________________ CM . . . . Volume IV Number 12 . . . . February 13, 1998

Cover Promise Song.

Linda Holeman.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 1997.
260 pp., paper, $8.95.
ISBN 0-88776-387-1.

Subject Headings:
Home children (Canadian immigrants)-Ontario-Juvenile fiction.
Sisters-Juvenile fiction.
Ontario-History-1867-1918-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 6 - 9 / Ages 11 - 14.
Review by Dave Jenkinson.

**** /4


And this night, the last one before she arrived in her new country, to her new life, Rosetta held the light even more tightly as she gently eased her body away from Flora's and climbed overhead to her own bunk.

"We won't be Home girls any more," she whispered, pulling the scratchy blanket over her shoulders. "No one will ever call me a Home girl again. We'll start a new life, the two of us. A new family. We won't be Home girls.

Holeman builds her story around an actual happening in Canadian history. Between 1868 and 1925, more than 80,000 children were sent to Canada, principally from Britain orphanages or "Homes." During this period, Canada, especially its rural areas, required much manual labour, and so many of these Home children ended up on small farms in Eastern Canada. Four years previously, Rosetta's and Flora's surviving parent died, and the orphaned Westley sisters were placed in the Manchester Refuge. Now, in May, 1900, they find themselves "home children" being shipped to Canada. Rosetta, 14, who has become her six-year-old sister's surrogate mother, comforts Flora by singing the "Promise Song," in which she pledges, "I promise you...we'll stay together...." However, shortly after their arrival in Belleville, Ontario, the sisters are separated; Flora is adopted by a childless couple while Rosetta is sent to a backwoods Ontario farm. There, Rosetta learns she will not be adopted but rather is bound by a contract of indenture to the taciturn Albert Thomas and his frail, subdued and submissive wife, Gudrun. After an unsuccessful attempt to run away in search of Flora, Rosetta decides to work at the house and farm chores until November when she is to receive her six month wage of $2.00. However, Albert's manipulation of Rosetta's "expenses" leaves her in debt to him, and so another half year's physical dawn-to-dusk toil is required.

      While Rosetta's concern about actualizing her promise to Flora remains before readers, the plot really revolves about the happenings at the Thomas farm as Rosetta gradually uncovers the sources of the couple's seemingly loveless relationship. Gudrun, an Icelandic immigrant, was "given" to Thomas in marriage when her older sister, Albert's intended, ran off with another man. Only 15 when she married, Gudrun, now 20, has already experienced several miscarriages plus the deaths of two infants within weeks of their birth. During the time Rosetta is at the Thomas farm, Gudrun again becomes pregnant, and Rosetta, now quite fond of Gudrun, agrees to remain with her until the baby's birth. The infant's premature arrival adds suspense as does Gudrun's failing health after the birth. Ultimately, however, Rosetta can fulfil her promise, and the book concludes, perhaps unsatisfactorily for those who want "tidy" endings, with the two sisters again meeting. Subplots include an emerging romance between Rosetta and a neighbour lad, plus Rosetta's having to deal with the unwanted, "nasty" attentions of Eli, the hired hand.

      While Barbara Haworth-Attard's Home Child (Roussan, 1996) also dealt with the same general historical happening, the time setting of her novel was later, 1914, and the transplanted orphan was a 13-year-old boy, Arthur. Of the two books, Holeman's Promise Song has the stronger reader impact as Haworth-Attard elected to tell Arthur's story not from his perspective but rather that of one of the children on the farm to which Arthur had been sent.

Highly recommended.

Dave Jenkinson teaches adolescent literature courses in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364