CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 1. . . .September 4, 2015
Small Bones. (Secrets).
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2015.
239 pp., trade pbk., pdf & epub, $14.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-0653-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4598-0656-6 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-0655-9 (epub). A “Secrets” Boxed Set is available for $79.95. ISBN 978-1-4598-1082-2.
Grades 7-11 / Ages 12-16.
Review by Dave Jenkinson.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
I realized this was exactly what [Mrs. Hazelton] meant by flights of fancy. I was hardly some kid in a cape, tripping through the forest with nothing to protect me but a basket of goodies. In a few weeks, I’d be seventeen. I was on a passenger train with comfortable seats and a bell I could ring for the conductor if I needed him. I had $127 in my brand-new purse. I had my very own clothes. I was wearing lipstick. A cute boy had winked at me.
A day earlier, all that would have sounded like one of my fantasies. I’d spent my entire life as a penniless, poorly dressed unwinked-at orphan – and yet right now I’d have given it all up to go back to the home. Suddenly, I had almost everything I’d ever dreamed of, but it didn’t make me feel better. It made me feel like I needed to pee and/or throw up.
That probably sounds crazy. The average person hears the word orphanage and thinks gruel – or, in our case, lima-bean casserole – but it wasn’t like that. I had a lot of happy memories. Bath nights. Holding the new babies, Lighting farts on fire. Toni killing herself as Mrs. Hazelton stood there tapping her foot while I tried to come up with some plausible explanation for the burn hole in the seat of my pants. Sara and I in the common room, doing the twist to the CHUM 150 hit parade long after everyone else had gone to bed.
There were some not-so-happy moments, too, of course. Sharon falling down the cellar stairs with the potato peeler in her hand. Joe walking up the driveway with Puss ‘n Boots in his arms, her neck at such a terrible angle that we didn’t even have to ask. Patsy’s grandmother showing up and taking her back. Marlene getting adopted, and Belinda getting adopted, and even Sharon getting adopted despite the scar.
The time I realized it was never going to happen to me.
Ever since Lucy Maude Montgomery’s 1908 Anne of Green Gables, the “orphan” novel has been a genre favourite for girls. However, the seven novels in the “Secrets” series are not about the trials of young girls who are learning how to adjust to living in an adopting home. A fire has completely destroyed the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls located in Hope, ON, and the decision has been made not to rebuild. The home’s younger children will be fostered, but seven older girls who are nearing the age of majority are being sent out into the world, with each seeking to learn something about her past, especially the identity of her birth parents and the circumstances that led to her being placed in an orphanage.
Small Bones begins with a “Prologue” dated “July 9, 1947 – Sometime after midnight” in which a man surreptitiously delivers a newborn baby girl to the doors of the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls, leaving the infant wrapped in his coat. The mysterious man notes that “Two families, two fine old families, could be ruined by this.” The story then jumps forward to June, 1964, as Dorothy “Dot” Blythe, almost 17, is about to board a train to Buckminster, ON. Why Buckminster? The orphanage had kept the man’s cashmere coat in which Dot had been wrapped, and it bore a label indicating that it had been made by “Howell’s of Buckminster”. Embroidered on the inside pocket were three letters, presumably those of the coat’s owner, but only the first two letters are decipherable. Additionally, the coat had contained a tiny sterling mustard spoon with a crest bearing wording that again could not be clearly distinguished. With these limited “clues”, Dot sets off on her quest to find her father.
Because the fire destroyed all of Dot’s possessions, she is outfitted in the clothing of the daughter of the well-to-do family for whom Dot had cleaned house while at the orphanage, and, consequently Dot can, and does, present herself as “above” her orphan status. The train trip introduces her to a flirting boy, Eddie Nicholson, who comes to be one of the book’s central characters and Dot’s romantic interest. Upon arriving in Buckminster, Dot experiences two immediate disappointments. First, she learns that Howell’s had closed on June 13, 1944, a week after D-Day, and then she discovers that someone had stolen all her money during an unguarded moment on the train.
Again the penniless orphan, Dot decides to get a job locally while continuing her parental search. She is hired as a seamstress at the nearby Dunbrae Arms that caters to wealthy families who summer in the lake area. From the young summer staff, a mixture of “townies” and college students, Dot hears about the “Bye-Bye Baby” party, “the annual commemoration of a bizarre occurrence that took place here seventeen years ago.” Apparently, on July 8, 1947, two teen Dunbrae employees, while engaging in a romantic encounter in the woods after curfew, had stumbled on a newborn baby; however, after returning minutes later with help, the pair found the baby gone. Though the current Dunbrae staff consider the story to be just local folklore, Dot recognizes a possible link to her origins, and she convinces Eddie, who works as a summer stringer for the local newspaper, to pitch a story on the topic to his editor.
Not surprisingly, the pair’s “research” into the 1947 happening ultimately leads to Dot’s learning her birth parents’ identities and the circumstances that led to her being placed in the orphanage. Ultimately, genre-wise Small Bones is a mystery, and Vicki Grant “salts” her plot with clues, some genuine and others appropriately misleading. At one point, the clues, much to Dot’s horror, even suggest that Eddie might be her brother or half-brother.
Though the book is set in 1964, only a few specific references are made to period “events,” such as the Boston Strangler, Dot’s wages being 75 cents an hour, or the current dance craze, the twist. Instead, Grant recreates the period more in terms of the values that were then being espoused. For instance, today’s teen readers may know unwed female classmates who have become pregnant, continued their schooling, had the baby and then brought their child to their school’s nursery. In the novel’s time period, when girls “disappeared all of a sudden, people would wink and say she’d ‘gone to visit an aunt.’ It was code for pregnant.”
Class divisions, based principally on someone’s financial or educational circumstances, were also more “honored” during the book’s period setting. Dating/romantic relationships between the “townies” and college-educated Dunbrae summer staff was/were “permitted”, but only with the clear, but never explicitly stated, understanding that these were summer flings, not precursors to marriage.
Grant also effectively recreates the social dynamics displayed by the residents of a small town. As one of the adult characters points out to Dot, “Small towns are all the same – and once the summer folk leave, that’s all Buckminster is. Another small town with its share of peculiarities and oddballs and things most of us would prefer to forget....I will tell you one thing, though, for your own benefit: there are people around here you don’t speak ill of, regardless of what you may know about them.” Buckminster is also a community that it is still feeling the effects of World War II, especially in terms of some of its men who returned physically and emotionally damaged.
Small Bones contains many more adult characters than would normally be found in the average YA novel. However, that situation is understandable given that most of the people who hold the information Dot needs were in their late teens when “Bye-Bye Baby” occurred, and they have moved on to adult lives, with some of them wanting what occurred in the past to stay there.
Small Bones’s connections to the other six books in the “Secret” series are largely limited to passing references to experiences Dot had with the other girls, but readers who go on to the other books will find moments of recognition.
Dave Jenkinson, CM’s editor, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
Small Bones. (Secrets).
Vicki Grant. Narrated by Jules Price.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2015.
6.45 hours, CD (5 discs) & mp3, $29.95 (CD), $19.95 (mp3).
ISBN 978-1-4598-1098-3 (CD), ISBN 978-1-4598-1099-0 (mp3).
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