Three young women make their difficult ways through three historical periods in a trio of new middle-grade novels. Though the settings and situations vary, all three novels show that the figure of Anne Shirley casts a long shadow over her female protagonist descendents.
For The Gnome’s Eye, the story of 10-year-old Theresa’s journey to Canada, Anna Kerz has chosen a complicated strand of postwar immigration as background. At the story’s opening it is 1954, and Theresa and her parents are living in an Austrian refugee camp, which has been Theresa’s home for most of her life.
The particularities of this setting make for some cumbersome information dumps in early chapters, but once the story gets moving, those details give the book its distinctive flavour. A miserable passage in steerage; a confusing arrival in Toronto; Canadians kind, hostile, and just plain strange; the disorientation of a new school and language – Kerz provides a fresh take on each of these immigrant motifs in a well-shaped plot that culminates in Hurricane Hazel.
Kerz does a particularly nice job of indicating that the characters are not speaking English, always a tricky narrative challenge. A naturally integrated sprinkling of sayings and idioms gives the book a distinctive voice, as do the stories that Theresa invents to comfort a friend, to retaliate against an irritating little boy, or to while away a boring summer afternoon.
In The Gnome’s Eye, the Anne-meter hovers around “moderate,” as red-haired Theresa’s intensity is subject to regular squelching by adults and circumstances. It flips to “high” in Growing Up Ivy, the new novel from Peggy Dymond Leavey. With an absent father and a flakey mother who abandons her in Toronto to pursue her actress dreams in New York, 12-year-old Ivy is essentially an orphan.
Ivy, like young Ms. Shirley, copes with neglect by constructing an elaborate and intense fantasy life. She’s the kind of kid who names her grandmother’s modest house “Camelot” and a stray kitten “Guinevere.” Ivy is a convincing character, strong though damaged, and depicted without sentimentality. The Depression-era setting is similarly convincing, crisp in its particulars. Ivy eventually connects with her father, and they spend the summer on the road together in a caravan, peddling shoes. The cumulative portrait of rural Ontario that emerges from this doomed enterprise feels like the real deal.
The novel doesn’t, however, come together as a narrative. A three-year span of action, a complicated set of flashbacks, wodges of telling-not-showing, and, most of all, an uncontrolled use of point of view keep us from feeling grounded in the story. The materials are sturdy here but the construction is shaky.
In No Moon, the latest novel from Irene M. Watts, 14-year-old Louisa works as a nursemaid to an uppercrust family in London. It is the spring of 1912, and the family is planning to sail to New York. Do you hear the strains of “My Heart Will Go On” rising in the background?
To her credit, Watts reclaims the drama of history’s most notorious sinking ship from its Cameronian accretions and crafts a story that hangs together as a narrative while satisfying our craving for Titanic lore. Louisa’s life in service, with its hierarchies both upstairs and down, its details of sewing and cooking, child discipline, toys, furniture, and the allocation of duties, is portrayed convincingly, and with originality and verve.
These strengths continue when the narrative switches to life aboard the ship, where Watts smoothly insinuates her fictional family into the world of the Titanic, utilizing some real-life historical figures and adding her own spin to some of the disaster’s many unresolved mysteries. An early traumatic experience of Louisa’s links with the nail-biting loss of one of her child charges as the lifeboats are being launched, to tie together a plot with a satisfying blend of the right stuff.
Anne of Green Gables ends with the hope of a life of “sincere work and worthy aspiration and congenial friendship.” But Montgomery couldn’t leave the reader on such an earnest note, so she also reminds us of Anne’s “birthright of fancy.” Standing in Anne’s shadow, as our trio do, means taking hardship seriously while celebrating imagination, not a bad approach for fiction of all sorts.