CM . . . .
Volume V Number 4 . . . . October 16, 1998
Ellen blinked to clear the tears from her eyes. The boy winked at her. She tensed herself for flight. Suddenly the boy ...swung his free fist hard into the man's middle. The butcher dropped both children and grabbed his stomach. Ellen lurched ahead and raced toward the waterfront....Pausing for breath she found herself beside the launch loaded with orphans. ...Everyone was looking in the direction of the butcher shop. Ellen looked around wildly for a place to hide.Ellen is not an orphan, as she declares tearfully, defiantly, or angrily, as the occasion demands. However, when she is faced with the alternatives of prison for a theft she did not commit, but would be hard-pressed to prove she had not committed, and attaching herself to a group of orphans being sent by steamship to adoptive parents in Canada, she chooses the lesser of the two evils. Because a pea-soup fog prevents her returning to Liverpool with the ship's pilot, it is not until she disembarks at Quebec that the orphans' organizers can even attempt to get in touch with Ellen's uncle back home.
In the meantime, Ellen is sent out west to a farm family near Patterson, Manitoba. There, she is welcomed warmly and taught to be useful in all the myriad of chores to be done on a farm. The main crop is wheat, but Ellen must learn to look after the hens, churn cream to make butter, and bake bread and pies. Amidst all the things she does not know, her semi-trained voice (her Uncle Bert is a musician) and ability to crochet lace so as to repair the damage to a set of parlour curtains give her self-esteem a much needed boost. Eventually contact is established with her uncle who comes to Canada to try his luck in the New World since it seems to suit Ellen so well. The Accidental Orphan is a fine story of life in the not-so-long ago. One of the jacket comments compares it to Laura Ingles Wilder's "Little House" books, and, with its emphasis on the practicalities of life on a farm, there is a resemblance although Horne offers less detail. (My sons and I actually constructed a model of a willow rocking chair from the description in one of the Wilder books!) What is lacking is any suggestion of just why the Aikens, Ellen's adopting family, should have wanted to bring an English waif into their midst. One of the other orphans was obviously taken on - and mistreated - as a source of cheap labour, but the Aikens already had several other children and, while Ellen did work, she also played and went to school and indulged in other time consuming activities. There was not ever a hint of "I'd always wanted another daughter/sister" or even a touch of "Christian duty," although it would have fitted Mrs. Aiken's character well enough. There is also none of the jealousy or squabbling that one would expect, given the situation. In other words, Ellen was luckier than anyone, even a reader of YA fiction, had any right to expect or find believable.
That objection aside, the book throws an interesting light both on the difficulties experienced by the poor in England and on farm life in Canada in the 1880s. There is a study guide available which I have not seen, but which, if up to the standard of the other books in the series, should be very useful in tying the book to the social studies and language arts curricula.
Mary Thomas, who has worked in elementary school libraries in Winnipeg for nine years, is now taking a leave of absence for a year to live in Oxford with her husband.
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