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Families New & Old

Recommended Canadian Fictional Families

by Anna E. Altmann

Volume 22 Number 3
1994 May/June

They come in all shapes and sizes but they're still "family." CM looks at the many families captured by Canadian writers from Roch Carrier to Diana Wieler.

The girls gave their hearts into their mother's keeping, their souls into their father's; and to both parents, who lived and laboured so faithfully for them, they gave a love that grew with their growth, and bound them together by the sweetest tie which blesses life and outlives death."1

This description of a family, published first in 1869, comes at the beginning of Good Wives, the sequel to Little Women. Louisa May Alcott's stories of the four March girls informed my childhood, together with other family stories that were, if not direct imitations, then very much in the vein that Alcott first so successfully mined. Think of Margaret Sidney's Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, and Eleanor Estes' Moffats.

The Marches and Peppers and Moffats have much in common. The children, a large number of siblings by today's standards, are cared for by their mother alone. For that reason, they are poor, although respectable. The father is missing for unexceptionable reasons: either dead or honourably engaged elsewhere. The Marches seem to be living on a bit of old family money, but Mrs. Pepper and Mrs. Moffat both earn a bare living for their families by sewing, one of the domestic skills that women could use outside the home to make a little money, and more genteel than taking in washing or cleaning other people's houses. Mrs. March, too, works outside the home, but as a volunteer.

The parents in these family stories of the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century are completely reliable. They are wise, resourceful guides for their for their children, stable centres of the world. The children struggle with the inconveniences of poverty, and with the fears and conflicts that are an inevitable part of developing a sense of identity and one's place in the world. But they have adventures of their own, success to balance every failure, and a warm supper and a parent's loving arms as consolation or reward at end of the day.

That of course is exactly how things should be. But real family life undoubtedly often fell short of the ideal Alcott and Sidney and Estes showed us, and it too often falls short, dangerously short, today.

In some respects, these old-fashioned family stories are entirely realistic.2 There have always been single-parent families, although in the past the missing parent would likely be dead, while today he, or less often she, has been removed by divorce rather than death, or may never have been part of the family in the first place. Although in the Western world the number of such families headed by men is increasing, single-parent families are most likely to be headed by women: one third of all families in the world are now single-parent families headed by women.

In Canada, in 1991, 20 per cent of all families were single-parent families, and 80 per cent of these one-parent families were headed by women.3 Families headed by women are generally poorer than those headed by men. In our urbanized, industrialized world, the nuclear family of parents and children rather than the extended family is the norm, without grandparents, aunts or uncles to help out financially and emotionally. The state offered little by way of safety net for families on the edge; the desperate Hummels, in Little Women, were lucky to have attracted the attention of Mrs. March, and the Marches and Peppers were fortunate to find surrogate grandfathers to smooth their path.

Where the Marches and Peppers and Moffats are chiefly idealized is in the strength of the parents. We wish it were true that all children could safely give their hearts and souls into their parents' keeping, and that all parents could live and labour faithfully and so wisely for their children. In the classic family story, even an absent parent (and absent parents, dead or alive, are common, to give children cause and room for action) provides stability and benign authority. What reader of Swallows and Amazons could ever forget the exemplary good sense of the father's telegram: "BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN."4 And Mr. March, off as a chaplain with the Union Army in the Civil War, continues to be the spiritual guide of his wife and daughters.

Real-life parents are seldom so strong and so wise as these storybook mothers and fathers. With too few resources and under too much pressure, often having grown up themselves in families that could not prepare them properly for their role as a parent, fathers and mothers in the everyday world sometimes are not able to care for their children as well as they would wish to. As a result, their children live in a world that is more dangerous than that of Jo March or Polly Pepper or Jane Moffat.

Contemporary Canadian children's fiction presents us with a variety of family forms and situations. Some books reflect the harsher reality I have just described. Others re-create the stable, safe world that children should be able to grow up in. I have chosen a few examples to illustrate the variety of families to be found in Canadian books published in the last ten years for young people. The bibliography that follows is in no way an exhaustive list, either of worthwhile titles or of family themes. They are books I like: picture-books, chapter books, and young adult novels.

There are books that could be called period pieces, stories of a time that seems gentler to us, looking back, a time of warmth, when the traditional family was whole and love was simple. Roch Carrier's Happy New Year's Day, set in a village in Quebec in 1941, and Janet Lunn's One Hundred Shining Candles, set in Upper Canada in 1800, are picture-books that take us back to such a time. Celia Barker Lottridge's Ticket to Curlew is a children's novel set in Alberta in 1915. Pa and Mama are brave and practical, and eleven-year-old Sam and his younger brother and sister thrive in spite of the hardships of pioneer life on the prairies.

Fathers may have a diffficult time when they are left solely responsible for their children, since mothers have usually managed the tensions within a family. In Bad Boy by Diana Wieler, A.J. and his father don't communicate very well. A.J. has to cope on his own with being sixteen, the discovery that his best friend is gay, the fierce competitiveness of Triple A hockey, first love, and the first interest his father has taken in another woman since his mother walked out, all of this in Moose Jaw. Jim Redcrow, in Don Meredith's Dog Runner, gets more understanding from his uncle than from his father as he fights to save his beloved huskies. By way of complete contrast, Arthur's Dad by Ginette Anfousse is a hilarious first chapter book for readers aged seven to ten. Arthur has driven away twenty-three baby sitters, but Arthur's father finds a match for Arthur, and possibly for himself.

Mothers can be single parents for a number of reasons, and children can miss a father they never had. Sarah Ellis's Pick-Up Sticks is the story of Polly, whose mother decided to have a baby on her own, and Polly's resentment of the fact. In Spud Sweetgrass by Brian Doyle, Spud's father died, and his mother has withdrawn so far into her own grief that she, too, is effectively lost to him. Helen Fogwell Porter's january, february, june or july is a story of divorce, poverty, and accidental pregnancy. In The Best of Arlie Zack by Hazel Hutchins, Arlie's father walked out on the family. Arlie can't remember his father at all, but he becomes preoccupied with finding him.

Grandparents can be a wonderful enrichment in a child's life. Kady MacDonald Denton's Granny Is a Darling, Dayal Kaur Khalsa's Tales of a Gambling Grandma, and Paulette Bourgeois' Grandma's Secret are picture-books that show us beloved grandmothers, and Peter Eyvindson's Old Enough and Sheryl McFarlane's Waiting for the Whales do the same for grandfathers. Grampa's Alkali by Jo Bannatyne-Cugnet is a children's novel about an extended family. Alkali's parents and grandparents work the family farm together, and Alkali has a special, if sometimes tense, relationship with his grandfather. A grandparent can also be the only family a child has. In Mary-Ellen Collura's Winners, Jordy Threebears' mother and father are dead and he has been living in foster homes for eight of his fifteen years. When his grandfather is released from prison, Jordy is sent to live with him on a reserve near Calgary. The two learn to be a family while Jordy struggles to find himself. There are many more families worth meeting in Canadian children's books, and there is much more to be said about the ones I have introduced here. But in conclusion I want to return from fiction to the world we live in. The United Nations has declared 1994 the International Year of the Family. In view of the political rhetoric we have been hearing in recent years about "family values," rhetoric that holds up as normative the two-parent upper-middle-class family, it seems important to end with a quotation from the United Nations document I cited earlier:

Families come in many shapes and varieties, and there is change over the life cycle of individual families. A family-friendly society is one that recognizes the diversity of family forms and respects the unique conditions, benefits and disadvantages each experiences in the execution of its functions. The relationship between form and function is as elusive in families as it is in art and deserves the attention of policy makers and legislators everywhere.


1. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men (London, Octopus Books, 1978), 216.

2. My source for the information on families that follows is Family: Forms and Functions (Vienna, United Nations, 1993).

3. Jean Dumas, Report on the Demographic Situation in Canada 1992 (Ottawa, Statistics Canada, 1992), 142.

4. Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons (Harmondsworth, Puffin Books, 1962), 12.

Recommended Canadian Stories about the Family

Picture Books and Chapter Books

Anfousse, Ginette. Arthur's Dad. Illustrated by Anne Villeneuve; translated by Sarah Cummins. Halifax, Formac Publishing,1991. (First Novels). ISBN 0-88780-0955 (cloth), ISBN 0-88780-094-7 (paper).

Bourgeois, Paulette. Grandma's Secret. Illustrated by Maryann Kovalski. Toronto, Kids Can Press, 1989. ISBN 1-55074-034-2.

Carrier, Roch. A Happy New Year's Day. Illustrated by Gilles Pelletier. Montréal Tundra Books, 1991. ISBN 0-88776-267-0.

Denton, Kady MacDonald. Granny Is a Darling. Toronto, Kids Can Press, 1988. ISBN 0-921103-35-5.

Eyvindson, Peter. Old Enough. Illustrated by Wendy Wolsak. Winnipeg, Pemmican Publications, 1986. ISBN 0-919143-41-5.

Khalsa, Dayal Kaur. Tales of a Gambling Grandma. Montréal, Tundra Books, 1986. ISBN 0-88776-179-8.

Little, Jean. Revenge of the Small Small. Illustrated by Janet Wilson. Toronto, Viking Canada, 1992. ISBN 0-670 84471-3. Distributed by Penguin Books Canada.

Lunn, Janet. One Hundred Shining Candles. Illustrated by Lindsay Grater. Toronto, Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1990. ISBN 0-88619-185-8. Distributed by Key Porter Books.

McFarlane, Sheryl. Waiting for the Whales. Illustrated by Ron Lightburn. Victoria, Orca Book Publishers, 1991. ISBN 0-920501664.

Pettigrew, Eileen. Night-Time. Toronto, Annick Press, 1992. ISBN 155037-235-1 (cloth), ISBN 1-55037-242-4 (paper). Distributed by Firefly Books.

Junior Novels

Bannatyne-Cugnet, Jo. Grampa's Alkali. Red Deer (Alta.), Red Deer College Press, 1993. (Northern Lights Young Novels). ISBN 0-88995-096-2. Distributed by Raincoast Books.

Ellis, Sarah. Pick-Up Sticks. Toronto, Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre, 1991. ISBN ISBN 0-88899-146-0 (cloth), ISBN 088899162-2 (paper).

Godfrey, Martyn. Why Just Me? Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1989. ISBN 0-7710-3367-2.

Hutchins, Hazel. The Best of Arlie Zack. Illustrated by Ruth Ohi. Toronto, Annick Press, 1993. ISBN 1-55037-315-3. Distributed by Firefly Books.

Johnston, Julie. Hero of Lesser Causes. Toronto, Lester Publishing, 1992. ISBN 1-895555-22-1. Distributed by Nelson Canada.

Lottridge, Celia Barker. Ticket to Curlew. Illustrated by Wendy Wolsak-Frith. Vancouver, Groundwood Books/ Douglas & McIntyre, 1992. ISBN 0-88899-163-0.

Mackay, Claire. The Minerva Program. Toronto, James Lorimer, 1984. ISBN 0-88862-716-5.

Pearson, Kit. The Lights Go On Again. Toronto, Viking Canada, 1993. ISBN 0-670849-19-7 (cloth), ISBN 0-140364-12-9 (paper). Distributed by Penguin Books Canada.

Smucker, Barbara. Jacob's Little Giant. Markham (Ont.), Viking Kestrel, 1987. ISBN 0-670-81651-5. Distributed by Penguin Books Canada.

Taylor, Cora. The Doll. Saskatoon, Western Producer Prairie Books, 1987; Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre, 1992. ISBN 1-55054-218-4.

Young Adult Novels

Bedard, Michael. Redwork. Toronto, Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1990. ISBN 0-88619-276-5. Distributed by Key Porter Books.

Buffie, Margaret. Who is Frances Rain? Toronto, Kids Can Press, 1987. ISBN 0-919964-83-4.

Collura, Mary-Ellen Lang. Winners. Saskatoon, Western Producer Prairie Books, 1984; Douglas & McIntyre, 1992. ISBN 1-55054-2230.

Doyle, Brian. Spud Sweetgrass. Toronto, Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre,1992. ISBN0-88899-164-9.

Katz, Welwyn Wilton. False Face. Toronto, Groundwood Books/ Douglas & McIntyre, 1987. ISBN 0-88899-063-4.

Meredith, Don H. Dog Runner. Saskatoon, Western Producer Prairie Books, 1989. ISBN 0-88833-293-9. Distributed by Douglas & McIntyre.

Morantz, Elizabeth. Taking Care of Alabama. Toronto, Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1993. ISBN 0-02-9541824 (cloth), ISBN 002954182-4 (paper).

Porter, Helen Fogwell. january, february, june or july. St. John's, Breakwater Books,1988. ISBN0-920911-27-7.

Stinson, Kathy. Fish House Secrets. Saskatoon, Thistledown Press, 1992. ISBN 0-920633-91-9.

Wieler, Diana. Bad Boy. Toronto, Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre, 1989. ISBN 0-88899-083-9.

Anna E. Altmann is Associate Professor with the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, and a member of the CM Editorial Board.

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