CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 16 . . . . March 30, 2007
Ellen Fremedon is convinced that without her friend Jenny around for two whole months, her summer is going to be the absolute worst, most boring and utterly uneventful one ever. Upset, irritable and at loose ends, the usually spunky and resourceful 13-year-old begins to feel sorry for herself….. but not for long! When she crosses paths with Mr. Martin, a crotchety, cantankerous, blind, wheelchair-bound senior and Dimsie Fairchild, a “snobby,” “rude” and “spoiled” blonde-haired girl her from Toronto, unlikely friendships develop, and Ellen’s vacation turns out to be anything but humdrum.
Ellen Fremedon, Volunteer is the sensitive, thoughtful, and at times humourous story of a teenager’s unwitting journey of self discovery in the small seaside community of Partridge Cove on Vancouver Island. In trying to sort out her own life, Ellen seems to be at the centre of helping the rest of the characters in this realistic fiction novel come to terms with the uncertainty, disappointment and even turmoil in their lives. With a few twists, turns and surprises along the way, the character-driven plot all begins when Ellen’s favourite teacher, Mr. Higginson, invites her to tag along with him and his singing group to visit with the seniors at Peacehaven. There she meets the grumpy Mr. Martin who has bad manners (“he never says please or thanks”) and has nothing nice to say to Ellen (he tells her she is a “nasty little girl,” is temperamental and that she is “ignorant” because she doesn’t know where Nunavut is). However, with some encouragement from her mother, who has multiple sclerosis, is in a wheelchair and gets grumpy sometimes, too, like Mr. Martin, Ellen decides that at least she can be kind to the “old man.” She brings him flowers (she is an avid gardener) and cookies, makes him cups of tea and replaces his worn-out holey bedroom slippers with her dad’s cast-offs. Her efforts are not in vain. Slowly, the two begin to trust and respect each other, and Ellen discovers that Mr. Martin has a kind side. In a gesture of acceptance and suggesting that she might learn something, Mr. Martin shares his RCMP son’s letters about life in the Arctic with her. To her surprise, she finds the stories “interesting” and not only does Ellen spend more time with Mr. Martin, she gets involved with the other residents, notably the seemingly “wacky” children’s author Josephine Gwillam and her field mice friends Jessie, Jemima, Japonica, Josephine and Jasmine.
When Ellen finds out that the provincial government is planning on closing Peacehaven, she wants to help and is determined to do something to stop the facility from being demolished. Ellen nervously makes a presentation to the Partridge Cove Community Council (a gutsy and courageous move for which readers will admire her), but she meets opposition from an unruly and hostile crowd who are at the meeting to protest a proposed swimming pool, not the closure of the local retirement home.
While things are heating up at Peacehaven, a second friendship is developing between Ellen and Dimsie Fairchild, who is Ellen’s age and whose mother apparently was killed in a car accident when Dimsie was a baby. Dimsie’s father has sent her to British Columbia to spend the summer with her grandmother, the elusive Mrs. Broster who lives alone in a big, dark, creepy house called the Meads. Ellen and Dimsie meet at the Partridge Cove Library check-out counter where Ellen is arguing about her overdue books and fines. Ellen doesn’t like Dimsie at first (she calls Ellen “stupid,” asks “really dumb questions” and says that Partridge Cove is “ a boring dump”). Even though Ellen feels sorry for her because she doesn’t have a mother, Ellen is jealous of Dimsie’s “photogenic appeal” (Dimsie is known as Ellen’s “pretty friend”) and secretly resents how Dimsie, an accomplished pianist, loves being the centre of attention and revels in the accolades she receives from the Peacehaven residents when she plays for them. Although their friendship gets off to a shaky start, the suspiciously weird things that are going on at the Meads with its locked rooms, “stuff covered up with sheets” and holes in the walls where paintings once hung, draw them together as they look for clues to get at the bottom of what is happening. While the future of Peacehaven may not look good for the residents, the publicity Ellen generates and her efforts to save the “old folks’ home” eventually bring about a resolution and a closure to the mystery surrounding Dimsie’s mother and her “scary” grandmother.
By the end of the book Ellen has mellowed. When she thinks about everything that has happened to her including making “a billion cups of tea” and listening to “a billion stories,” she realizes that she has made a difference in other people’s lives and that “all the stories I’d heard ran like streams flowing into one big pond, and that pond was my own story of the summer.”
This is Joan Givner’s third book about the spirited and spunky Ellen (previous books include Ellen Fremedon and Ellen Fremedon, Journalist). Those meeting Ellen for the first time will certainly enjoy Givner’s latest book without having to read the first two. There is a lot going on in Ellen Fremedon, Volunteer (much more than the book’s lackluster title suggests) as Ellen, the first person narrator, sets the pace with her active mind, incessant curiosity and uncontrollable nosiness (she admits it herself), which, with every page turn, seem to catapult her into other people’s lives and stories. Through Ellen’s thoughts, feelings and relationships, Givner ambitiously yet effectively tackles a number of issues, challenges and situations that young people like Ellen have to face everyday. Parents, teachers and teacher-librarians wishing to initiate discussion about dysfunctional family life, sibling rivalry, divorce, single parenthood, caring for the elderly, the ups and downs of friendships, the so-called generation gap and living with disease (multiple sclerosis and diabetes) and disabilities (blindness), Ellen Fremedon, Volunteer is a good place to start.
Underlying these various themes is a significant message that Ellen begins to understand …. and that is, that no one is perfect, herself included, which is okay. She learns that first impressions can be deceptive and that there are reasons for people’s behaviour. In Mr. Martin’s case, his nurse Kelly explains to Ellen why he and some of the residents at Peacehaven are “so mean.” Kelly tells her that a lot of them have serious illnesses; that they don’t feel good and all the aches and pains make them cranky; that they get frustrated because they can’t do much for themselves; and that when they find fault with everything, it makes them feel a bit less helpless. On the other hand, Givner’s description of Mr. Martin may be somewhat stereotypical and may give readers the wrong idea that all seniors in retirement homes are grouchy, have stains on their shirts and holes in their slippers.
Interestingly enough, it is Ellen’s own imperfections that give her credibility and make her a likeable character. Readers in the 9-to-13 age group who have messy rooms and huge library fines, who have a weakness for raspberry smoothies and double-dip cones, who feel parents and adults pick on them, who have ever washed their jeans with a book certificate prize in the pocket, or who don’t like how they look in photographs will identify and connect with Ellen.
There are humourous moments to be enjoyed in the book. Givner’s account of Gertie McCrorie’s hundredth birthday party at Peacehaven is one. A journalist asks the birthday girl to “tell us the secret of your longevity” to which Mrs. McCrorie replies, “No, I don’t need to go to the lavatory. I just went.” Also readers should get a kick out of the antics of Ellen’s younger twin brothers who seem to provide comic relief at just the right times. The boys are annoyingly obsessed with anything to do with the human body and thanks to the medical dictionary they bought for a dollar from the used book rack at the library, they always have an explanation and name for any and all ailments. Although they drive Ellen crazy, they prove to be an asset in helping to figure out what happened to Dimsie’s mother.
Givner’s crisp, well-written narrative reads well both silently and aloud. While the author doesn’t rush the beginning of the book to allow readers to have some time to get to know Ellen (just as friendships in real life take time) or for Ellen fans to become reacquainted with her, the tempo picks up and moves along at a steady pace. Givner’s style of weaving sub-plots into the main story works and enhances the overall construction and effect of the storytelling. Givner uses a lot of dialogue and most conversations flow naturally except the ones that take place in the Fremedon household. When Ellen’s dad speaks, he comes across in a stiff, awkward and very irritating manner. For example, as Ellen’s gran tells her about the suffragettes and how they went on hunger strikes to protest and make their point, Mr. Fremedon interjects, “Mother, please. The children are at an impressionable age. This is not an appropriate subject.” As Ellen would say…..“Yoicks!”
Rebecca Buchanan’s static pastel-coloured cover illustration is disappointing and definitely does not do the book justice or give it pick up appeal. In fairness to Buchanan, her drawing rightly conveys Mr. Martin’s initial loneliness and Ellen’s guarded demeanor when the two first meet, but it gives the wrong impression that the book is sad and lifeless. No doubt unintentional, the illustration by example, echoes Givner’s central theme about forming opinions about people and supports the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Although not perfect, Ellen Fremedon, Volunteer is a good read with enough action and appeal to hold the interest of its intended audience.
Lois Brymer is a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s Master of Arts in Children’s Literature Program, a West Vancouver Memorial Library volunteer, and a former publicist/public relations practitioner.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.