One day can change everything. That is the premise of the latest middle-grade novel by Kit Pearson, winner of multiple awards for her children’s books, including a Governor General’s Literary Award for Awake and Dreaming and the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award for The Whole Truth.
A Day of Signs and Wonders fictionalizes a day in the lives of one of Canada’s most famous artists, Emily Carr, and her lesser-known contemporary, Kathleen (Kitty) O’Reilly. When nine-year-old Emily meets 13-year-old Kitty in 1881 Victoria, both girls are on the precipice of great change. Emily is entering puberty, no longer wishing to be called by her childish nickname, Millie, and hating her pinafore so much she tosses it into a bush. Kitty, meanwhile, will soon be sent away to attend boarding school in England, leaving behind what she believes to be the spirit of her recently deceased younger sister, Pop.
Emily and her sister, Alice, have been sent to Victoria to stay with family friends the Cranes because their mother is ill. The austere Crane home is next door to the upper class O’Reilly’s, and Emily and Kitty meet early one morning when both take an unscheduled walk.
Fictionalizing well-known historical figures entails incorporating their existing mythology, and Pearson expertly plays with Carr’s own blurring of the lines between her life and art. She borrows from Carr’s writing, including the volumes Growing Pains: An Autobiography of Emily Carr, The Book of Small, and Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr. These are connected with excerpts from Kitty’s diaries and family letters. Through Emily’s observations of First Nations people and her connection with birds (particularly a raven that acts as a sort of spirit guide for the girls throughout the novel), Pearson incorporates themes that will become part of Carr’s signature style. There is also a scene in which the two girls are painting and Kitty applies a more traditional approach to using watercolours, while Emily plays with style and colour, demonstrating her more intuitive artistry.
Pearson uses a dual narrative to show the development of what seems like an unlikely friendship between the rebellious, stubborn, and daring Emily (who runs outside wearing no undergarments) and the proper, sombre, and slightly judgmental Kitty. The relationship isn’t easy at first, with both girls questioning why they are even spending time together, but as the day unfolds, it becomes clear to the reader that each provides something important for the other. Being younger, Emily fills a void for Kitty, who has been using her sister’s death as a way to stop herself from facing the unknown future. Emily also forces Kitty to face some harsh truths about her behaviour. For her part, Kitty allows Emily the freedom to be herself for a day – reading books, eating what she wants, and discovering how much she enjoys painting.
The day is a rare break for the girls, who are otherwise forced to conform to prescribed gender and class roles. Mrs. Crane chastises Emily for being dirty and “unladylike,” while Kitty’s mother reminds her that their upper-class station means they have many obligations; her hope is that Kitty will meet an appropriate suitor to marry when she goes to England. (In real life, O’Reilly never married, though she was rumoured to have taken a couple of well-known lovers.)
It seems, at first, as though the girls’ paths are set, but Pearson’s carefully cultivated emotional development of both characters provides Emily and Kitty with an opportunity to decide who they are going to be – and what they will do with their lives.