CM . . . .
Volume VI Number 4 . . . . October 15, 1999
She looked around. Now she was outside the convent grounds in forbidden territory. Her heart skipped and she grinned. Forbidden. Mother Superior had told her specifically that boarders were never allowed off the convent grounds without special permission. And certainly never alone. She stared back over her shoulder at the convent looming over the fence.Norma Charles does an admirable job of describing the difficult life children of several generations faced in religious boarding schools. The situation was even more bleak during the Depression as poverty complicated the lives of the children and their families. Toni is the rebellious heroine who is sent from lush, green British Columbia to the cold, bald prairie to attend a convent school where her mother hopes she will be taught to develop her "ladylike" skills. Toni resents her mother but, at the same time, misses all her family. Plunked into the boarding school, Toni immediately finds life to be a challenge. She barely understands the French the nuns speak, she feels she is constantly under their scrutiny, and she senses rejection from the other girls. Toni breaks the rules right from the start, and her problems multiply as a result. She discovers Jess, a runaway who has obviously suffered abuse, and brings her to the convent. Toni and Jess become friends, break more rules and are punished. The tenuous situation in which they exist climaxes when Jess's uncle shows up to reclaim her. Toni and Jess stand up together against him and expose his cruel treatment of Jess to the nuns.
Charles develops very believable characters in her story. Toni is rebellious, but rebelliousness in the 1930's was a free spirit. Toni is not overdone. She does like to learn, and she is good at piano and writes poetry. She just doesn't fit in the regular classroom mold unless she is seriously challenged, as she is in science. Jess is not unlike many kids who have experienced neglect and abuse. Even though the convent is austere and the nuns are stiff, it is a stable environment in which she feels safe. It was the best a child without family could expect in days when there were few social services. The nuns are presented realistically, too. They are cold in their appearance, and they had very little appreciation of the emotional needs of the children they taught, but they were not completely inhumane. The unusual life they chose formed them, and they thought it normal to impose their attitudes on their charges. The convent setting in the middle of the prairie during the coldest months of the year reflects the bleakness of life in the 1930's. The lack of colour in the convent mirrors the lack of human warmth and makes each child feel isolated. Life is repetitive and dull for the boarders, circumstances which add to the sadness of the situation. At the end of the book, Toni's breaking the barriers between herself, the nuns and the other girls makes life that much easier. She will be able to make the best of the situation, feel less lonely and grow as a person. She may even learn to be a "genteel young lady" while still enjoying her free spirit.
Young readers will feel for Toni's emotional turmoil and Jess's fears. Accurate historical information is woven into the plot as the story unfolds. Charles' style is easy to read, and the end of each chapter draws the reader in wanting to find out what will happen in the next. Runaway will likely appeal mostly to girls and would be a good gift or addition to a library.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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