The Root Cellar – Janet Lunn

Where is Hawthorn Bay?

I reread The Root Cellar last night and came out of it thinking – I wonder where Hawthorn Bay is? I’d never asked myself that question before and the last time I read The Root Cellar or Shadow in Hawthorn Bay, googling didn’t exist. So I googled away and I am wondering if it’s even a place. Google Maps hasn’t heard of it (although it did take me to some place in Australia) and neither has Mapquest. I did, however, find the part of Ontario where The Root Cellar is probably set: across from Oswego, New York, the closest bit of land is the peninsula (is that what it’s called?) where Sandbanks Provincial Park is. Just east of there are a set of islands, any one of which could be the island where Rose Larkin lives in the more-or-less present day and where Susan Anderson and Will Morrissay lived in the 1860s during the U.S. Civil War.

Rose Larkin, orphaned when she was an infant, is raised by her “austere” grandmother. Rather than sending Rose to schools where nothing of any value could possibly be learned, Rose’s grandmother teaches her personally. They travel the world together, hopping from Manhattan to hotel back to Manhattan again. As a result, when Rose’s grandmother suddenly dies (which is somewhere around page 10, so I’m not spoiling the story), Rose is a well-traveled, well-educated, cosmopolitan, awkward, painfully shy and quiet child of twelve, with enough sang froid to get herself from a Parisian hospital back to her hotel after her grandmother’s death, but none of the social skills necessary to make herself comfortable in her new home: rural Central Ontario with her aunt, uncle, and four (boy) cousins.

Thus is the stage set for the events of The Root Cellar. Lonely unhappy girl, unable to bond with her family or make friends at school, ends up spending time alone exploring, finds an ancient root cellar, and lo! time travels into the past where she meets Susan and Will. She spends a happy day with them before being whisked back to her own time. Convinced that her time is the “wrong” time for her, and that the “right” time for her is in the past with her new friends, Rose figures out a way to go back, only to find that time has passed more quickly for Susan and Will than it has for her. Instead of being her own age, Susan and Will are older. Even worse, Will has gone to fight beside his cousin in the U.S. Civil War…and though the war has been over for months, he hasn’t yet come back. Rose convinces Susan that they can find Will, and the girls’ weary journey from New York to Washington begins.

I read this book several times when I was younger. Time travel, adventure, a tomboy heroine, a quest, and a misfit-becomes-heroine…what more could a girl want? But that was years ago – I haven’t seen my copy in ages. So when I read it again the other day, I wasn’t expecting much. I thought – well, it’s probably just not as good as I thought it was. And you know what? I was mostly wrong.

I was kind of right, because the story is very simple and has few surprises. Girls go on a quest, there are some hurdles, girls overcome hurdles and finish what they set out to do. Heroine discovers something about herself as well, and happy endings are enjoyed by all. Nothing new here.

But other parts were better – much better. Lunn, I rediscovered with some surprise, is good at describing things!  No Anne-Shirley-esque effervescent metaphors here! Lunn describes things simply, and she makes them real: the awkward girl waiting at the farmhouse with her new city-clothes and haircut; a simple picnic in the grass; trudging on the dirt road to Washington; the dirt, the sweat, the hunger, the work; scenes from the War. I could see them all when I was reading, and they were just as alive and real as I remembered them.

Final words? It is very satisfying to reread a book and find that you haven’t outgrown it completely and it is still enjoyable.

Reading Ages: 11-13

Weirdest moment: When Rose’s relations decide to get her a new outfit and haircut before abandoning her to her Aunt’s country home. Rose gets a haircut so that her (red) hair is in inch-long curls “all over her head”. Her Aunt Millicent thinks that it is “chic”. In what decade was Little Orphan Annie hair chic? Then they dress her up in “a pair of tight black velvet pants, tall slim boots with two-inch heels, and a sealskin jacket.” On a twelve-year old girl. I don’t care if it’s the 80s. It sounds ridiculous. Especially with the clown hair.

Rating: B+


3 thoughts on “The Root Cellar – Janet Lunn

  1. Hawthorn Bay isnt a real place, the real place is called Pheasant Bay, Lunn states that she changed the name for the story because, a.) there were lots of hawthorn trees nearby and b.) Pheasant Bay (Lunn says) is a rather boring name.

    I read this in the Author interview at the end of the book 🙂

    1. Good thing someone read the author interview 😉 For some reason, I don’t think mine had one… (Pheasant Bay *is* a rather boring name!)

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