ted overcomes his nightmares, while those of J.B. come back to haunt him, and the apprentice has to cure his master. It ends with the great Barkerville fire of 1868, a fiery exorcism of both their demons.
Walsh provides excellent insight into Ted’s troubled mind. He knows that he helped to bring a murderer to justice, but in doing so he also caused the man’s death. Fear of the dead man’s brutality and guilt at his death are the twin sources of Ted’s nightmares. J.B., too, is driven by guilt, guilt at having failed a patient and a friend, and in a few broad strokes Walsh makes us understand the doctor’s pain. Psychological realism is coupled with historical verisimilitude; Walsh has drawn inspiration from the tombstones of the Barkerville cemetery and brought some of its inhabitants successfully and entertainingly back to life.
All three novels are set in the second half of the nineteenth century. All are successful quest stories; the orphans seek and find a family and a home, and Ted seeks and finds a cure for his mind. They also draw attention to a psychological law: the human mind cannot easily tolerate "absence." Just as the authors of The Brideship and The Accidental Orphan seek to fill the void left by their protagonists’ deceased parents, so the author of The Doctor’s_Apprentice strives to re-populate a town left empty at the end of the gold rush. Orphans and Ghost-towns: people and places in search of the absent Other.
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MLA: Wieland, Gernot R. Orphans and Ghost-towns. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #165 (Summer 2000), (Brochu, Buckler, Davies, Lowry, Ondaatje). (pg. 143 - 145)
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