A COUNTRY OF OUR OWN

The Confederation Diary of Rosie Dunn

cover of A Country of Our Own by Karleen Bradford
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Summary ~ Reviews ~ Excerpt

  • Chosen by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre as a Starred Selection in Best Books for Children and Teens, Spring Edition 2014, and as one of the Year’s Best Books for Children in 2014

SUMMARY

Rosie Dunn is devastated when she learns she has to leave her home in Québec City and go to Ottawa as a maidservant to the Bradley family. All she knows about Ottawa is that it is a smelly, barely civilized sawmill town in the middle of nowhere, where pigs and cows roam the muddy streets freely. But Queen Victoria has declared it to be the capital of the Province of Canada and Canadian Civil Servants, led by Premier John A. Macdonald, are to move there and start planning for the controversial confederation of the British colonies into a country of their own. Her welcome by a cheeky Irish boy named Briney doesn’t help. Especially when he points out that his Mam has a cow named Rosie.

Scholastic Canada Ltd., Dear Canada Series, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4431-1324-3 Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-4431-2850-6 Ebook

REVIEWS

Resource Links, Volume 19, Number 3, February 2014

“Having read one or two volumes from girls’ pseudo-historical series such as the Dear America Series, or the British My Diary Series, I did not expect great things from Dear Canada; I didn’t want to see my own history similarly fictionalized beyond any claims to historical authenticity. Then I looked at the authors contributing to the Dear Canada Series. The list is extensive, and each author there is a familiar name to young Canadian readers; each author there is respected for his or her authorial integrity. Karleen Bradford’s Confederation Diary of Rosie Dunn is a welcome addition to the well-researched and well-written Dear Canada library.

“It is 1866 and young Rosie Dunn has had to take her older sister’s place in service with a politician’s family destined to move to Ottawa, the capital of the new Dominion of Canada. Rosie’s father is keen on politics, so she is used to hearing the news, but not always understanding what it means. Her keen interest and intelligence, but lack of raw information, make Rosie the perfect vessel for bringing political knowledge to the young reader.

“On 31 December 1857, Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the new capital of the Province of Canada; by 1866, when Rosie Dunn arrives, Ottawa is still little more than a backwoods community, with mud instead of sidewalks and small wood houses instead of the attractively designed and solidly constructed homes of Toronto, Kingston, Montreal, or Québec City. The “hardships” Rosie’s employers have to endure make her an admirable servant: she is industrious, honest, clever, and used to working in less-than-luxurious conditions. Rosie’s story is a rich combination of life in 1860s Ottawa and a lay-persons’s understanding of the political events that accompanied the birth of our nation. We learn much of what the common people might have thought about the politics of the time, of the relations between the British ruling class and the Irish and French Canadian working classes, and of the day-to-day activities of the working people in each community. The feeling Bradford creates in her story—the characters, the setting, the honest human emotions—remind me strongly of one of my favourite novels for young Canadian readers, Lyn Cook’s much earlier The Secret of Willow Castle (1966). Both books take a significant moment in Canadian history and bring it to life for young readers. What better way to engage with our history than through the eyes and ears and minds of well-constructed fictional counterparts?”

Review by Karyn Huenemann

EXCERPT from A COUNTRY OF OUR OWN

Sunday, April 29th , 1866
Québec City, Province of Canada

My life is about to be turned upside down.

When we got home from Mass this noon, we found Mary Margaret here. Not too unusual that, as she gets every other Sunday off from the Bradleys’, but what was unusual was that she was humped over the kitchen table in floods of tears. Mary Margaret almost never weeps. She is usually obnoxiously cheerful. The last time I saw her cry was when she and Donny Malone fell out three months ago. I thought she was over it by now, but sure, hasn’t everything gone and changed!

At first no amount of encouragement from Mam could get her to say a word, but finally I got exasperated and blurted out, “Fine then, weep if you must, but could we not sit down to our dinner before it gets burned to a crisp?”

Mam glared at me as if I were very cold-hearted indeed, but Da and the little ones looked relieved, Paddy in particular. He does like his food.

Mary Margaret gave me a fierce look, but stopped her weeping.

“You’d be devastated too, Rosie Dunn, if you were in the fix I am,” she said.

She gave a huge hiccup and burst into tears again. Mam patted her on the back — I would have given her a good shake — and she began to explain. Once she got started it seemed like she’d never stop, and the words poured out fast and furious. I can’t begin to write down everything she said, but the gist of it, at first, was that she and Donny had made up and their engagement was back on. You would think that would be good news, but it is not. Now that Queen Victoria has declared that Ottawa should be the capital of the Province of Canada, the Bradleys must move to Ottawa with all the other civil servants. After Mary Margaret’s falling out with Donny, she was mad keen to go with them and get away from here, even though Ottawa is said to be a horrible town away out in the middle of nowhere—nothing more than mud and sawmills—but now that they have made up, she plans to wed Donny this summer and she is adamant that she will not go with the Bradleys.

They are to leave next week, and Missus Bradley is furious with her for changing her mind at such short notice. They do have another maid, but Mary Margaret says that she is a horrible snob and she flatly refused to go right from the start. She already has another position waiting for her. That will leave the family with no maidservants at all — Something Missus Bradley is obviously not used to.

Now this is the part that has stunned me past words. Mary Margaret’s solution to this problem is that I should take her place with the Bradleys and go with them to Ottawa! And the worst thing is that Mam and Da are considering it! I started to protest and Mam just said I should save my breath to cool my porridge. “You’ll do what you’re told, me lady,” she said in that tone of voice of hers that brooks no argument.

Even though I’m thirteen and I knew I would have to leave school and go into service next year—there are three younger than me to feed and clothe, after all, and I have to do my part—I never thought it would happen so soon. I love school. And Miss Edwards says I’m one of her best students. She it was who started me writing in this journal.

“You have a good hand with writing,” she said.

But now to have to leave it all and go so far away! I can’t even imagine it. How would Mam manage without me?

Later

Worse and worse! Mary Margaret is to take me back with her tomorrow, as Missus Bradley wants to look me over! Mam rinsed the spots out of one of Mary Margaret’s old dresses for me to wear and pressed it with the flatirons. It is only a little too long for me, so I was set to shortening it, which I am supposed to be doing now. I’ve escaped to my corner in the children’s room and am taking advantage of the fact that the rest of the family are at supper to write in this journal. My supper sits cold and abandoned beside me. Who could possibly think of eating in such a dire situation?

I don’t even know for certain that Missus Bradley will agree to taking me on, so I needn’t pack yet, but one thing is certain—if she does, this journal goes with me. Just as Mary Margaret will not be separated from Donny, I will not be separated from this journal. It is my last tie to Miss Edwards and school, and it is my best friend. In this noisy, rambunctious household it is

Bridget crept into the room just then, looking so upset and worried that I had to leave off writing and comfort her. She must have overheard Mam and Da talking of my leaving. Of the three younger ones, she is the one who depends on me the most. I managed to reassure her, but truly, how will she get on without me? How can I keep calm myself when I am terrified even at the thought of meeting Missus Bradley? What will she think of me?

Monday, April 30th, 1866

Oh, I am not happy about this.

Mary Margaret and I set off right after breakfast. After Mary Margaret’s breakfast, I should say, because in spite of Mam’s urging me to keep my strength up this morning, I still could not force a bite down my throat. Maybe I should have. It might have given me courage as well as strength. I’m afraid I did not make too good an impression. I can hardly bear to write down what happened, but journals are for telling the truth in, so write it down I must.

We arrived at their house and that was the beginning of my troubles. I had no idea the house would be so grand. It’s on a lovely wide street with trees on both sides, and there’s a garden in the front and another in the back. And not a little kitchen garden like we have, but a vast expanse of grass, all bordered with flowers. The grass seems quite useless to me, but the flowers were lovely. And the house itself! Narrow, perhaps, but three full stories high. I was frightened before I even stepped into it. Then I made my first mistake. I started up the path to the door, but Mary Margaret grabbed me by the elbow and yanked me back.

“Not the front door, you ninny,” she hissed at me. “We use the servants’ door around the back.”

But it was too late. Before we had a chance to retreat, the door opened and the snobby maidservant herself looked out.

“Back entrance, if you please,” she sniffed at us, and slammed the door in our faces.

Mary Margaret flushed bright red and pulled me away so roughly that I can feel the sore spot on my arm still. I tried to apologize, but she just shushed me and told me to be quiet and do what she told me to do. Then we went around to the back and the same haughty maidservant opened the door to our knock.

“The Missus is waiting in the drawing room,” she said. It sounded like she was talking through her nose and the way she pronounced “drawing room,” I couldn’t understand what she was saying. “Draaahin’ rhum” it sounded like. And I didn’t know what a draaahin’ rhum was, anyway, but Mary Margaret just gave me a quick look and led the way. Unfortunately, I hadn’t hemmed the dress quite short enough and I almost tripped over it. I caught myself just in time, but earned another glare from Mary Margaret.

You would think she would be a bit nicer to me. After all, it’s a great favour she’s asking of me, it is. Still, that’s Mary Margaret for you. Bossy-boots, I call her.

But not out loud.

We went down a narrow hall. I walked behind Mary Margaret, doing my best to settle the butterflies in my stomach and keep looking neat. Suddenly there was a great scraping noise and I looked up to see a monster roaring down the hall at me. I forgot all about neat and screamed. The monster slid to a stop in front of me and began to lick my face with a sloppy red tongue. It was only then that I realized it was just a dog, but what a dog! It stood nearly as high as me, not that I’m that tall. Still, I’m usually taller than a dog.

In my panic I lost my footing and to my utter humiliation this time I did slip and fell flat onto the floor. At that moment a gentleman appeared and loomed over me.

“What have we here?” he boomed out.

I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. I think Mary Margaret would have been happy to help me do it.

“Please, sir,” she squeaked out, not sounding like her usual bossy self at all, “it’s my sister, sir. Come for her interview with the Missus.”

The man made a kind of harrumphing noise, then ignored me completely and strode on out the front door, leaving me sitting on the floor, utterly humiliated. Thank goodness the dog romped out after him.

Mary Margaret yanked me to my feet. “Look at you,” she scolded. “You’re a fine mess now, you are.”

And indeed I was, but it was too late to do anything about it. We heard a voice calling from the draaahin’ ruhm, and we had to go in.

Missus Bradley was sitting on a beautiful red settee. When I got closer I could see that it was velvet! I would have loved to pat it, but Mary Margaret would probably have murdered me if I tried. As it was, I could not for the life of me help gawking around the room. It was the prettiest room I have ever seen. The furniture was all covered in silks and more velvet. There were little tables in the corners whose only purpose seemed to be to hold vases of flowers. Another table in front of Missus Bradley held a teapot and cups and saucers of the purest white, with tiny little blue forget-me-not flowers on them.

I lost myself drinking it all in until Mary Margaret poked me in the side with her elbow and hissed again at me to close my mouth.

“So you are Rosie,” Missus Bradley said.

I couldn’t seem to make my tongue work, so I just bobbed a kind of curtsy and nodded.

“Mary Margaret says you would like to come in her place,” Missus Bradley said.

“Oh, no!” I blurted out, and Mary Margaret gave me another poke, so hard that I squealed in pain.

“I mean, yes!” I cried, but truly, there is no “like” about it.

I don’t even remember too much of what else was said, but I do remember how annoyed Missus Bradley was with Mary Margaret.

“It is really too bad of you, changing your mind like that,” she said to her, “but there is no time to find someone else, so I suppose we will have to make do with your sister.”

“Make do” with me, indeed. I was so furious that I could feel my face turn as red as a beet, but a pinch from Mary Margaret forced me to hold my tongue.

Thank goodness the maidservant will not be going. Their cook is not going, either, as they intend to hire a new one there, so at first it is just to be me and the master’s manservant, James, I expect he will be just as haughty as the maid, but perhaps I won’t have too much to do with him.

Oh, yes. And the dog is going. Brutus his name is. It suits him.

Friday, May 4th, 1866

Mam is beside herself, trying to get me ready to go and she has kept me so busy I haven’t been able to write a word in this journal. She is determined that I shall make a good showing and not look poorly. She is trying to get my clothing in order, but I fear there is not much to work on. I have but one everyday cotton dress and a good linsey-woolsey for Sunday church, and now the old dress of Mary Margaret’s that I shortened. Mam is washing it and my everyday dress and sponging and airing out the Sunday one as I write this, so I am confined to the children’s room and enveloped in Mary Margaret’s wrapper. With strict instructions from Mary Margaret not to soil it on pain of death, but as I must black my boots, I am in mortal fear. I think I will remove the wrapper and do the blacking in my shift. I hope none of the little ones will come in and find me in such a state.

The little ones! I can’t stop thinking about leaving them now that all is settled. Most times I scold them more than I praise them, but now I find myself wanting to do nothing but hug and kiss them. Even little Paddy, who is never clean and always sticky. How often have I reproached him for his untidiness? I regret every word.

And Bridget, with the sweetest smile in the world. Mam says I spoil her, but how can I help it? Who will spoil her after I go? Not Mam, who is so busy she doesn’t have the time for it, no matter how much she loves us. Besides, Mam doesn’t believe in spoiling children. Not Eileen, either. She’s as messy as Paddy, twice as wild, and the bane of my life — or so I have always thought. But now, suddenly, I realize how much I will miss her noise and the sound of her laughter.

And not to smell Da’s pipe of an evening before the fire. Not to help Mam with the bread-making and the sweeping and the cleaning and the washing of all those little hands and faces…

How can I bear it?

When I went to take my leave of Miss Edwards and tell her where I was going, she seemed as upset about me leaving school as I was. Then she put her arm around me and said, “But just think, Rosie, you’ll be right in the middle of things in Ottawa. This is such an important time in our history now that our leaders are talking about the confederation of our provinces.”

I think she was just trying to make me feel better, but then she asked me if I thought there would be any chance of my going back to school in Ottawa and I had to say no, and that made me feel even worse. I will be working full-time so my school days are over. I am supposed to be grown-up now.

Supposed to be grown-up or not, here I am clutching my old rag doll, Meggy, to me. I will hide her in my bundle before the others see me and tease me for hanging onto such a childish thing. Indeed, Eileen has already declared herself too old for dolls and she is two years younger than I. But I love this old doll as much as I love my journal. She will be my secret companion when I get too lonely.

Tuesday, May 8th, 1866

I said my prayers tonight with dear little Bridget for the last time. We leave tomorrow. Tomorrow! I cannot bear to think about it.