The Belonging Place, by Jean Little

Belonging Place

I have to say that I find it more than a bit frustrating to browse in the library.

When I was young (ugh, I can’t believe I just said that…well, might as well own it): WHEN I WAS YOUNG BOOKS STAYED ON THE LIBRARY SHELVES EVEN IF THEY WERE MORE THAN A YEAR OR SO SINCE THEIR PUBLISHING DATE.

There, I said it.  I went to the library browsing for old favourites and was dismayed to find that almost no classics were available.  No All-of-a-Kind-Family (rated one of the top 100 Children’s Books by some random webpage), no Little House on the Prairie.  I mean, I couldn’t even find The Wednesday Wars, and that won a Newbery in 2008 and has its own Wikipedia page.  I loved going to the library to read old favourites and was really looking forward to doing it again, now that I have some free time.  I am sufficiently olde fashioned that I like pages, with illustrations, and physical turning.

Alas and alack, ’tis not to be.

So imagine my surprise when I found The Belonging Place, copy right 1997 (!), jammed into the shelf with the random new books about vampires and boy wizards.  I couldn’t figure out what it was doing there, but I grabbed it on the off-chance it might be culled if it wasn’t logged as being taken out at least once this year.

Once I started reading it, I realized why it keeps making the cut: not because it’s well-written (it is), not because the author is Canadian (she is), not because it’s a good book (it is), but because it is about a Scottish immigrant family who moves to Upper Canada, and not just any part of Upper Canada, but to this part, which is more or less where the library is located.  In other words, a clear bias towards local history.

The Belonging Place starts in Aberdeen, where little Elspet Mary lives with her mother.  Her father is a seaman and only visits on occasion.  Over the next few pages Elspet Mary is hurriedly near-orphaned, when her mother suddenly dies while her father is away.  She eventually goes to live with the Gordons – Uncle Will, Aunt Ailsa, and a pack of boys – in her mother’s village.  Lucky for Elspet, Will loved and misses his sister and is more than willing to raise her, and Ailsa is no evil stepmother, but her own mother’s best friend.  They take her in and before you can turn the page, she is calling them Mother and Father and has all but forgotten her blood parents.

Elspet is just about settled into her new life, complete with a Granny, and her cat (imaginatively called “Furkin”), when the Gordons decide to move to Upper Canada to have a new life.  Will Gordon is a younger son and is tired of working a farm that he will never inherit; Ailsa Gordon is full of spark and adventure and more than willing to try something new.  Despite Elspet’s misgivings about uprooting again, the Gordons find themselves on a ship to the New World.

The rest of the story is more or less predictable.  They arrive, it’s a lot dirtier and harder than they had thought, they persevere, Elspet gets a new cat (Purrkin, of course), makes a friend, and realizes, once again, that she has found a place where she belongs.  A happy story with a happy ending.

This is an easy and descriptive, book, with no large twists and turns.  Elspet Mary, who is telling the tale, doesn’t have any complex emoting or angst that readers have to get around.  She worries about her family, she worries about adjusting to new things, she is happy about her cat, she wants a girl to play with – the simple thoughts of a little girl.  Its tone reminds me a bit of the quiet bits in Charlotte’s Web, like when Fern watches Wilbur in his pen, or Charlotte and Wilbur talk into the night, or Wilbur gets a buttermilk bath.  It’s refreshing to read a book that isn’t constantly trying to surprise you or double-back on itself or create random drama.  Finally, a book I can recommend even for younger readers with sensitive imaginations.

Finally, lest I be accused of reviewing pioneer-era books without providing historical context, Wiki points out a few things that I am going to assume are accurate for the moment:

  • Nichol Township was a part of the grant to the Six Nations, led by Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), a Mohawk leader.  The grant was made in 1784.
  • The Township was subsequently leased for 999 years and opened for settlement in 1822.
  • Nichol Township is now a part of Wellington County, which is where Elora and Guelph are.
  • Who knows what happened to the lease.  As far as I can tell, the towns are still there, and I don’t think they are paying tithes to the Six Nations.

Reading Ages: It’s not illustrated and would be wordy for a young reader who is still into Amelia Bedelia or other easy “chapter books”.  But it’s also quite short – much shorter than any of the Narnia books – and would be nice to read aloud.  For reading with a kid, you could probably start as young as five or six.  For having a kid read themselves, well it always depends on ability, but I probably would have read it around Grade 3-5.  Any kid who can read the Little House series would be able to read this.

Rating: B.  I liked it.  But I haven’t been dying to read it again, or thinking about it a lot.

Heritage Moment: It made me laugh to think of it, but the Baby is descended from Scottish immigrants to this part of Upper Canada.  So this book may have more personal resonance for him, at some point, than it does for me.

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