When I was a kid I devoured pretty much everything Jean Little wrote. But there was always something vaguely irritating, something slightly saccharine about her books. It’s not that they lacked conflict – each novel contained “issues” a-plenty: kids with physical or mental disabilities, sibling rivalry, bullying, the death of a parent, etc. It’s just that they were so very WASPy – set in Ontario, usually sprawlburban Toronto or cottage country, featuring white middle-class families who said grace before meals and had mac and cheese for dinner (except for the German family in From Anna, who probably had spätzle and cheese). I had trouble identifying with these people. And this was discomfiting, because her books are touted as extremely Canadian and I felt like I should recognize myself in them.
Well, back then I didn’t understand that there are vast cultural differences between eastern and western Canada, or between immigrant and non-immigrant families. I gather her books were considered innovative children’s literature for their time, though they had nothing on Katherine Paterson (FYI: she and Little hung out during the eighties) or Judy Blume. And some of Little’s more recent novels are downright edgy (cf. Willow and Twig, in which two children are abandoned by their drug-addicted mother in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.)
Kate was, is, different. Published in 1971, it’s the same Stepford-like Jean Little universe (the companion book is Look Through My Window, starring Kate’s best pal Emily, and set in good old fictional Riverside, Ontario), but also a departure in style and substance. For one thing, the main characters are not WASPy, and they have a great deal of angst about it. Also, I think Kate is Little’s only book narrated in the first person, besides her two remarkable autobiographies. And Kate’s brusque, sensitive, self-doubting voice makes the novel.
[spoilers spoilers spoilers]
Although there are lots of “issues” that a junior high teacher can latch onto (Kate must come to terms with her feelings about God and her Jewish identity, her mother is not Jewish, her father split with his family after marrying her, yadda yadda), nothing much happens in Kate. She meets a little kid and befriends her; she learns about some not-so-secret family history; she has a fight with her best friend. C’est tout. The story is, above all, a testament to love – romantic, platonic, and familial.
Such love is rare, and the friendship between Kate and Emily, and Kate’s deep pain when she loses it (temporarily!), are beautifully portrayed. In other YA novels, friendship between teenage girls is often a witches’ brew of duplicity, rumours and hormones. Emily and Kate delight in one another’s company; plan to be friends when they are “old, old ladies in wheelchairs.” The rift in their friendship is as devastating as any breakup.
The relationship between Kate’s parents is just as pleasing. Kate’s mother works outside the home (gasp!) in the family bookstore, and her father has the endearing habit of quoting E.B. White to Kate’s friends when they come over for dinner. They snap at each other when they’re tired at the end of the day. They are obviously still head over heels for each other. As Kate remarks, her parents are more than a married couple, they are a pair – and while she belongs to them, she will never be part of them:
“My father is dead,” he said dully. “He had a stroke this afternoon.”
He turned and started down the hall toward their bedroom. Mother took a step after him.
“No!” he half-shouted. “Leave me. Leave me alone!”
She stood where she was. He took another step, then another.
Then my mother just ran after him.
“Slim!” she cried out. “Oh, Slim!”
I can’t tell you how she said it. Her voice was all in little pieces. He stopped. He sort of glared at her. … If she said anything else, I don’t remember. Her face was covered in tears.
“Come with me, April,” he said then, holding onto her. “Come with me.”
What they said made sense, I guess, but it wasn’t what they said. It was their love. I could see the hurt she had seen. He was full of hurting. She just wouldn’t leave him alone with it. She went right in and hurt with him.
… Are you crying yet? I don’t know what it is about this brief simple story about friendship and family and heartache and forgiveness, but it gets me every time. Read this book if you want to be moved, shaken and restored.
Reading Age: 9-12