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The Difference

by Marina Endicott

What constitutes a home? In her latest novel, Marina Endicott explores this fundamental question. For 12-year-old Kay, the closest thing to a home is the Morning Light, a sailing ship. But it’s 1912, and the world is changing. Kay has already suffered massive upheaval and tragedy. Her older half-sister, Thea, has raised her after the death of Kay’s mother; when their father dies, Thea can finally marry Francis, a ship’s captain.

Kay is sent to live with relatives in Nova Scotia, but after they reject her for being disruptive, the girl finds herself reunited with her sister and brother-in-law onboard the ship. Highly intelligent and wilful, Kay is a difficult child, but she loves the sea and how the ship slides through air. On her first night, she sneaks to the deck and and watches the moon break through the clouds: “The beauty of it! She was confounded, turned from a frightened whining cat into a much larger thing, an angel of awareness.” 

Along with the question of home, the novel naturally investigates the concept of family. Kay’s nightmares and memories of the past centre on the brutality her father unleashed on the children at his mission school, as well as the numerous deaths from tuberculosis, influenza, and even suicide. Kay thinks the children would have been better off if they could go home to their parents while Thea points out they would have died of starvation and it was the law for the children to go to school. Thea believes converting the children is good for them; Kay is not so sure about religion. Her only positive connection to her father is a love of ancient languages, and onboard the Morning Light, she studies Latin and Greek with the help of Mr. Brimner, a young minister hitching a ride to a posting in the South Seas.

The power of the novel is in its brilliant depiction of life onboard the Morning Light and of the locales it visits. Endicott captures the place and time so emphatically through terrific sensory detail that the reader feels total immersion in the setting. Moreover, she uses that wealth of detail to draw parallels between the enforced conversion of Indigenous people in the Canadian west and missionary work in the South Pacific. In both cases, the “salvation of souls” disregards the body and results in much suffering. Determining the morality of an action, Endicott implies, is often possible only after the fact or when people realize that competing values cannot be resolved. Thea buys a little Micronesian boy named Aren, thinking she is saving him from starvation. She probably is, but does that justify her action?

Endicott takes the family 10 years into the future, to another voyage and an attempt to fix the past. The jump in time works, even as the fix is debatable. Kay and Aren, children in the first part and adults in the second, are the characters who change the most; they are also the ones whose lives are most affected by the decisions of others. Their shift into adulthood is marked by taking agency over their own decisions. In the process, they come to realize that life does not reduce to a binary separation between good and bad but is often much more complicated.