Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Silver Pencil, by Alice Dalgliesh

How fun that this book is largely autobiographical!  It explains how the author was able to describe so many locations, as well as the protagonist's impressions of them, so well.

Janet Laidlaw is our protagonist, the daughter of a Scottish father and an English mother.  Because her mother is often ill and susceptible to extreme weather, the small family has relocated frequently in an attempt to keep her comfortable.  As a result of her mother's necessary withdrawal due to illness, Janet is also much closer to her father, who has a keen sense of humor and an appreciation of his young, enthusiastic daughter.

When our book begins, nine-year-old Janet and her family have just moved to a new home on the island of Trinidad.  Over the next few years, in her small community and among her friends, Janet's talents for reading and creative writing are improved further by lots of opportunity to stretch them.  As further encouragement, her father gives her a special silver pencil for Christmas, to continue her writing.

Eventually, their contented, stable life comes to an abrupt end when Janet's beloved father dies unexpectedly from heart failure.  Unexpectedly, her mother decides that they should relocate back to England, where she has family support and is familiar with the lifestyle.  She leaves the care of her former husband's business affairs in the care of his business partner and Janet's adult brother, and she and Janet embark on a long ocean voyage before arriving in England.

The culture shock is very difficult for Janet.  Her clothes are wrong, her accent sounds strange to others, and (almost worst) she's placed behind her peers in school because her education was lacking.  But over time she is able to succeed with the help of a few very close friends.  She is eventually promoted to the appropriate year, and even advances to the head of the class.  Janet also continues to write, winning several prizes from the youth section of a prominent magazine.  Because of her academic success, at 16 years Janet is able to win a scholarship to advance to college and continue her education, an opportunity that she is thrilled to have.  However, she learns upon telling her mother that she still cannot afford to go- beyond the free tuition lies clothing and lodging and other expenses that are simply unaffordable.  Additionally, because of her mother's ill health in the English climate, she has decided that they should relocate back to Trinidad.

Janet is heartbroken but wants the best for her mother, so they head back and move into their old home with her brother.  She makes a new friend, a Canadian girl named Mary, but finds over time that both her energy and her motivation to write are waning with so little stimulation.  Mary suggests that she write for course catalogs from some American and Canadian schools to see about becoming certified teaching kindergarten, since she has had some experience working with the island children, writing and directing plays.  Janet's mother agrees that although she would be missed, such an undertaking would be best for Janet, and allows her to proceed with the understanding that she will be met and supervised by family friends upon her arrival in New York (her eventual choice of destinations).

The remainder of the book follows Janet as she studies, has successes and failures in interacting with children in a school setting, and polishes her writing skills.  She also makes close friends along the way and learns some important lessons about herself.  Although there are many obvious differences, this book reminds me SO SO MUCH of the Anne of Green Gables books (although very much condensed, given that this book covers Janet from 9 years into young adulthood).  Also, although she does fall in love, Janet doesn't cling to romantic notions of love or relationships.  But Janet's growing into adulthood, finding the best way to use her talents and where she fits in the world, and figuring out what home is has some very good parallels.

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