CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 32. . . .April 22, 2011
Growing Up Ivy.
Peggy Dymond Leavey.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2010.
250 pp., pbk., $12.99.
Grades 5-11 / Ages 10-16.
Review by Ruth Latta.
All at once, Alva was there, walking around in front of Dora, patting her neck and saying something to calm her.
"Well, folks, I can tell this here's no welcoming committee," he said. He pushed his way through the cluster around his caravan.
"We made it plain, mister," the spokesman said. "We want no peddlers in Birch Hills. It's hard enough to keep our shops going, without you people coming in and stealing our customers."
"I steal from no one, sir," Alva said evenly. He climbed up onto the wagon and sat down, taking the reins from Ivy. "Good day to you, then."
The crowd shifted a little to let them through.
"I think you are the rudest people I have ever met in my entire life," Ivy said, in a loud voice. "I'd never set foot in this miserable town for all the tea in China."
She was the only one who heard Alva's warning, "Ivy. That's enough now."
They moved off with what Ivy considered was great dignity, although it was hard to maintain when they had to circle at the bottom of the street and pass the jeering crowd once more, on the way out of town.
Peggy Dymond Leavey has mastered the art of "showing" rather than "telling. In the early part of Growing Up Ivy, actions speak louder than words, giving readers a subtle yet clear picture of Ivy Chalmers's life with her mother, Frannie, in Depression-era Toronto. As a housemaid for a theatrical promoter, Frannie sees the beautiful costumes and interesting people involved in a benefit performance, and she decides to become an actress. When her employer dies, Frannie works as a dishwasher and auditions for elusive roles. When her landlady expresses concern about 12-year-old Ivy being left alone at night, Frannie says, "How could she be alone? There are fourteen other people living in this house." They promptly move but find themselves with "impatient landlords who refused to wait even one extra week for the rent." Mother and child then doss down with a waitress friend. When Frannie takes off for New York in the hope of stardom, she leaves only a letter instructing her "darling girl" to go to her paternal grandmother, someone whom Ivy has never met.
Leavey creates fully-rounded characters with a few key details. Similarly, she creates and maintains an authentic Depression-era setting. Frannie's waitress friend has no money to pay Ivy's way to Larkin where her paternal grandmother lives, and so they walk. Throughout the story, readers hear much about bartering and hand-me-downs. A grandmother is shown unravelling an old sweater to reuse the yarn for socks. When Ivy and a young man travel to a nearby town to meet a performer (who is actually Ivy's mother), they manage to scrape together the bus fare but don't have enough money to actually see the show!
While Leavey excels in making Depression hardships understandable to today's young readers, she achieves more than that. She offers subtle guidance to young people who may be in situations comparable to Ivy's. In our own uncertain times, many parents, for a variety of reasons, are not bringing up their children, and many children are as homeless (whether literally or psychologically) as Ivy.
Ivy demonstrates various coping techniques. Sometime, when she feels alone, she fills her mind with stories. Other times, she lives in the moment and focuses on her surroundings. When she discovers that her grandmother keeps backyard chickens, she decides to make them pets. She accepts the gifts that come her way, such as the opportunity to use the public library in Larkin. When Grandma shares the blank paper she has scrounged (such as the blank sides of hand bills and the insides of envelopes), Ivy uses it gratefully to write stories. She also tries to find out as much as she can about her father, through questions, photos, and the family Bible.
Leavey attains tension and suspense by presenting the reader with a sequence of questions. The big question covering the entire novel is whether or not Ivy will be reunited with her mother. At the same time, readers are given other things to wonder about. Will Ivy's grandmother take her in? When Ivy's father, Alva, appears on the scene, will he give her the affection she deserves?
Alva is trying to make a living as an itinerant shoe salesman, and Ivy spends the summer travelling with him in his horse-drawn caravan. She continues to be open to new experiences and to be resourceful and useful. She makes friends with the horse, Dora, teaches her father to read and write, and learns more about her parents' marriage.
"It was always hard for me to figure out what was going on in Frannie's head," Alva tells his daughter. "It was so full of dreams. I know that I disappointed her. She was hoping for Prince Charming, and what she got was me."
Leavey's plot involves coincidence. In the fall, Ivy meets an orphaned teenager, Charlie Bayliss, who becomes her best friend. It turns out that Ivy's father is his stepfather. Charlie's parents were a young rural girl named Dottie and a soldier who died in World War I. As a baby, Charlie was raised by grandparents while Dottie sought work in Toronto. Then, when she and Alva were married, the three briefly formed a nuclear family unit. When Dottie suddenly died, Alva needed a caregiver for the small boy and returned him to his maternal grandparents who live not far from Larkin. Subsequently, Alva met Frannie, but they separated for economic reasons and lost track of each other.
Charlie's background shows readers another way that a family can be broken apart. As well, the bond between Charlie and Ivy makes the reader feel that they were fated to meet. Since they are connected by marriage, not by blood, one can anticipate a future in which they marry and bring joy to each other's lives. Since Charlie is an orphan and Ivy feels like one, the two are drawn to each other and find practical ways to help each other. Charlie offers Ivy a shoulder to lean on when she learns a painful lesson about human nature - that the best predictor of a person's future behaviour is his/ her past behaviour.
In the "Author's Note," readers learn that Ivy is based on a real person named Nellie who spent one Depression summer happily on the road with her pedlar father. Leavey deserves congratulations for recognizing the germ of a good story when she came across it, and praise for making something of it.
Ruth Latta's most recent book is a collection of short stories, Winter Moon (Ottawa, Baico, 2010). Ruth lives in Ottawa, ON.
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