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Overcoming adversity is the hallmark of this historical tale about homeless children sent from England to work as domestics in Canada

By Karen Stiller

By Carolyn Pogue
(Sumach Press) $12.95

Before reading Gwen, the latest release from Alberta author (and Observer columnist) Carolyn Pogue, I was unaware that part of Canada’s long history of welcoming immigrants includes homeless children sent from England to work as domestic helpers. The records show that as many as 100,000 “Home Children” came to Canada between 1869 and the Great Depression. Pogue’s own grandmother was among them, as she writes in the foreword of the book.

The heroine of Gwen finds herself orphaned and alone when a concerned (but nosy!) neighbour calls Dr. Allan, a physician who runs a home where orphaned children are educated, cared for and trained to become household servants. Pogue modelled Dr. Allan on Dr. Thomas Barnardo, a philanthropist who tried to give destitute children a better life by arranging for them to work in places like Canada.

Like the best of female characters in juvenile fiction, Gwen is full of imagination, fire and courage. Whenever a girl in a book is described as “wilful” by a grumpy adult, we know she will be all right in the end. Gwen survives her training in tea-towel mending and the proper way to set the table and sails to Canada with a handful of other girls who feel they are ready to begin life in a new land. The first family Gwen is placed with treats her like a slave and bad things happen, hinting at the dark and regrettable reality that is a part of the history of Home Children in Canada.

Gwen overcomes this adversity, as we know she will. In the opening pages of the book, Gwen is entranced by the Mohawk poet E. Pauline Johnson, whose invisible but strong presence suggests to Gwen — and to the reader — that young girls with the odds stacked against them can become very strong women.

I will be passing this novel along to my 11-year-old daughter. She is the intended audience, after all. But anyone with a taste for history and an appreciation for good writing will enjoy this book.

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