________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 10 . . . . January 4, 2007


How It Happened in Peach Hill.

Marthe Jocelyn.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2007.
234 pp., cloth, $22.99.
ISBN 978-0-88776-773-9.

Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.

Review by Anna Swanson.

**** /4

Reviewed from prepublication copy.


Mama was sharp; no mistake about that. She was a fake as far as hearing from the dead, or even seeing the outcome of a situation ahead of time, but she had a sensitive way about her when required professionally. She was a master at drawing out secrets. With a little background information, she easily appeared to see straight into the hearts of forlorn and desperate seekers – usually women – who spent heaps of money to hear the advice of a stranger. And Mama was so pretty, people tended to trust her without thinking about it.

So, in Hawley, I sat for hours holding Mama’s mirror with the tortoiseshell handle. I perfected the ability to cross one eye while my mouth stayed open. I breathed out with a faint wheeze so that my lips dried up or even crusted. Once in a while I’d add a twitch.

If anyone had looked through the window, they would have heard Mama scolding me, “Get rid of that smart glint in your eyes. And let your lips gape!”

“It makes me thirsty, having my tongue hanging out.”

“Try honking your nose when you laugh. That will give your mouth a rest.”

I experimented on the streets of Hawley. People would take a first look at me and shiver with disgust. They’d look again and think, Oh, the poor things, thank the heavens she’s not mine. And then they’d ignore me, just as Mama had predicted, out of politeness, maybe, or embarrassment.

That was the moment I could go to work.


The year is 1924 in Peach Hill, New York. Prohibition is in full swing, and so is the Spiritualist movement. Women have lost husbands in the Great War. Parents have lost sons. Everyone has a secret question, or a fear, or a love they long to hear from one last time. And business has never been better for 15-year-old Annie and her mother, Madame Caterina. 

     Annie has always been the eyes and ears of her mother’s fraudulent clairvoyant practice, but she isn’t fond of her mother’s latest plan. Faking a disability in order to eavesdrop on women in the town square is certainly not what Annie had in mind as she and her mother move to Peach Hill after their last narrow escape.

     It comes as no great surprise that the kids in town are cruel when confronted with difference, and Annie discovers that insults don’t hurt any less when they’re based on a lie. Neither do stones. Even after Sammy wins a place in her heart by trying to defend her against the other high school kids, she agonizes about what he must think of her. When her mother prays for her recovery from injury, Annie seizes the opportunity to improvise a “miracle healing” in front of witnesses, forcing her mother to go along with the plan. But now Annie is faced with another set of lies to maintain as the miraculously healed daughter and clairvoyant partner of Madame Caterina. Does Sammy like her only because he believes she has occult powers? Will her mother’s business be exposed by town sceptics? And does Mr. Gregory Poole, her mother’s most lucrative client, have schemes of his own? Only when she meets Helen, an outsider sharp enough see through her act, does Annie develop her first honest friendship. When her mother forces her into a “relapse” to evade discovery, Annie realizes she is no longer willing to give up school, friends, Sammy, and what little honesty she has managed to bring into her life.

     This book takes on the perennial themes of difference, deception, and the struggle between family loyalty and self-determination, but sets them in the gripping world of the Spiritualist movement. Just the right amount of historical detail is woven into the plot –  enough to set the scene but not so much as to become awkward or didactic. The ease and subtlety with which award-winning author Marthe Jocelyn recreates the atmosphere of small town America in 1924 will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with her earlier works of historical fiction like Mable Riley or Earthly Astonishment.

     Annie’s first person narration offers the reader an intimate look at the tools and trade of deception, as well as the internal turmoil it can create. The insider’s view of intricately rigged séances provide spectacle and bring satisfaction to the curious onlooker in all of us while the possibility of discovery builds suspense and propels the story forward towards an inevitable crossroads: Will Annie allow Mr. Poole to turn her and her mother into a travelling show, or will she find a way to reveal the truth to a town that she has repeatedly deceived?

     Annie’s story is a familiar one: the girl who lives an extraordinary life but wishes desperately for the ordinary. Even though her circumstances are somewhat unusual, her struggle will resonate with any reader who has ever felt they were “faking it.” Annie is a likeable character who deals with a wide range of challenges and emotions, but the secondary characters tend to be somewhat two-dimensional, portrayed as either unambiguously sympathetic or entirely suspect. Annie’s mother, for instance, never falters in her self-interested manipulation of all those around her. Likewise, Sammy remains entirely devoted to Annie even in the midst of her “relapse” without a moment of hesitation of pity. An older reader might want to see a little more ambiguity and complexity in Annie’s relationship to her mother, but the strength of the plot and skilful portrayal of the Spiritualist movement will be more than enough to keep most readers hooked.

     As with her previous novel Mable Riley, which won the first annual TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award and has been nominated for this year’s Red Cedar Awards, the story features a teenage protagonist (Annie turns 16 over the course of the novel), but the content will also be appealing and appropriate for a much younger audience.  Readers as young as 10 will enjoy reading up to an older character whereas teens who gravitate towards edgy YA fiction may find the subject matter and the book’s single kissing scene a little too wholesome for their taste. Regardless, How It Happened In Peach Hill is a strongly written, entertaining, and highly readable novel.

Highly Recommended.

Anna Swanson, who works as a student librarian at the Richmond Public Library, is completing her Master of Library and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia.


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

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
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