CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 40. . . .June 17, 2016
A Day of Signs and Wonders is an historical novel about a fictional chance meeting of 13-year-old Kitty (Kathleen) O'Reilly and nine-year-old Emily Carr. Some young readers may realize that Emily is the famous Canadian post-impressionist painter whose art is memorable for depicting deep mysterious forests and First Nations communities.
Though Pearson's novel is unique, it reminded me of two classics - Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and Virginia Woof's Mrs. Dalloway. Emily and Kitty, like Anne and Diana in L.M. Montgomery's famous novel, discover that, in spite of their differences, they are kindred spirits. The events of Mrs. Dalloway and A Day of Signs and Wonders take place in a single day, and both are set in gracious upperclass milieus fraught with memories. All three novels involve death, and, in all three, plot is second to characterization.
Pearson's novel opens on June 27, 1881, with nine-year-old Emily Carr rising early, throwing on only a dress, and escaping from the home of her parents' friends, the Cranes, to walk by the ocean. The author's portrait of a spontaneous, non-conforming child who identifies with nature fits in well with what we know of Emily Carr's later life. When she sees a girl sitting on the rocks weeping, she goes over and asks bluntly, "What's the matter?"
Pearson writes in the third person, alternating between Kitty's and Emily's viewpoints, showing their hearts and minds as well as what they say aloud. As the story unfolds, readers see that both girls are haunted by fears. Emily and her sister Alice are staying with the Cranes because their mother is suffering a bad bout of a recurring illness (later revealed as tuberculosis.) Although Alice fits in well with the Crane daughters, Emily does not. Impetuous, outspoken, she misses her home and fears that her mother is dying. The roots of Kitty's sorrow are more complicated. Several instances of her peculiar behaviour, like her reluctance to let Emily prowl around in a special rose garden, create suspense.
From the outset, the girls' personality and class differences stand out. Emily is the daughter of a wholesale grocer while Kitty's is a high ranking civil servant, the Indian Reserves Lands Commissioner for British Columbia. Home alone while her mother and younger brother are out with friends, Kitty impulsively asks Emily to spend the day with her and immediately regrets doing so.
"Proper” features prominently in Kitty's vocabulary. When Emily complains about the quantity of clothes that girls must wear in the summer heat, Kitty says it's the proper way to dress. She finds it improper when Emily rides her horse bareback and astride. When they get out watercolours, Kitty attempts to instruct Emily in the proper steps: sketching, applying a wash, then painting background ahead of foreground. "I'm just going to start painting and see what happens," Emily says, producing a wild, dauby, brightly coloured work which contrasts with Kitty's "pretty, careful" landscape. Later, however, Kitty tells Emily that her art has so much “freshness and power".
Soon outspoken Emily demands to know what is making Kitty sad. June 27 is the birthday of Kitty's younger sister, Mary Augusta, or "Pop", who died at nine. (One of the signs and wonders is that another nine-year-old, Emily, appears to help Kitty find peace.) Kitty's problem goes beyond grief, however, for she confides that Pop is still there, in their home. Leaving the family estate, whether to go to school, out with friends, or to England for further education is impossible for Kitty because it would mean abandoning Pop. She also feels that Pop wants something from her, but she doesn't know what. She wishes there was "a way to get through to someone who is dead."
An experience with the clairvoyant (someone Emily's elder sister consulted) seems like a false sign and fraudulent wonder, yet it is positive in that it gets Kitty out of the house and starts the process of healing. Mrs. Tolliver, the medium, calls Kitty a "water person" with a long, happy life ahead, although she will never marry. Emily, an "earth person", already knows what she will do in life. She will not marry either but will become famous. This section foreshadows the author's afterword at the book’s end wherein which she summarizes Emily's and Kitty's adult lives.
Kitty is comforted by Mrs. Tolliver's seance until Emily tells her that Pop's "voice from beyond" was faked. Angrily, she sends Emily back to the Cranes. In mulling things over, however, she realizes that the anxiety she has been feeling is her own, not from Pop. This insight makes Pop disappear: "The air was normal, no longer charged with Pop's being."
Sent back to retrieve her pinafore, Emily is welcomed. In a heart-to-heart talk that Kitty initiates, Emily shares her thoughts about God, quoted at the beginning of this review. That evening, watching the great comet of 1881 (an actual phenomenon), both girls have further insights. Kitty sees that, as a "mere human girl", she cannot expect at this stage of her life to unravel the mysteries of the universe, whether death or astronomy. To Emily, the comet is yet another manifestation of God in nature.
If Emily seems wise beyond her years, particularly in her concept of God, that was likely the author's intention. The editors of The Annotated Anne of Green Gables wrote in their introduction that Anne's love of nature and positive effect on Avonlea make her something close to a goddess in a novel in which Christianity is not abandoned but reinterpreted. Emily, too, is a young nature goddess in that she identifies with the natural world and transforms Kitty's life.
Kit Pearson's novel is outstanding on many levels. With research and insight, she has depicted a Canadian icon as a child in a way to which young readers can relate. Her co-protagonists have distinctive, vivid personalities. She takes readers into the Victorian world of class hierarchies, servants, spiritualism, and restrictions upon girls and women. Aspiring authors of all ages can learn much from her structure, pacing, authentic detail, suspense-building and subtlety. Best of all, grieving readers will find A Day of Signs and Wonders full of hope.
An author living in Ottawa, ON, Ruth Latta is working on a late teen/young adult novel with a Canadian historical figure as the central character. For further information about her books, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com
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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.
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.