January 7, 2018 by readingoutside
To kick off the new year, I thought I’d review two books by two of my favourite Canadian writers for young people. Coincidentally, both are historicals that deal with grief in its many forms.
I have been a fan of Kit Pearson ever since I was ten years old, but I haven’t read anything of hers in a very long time. A Day of Signs and Wonders is her newest book and features a young Emily Carr staying with family friends in Victoria while her mother is convalescing with tuberculosis. The events of the story unfold over a single day, where she meets a young woman named Kitty O’Reilly and the two spend an eventful day together. Among their adventures, Kitty teaches Emily to paint watercolours, they visit a medium, fight and make up, go out on a rowboat, and watch a comet. Although both are actual historical figures, the meeting itself is fictional.
Emily is portrayed as rambunctious, creative, and playful, while Kitty is the more sober, introspective and rule-abiding. Much of the book’s weight comes from the grief Kitty is carrying due to her sister’s sudden death. Although this book is written for young readers, there are points where the narrative goes to some pretty dark places within the recesses of Kitty’s mind. There is no immediate resolutions to the problems presented here by the time the book ends, but the comet symbolizes a growing sense of hope. Fans of Emily Carr will enjoy the fictional account of her first painting, while children coping with grief may feel a kinship with Kitty.
Going into even darker territory, Riel Nason’s All the Things We Leave Behind is a bleak follow-up to her wonderful The Town that Drowned. Set in the same Upper Saint John River Valley world as the first novel, this time in 1977, we join 17-year-old Violet as she struggles to cope with her brother Bliss’s absence. In flashbacks, we see glimpses of Bliss’s battle with depression, represented in the form of a stag who visits Violet, and may or may not be a ghost deer. While her parents go on a road trip to try and find traces of Bliss, Violet stays behind to take care of her family’s antique business.
While the Town that Drowned was a bittersweet saga of how a community came together to survive the unthinkable, All the Things We Leave Behind is a raw portrait of how mental illness affects everyone around you, and how unthinkingly unkind people can be about it, especially in an era when you didn’t talk about it. Make no mistake, this book is unrelentingly grim, and I struggled to finish it. Despite its beautiful writing, it was tough to force myself to read something that felt like a punch in the gut every time I picked it up.