December 21, 2018

Kate's Ring

Written by Donna Grassby
Red Deer Press
276 pp.
Ages 11-15
October 2018

Thirteen-year-old Kate might wish for a ring just as her best friend has–Grace has an heirloom opal ring from her grandmother–but Kate's Ring is bigger than a child's dream to possess something special. That's because Kate's ring is not one of gold or silver but rather one of people and place.

It's the 1920s and Kate lives with her five younger siblings–Michael, David, Lily, Colin and Sarah–and her parents in Whitney Pier on Cape Breton. Though her story begins on a happy note with Poppa taking her out of school on her birthday to join him on his bread deliveries, Kate's story is not one filled with childhood joys. Mamma has consumption and is weak and often resting, while Poppa has started drinking and rarely at home. Sadly, the responsibilities for children and house fall to Kate, who begins to fall behind in school.  While there is family around, including Mamma's mother and siblings, there is much strife especially from Aunt Flora who constantly berates Poppa about his drinking and Mamma who always forgives him his ways and despises her sister's interference.  With Poppa unable to keep a job, he decides to get one logging on the mountain in Margaree, where his parents, Aigneis and Hector, live on a farm without electricity or indoor plumbing. Mamma is thrilled to go, though Aunt Flora convinces her to allow Kate to stay with her and Uncle Will to finish her school year, as on the mountain only Lily and David would be going to school.

For about three months, Kate experiences what it is like to have guardians who take care of her. They feed her, clothe her, love her and worry about her safety. Though her family is never far from her thoughts, she enjoys a real Christmas of family warmth. Then Aigneis insists that Kate join the rest of her family on the mountain as they need her help and her mother misses her.

While her mother promises her that Kate will return to school and not end up in service, Kate wonders how her mother can make such a promise, especially with Mamma feeling worse and praying to never leave the mountain. Though Kate appreciates some aspects of her new life, like learning skills like carding and spinning fleece as well as participating in a céilidh, she is more than ready to return to Whitney Pier when Mamma starts coughing up blood and collapses.

Though Aunt Flora continues to pass along money and food to the family via Kate, things are not much better with Mamma in the hospital. Unfortunately, things go from bad to worse and the family Kate has always known fractures with one tragedy after another. How the family will survive and in what configuration is only resolved through Donna Grassby's poignant storytelling, both heartbreaking and hopeful.

Kate's Ring is not a story of lightness and familial comfort. There are moments of joy, like when Kate's Aunt Flo and Uncle Will gift her with a pair of snowshoes or when she learns how to spin yarn, but Kate's life is more about responsibilities and chores and getting by. Sadly this probably has been the lot of many children whose families have had to deal with illness and financial woes, especially with parents who could not be there for their children because of their own troubles. Still Kate accepts her responsibilities for her siblings and her family without much fuss; instead she just does what is expected and necessary while holding onto a sliver of faith that things will right themselves. Even the  book's cover upholds the idea that sometimes, even when you feel like you're a long way out from the safety of shore, there's more rain to come.

Setting Kate's Ring in 1920s Cape Breton, Donna Grassby makes sure young readers see that childhood was not always about play and school. Sometimes it was whatever was needed to help the family out. And by contrasting life in towns and in rural areas, where you might or might not have electricity and plumbing, where travel happened by horse, car and train, and not all children were fortunate enough to go to school, Donna Grassby embeds that story of loss and hardship in families of different shapes. It's family created, sustained and reconfigured that makes Kate's Ring real for the time and for now.

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