On Kit Pearson and the Nature of Reading CanLit -The Toast

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Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite last wrote for The Toast about Bend it Like Beckham.

Despite liking both books and Canada, I’m not really a CanLit fan. I was never drawn to the genre outside of required reading for school, and I can’t pinpoint where exactly my immersion in my national literary culture went awry. But even though I have fallen down on my CanLit reading as an adult, it was one of my favourites as a tween.

When I was somewhere between the ages of eight and ten, I discovered Kit Pearson, a Canadian author whose books for young people are classics—The Daring Game, Guests of War, A Handful of Time, and Awake and Dreaming are the ones that come to mind immediately—but she has been writing for decades. Pearson’s books are fun, thoughtful, and Canadian to the core. Pearson’s books were the first I read that featured Canada as an important and integral part of their stories and characters, and were my gateway to other quintessential Canadian authors like Bernice Thurman Hunter, L. M. Montgomery, and Jean Little.

the-daring-game-kit-pearsonMy first Pearson book was The Daring Game. In that book, 11-year-old Eliza Chapman chooses to go to boarding school in Vancouver while her parents move “out east” to Toronto for a year. She starts Grade 7 at a posh private school called Ashdown, navigating friendships, looming adolescence, and homesickness. At Ashdown, Eliza meets Helen, an unhappy girl whose parents don’t seem to want her around. Helen is always getting into trouble, and introduces a Daring Game in the girls’ dorm. The dares get progressively more dangerous, going against all school rules, and Eliza has to decide whether she’ll participate and win Helen’s affections, or be the good girl she has always been. As a resolutely Truth-oriented player, I found this dilemma fascinating and terrifying. Will Eliza be brave enough for the Daring Game??

I related to Eliza in many ways, especially her hesitation to befriend someone who was most likely a bad influence, but also one of the most exciting people at the school. Eliza was shy, independent, and bookish like me, but she was also very different. Eliza was a true-blue Canadian in the most Pearsonian sense—white, from “the west,” and generally stoic about everything. Eliza had aunts and uncles who lived across the country, went to a cottage in Alberta during the summer, and was my ultimate icon for all things Canadian. Her WASP-y name and affinity for navy and grey boarding school outfits were qualities that I had never learned from my immigrant parents, and deep down, I knew I never would.

I equated importance with visibility, especially with books, and my logical conclusion from reading The Daring Game was that Pearson’s Canadians were the important kind, the ones who deserved to be written about. And so I used The Daring Game and other Pearson finds to educate myself about what it meant to truly be Canadian, learning that, in most cases, it meant doing the opposite of what I was doing in a multilingual, multicultural city—eating spicy food, being a darker shade of beige than pink, and not knowing where exactly British Columbia was. Pearson’s characters lived in exotic locations (Edmonton, Alberta, was of particular interest to me), ate weird food (liver???), and used strange words like “gabardine,” “dressing-gown,” and “flannelette” that, to be fair, were probably out of date by the time I read them. They talked about the Queen all the time, without any sense of irony. Kit Pearson books were like anthropological studies of Anglo-Canadian society for me, and I ate them up with relish. Even her name, Kit Pearson, reeked of the Canadian spirit that I found so fascinating—what is Kit even short for?

handful-of-timeAnd so in my quest to understand Canadians, I immersed myself in Pearson’s books. I read A Handful of Time, a book about a young girl named Patricia whose famous parents are divorcing, causing a media scandal in Toronto. In order to arrange the terms of their separation, Patricia’s parents send her away from her comfortable life of day camps and libraries in the city (a life that greatly mimicked my own, indoors-inclined upbringing) to Alberta’s cottage country to spend the summer with cousins she has never met. Patricia, homesick and angry, discovers a watch under a floorboard that transports her back in time to when her own mother visited the cottage. She spends the summer “getting to know” her mother through this impossible adventure, and grows more confident in herself as a result. Patricia was another quiet, bookish heroine that I loved, but once again, her environment, her name (Patricia! So close to Patrician), and her snobbery were exotic Canadian qualities.

guests-war-trilogy-kit-pearson-paperback-cover-artA departure in tone from these other books was the Guests of War trilogy, featuring Norah and Gavin Stokes, a brother and sister who are sent from their English village to Toronto during World War II as part of the War Guests program. The trilogy follows the pair through five years in Canada, and as the war winds down, Gavin and Norah have to decide whether to stay in Canada with their adoptive family or return to England. Norah is feisty, loud, and decidedly different than Eliza and Patricia, and her perspective as an outsider and a working-class person offered more depth to her observations of the privileged life she is adopted into once she and Gavin arrive in Toronto.

Pearson’s characters are embedded in their surroundings, like Vancouver’s beaches, Alberta’s prairies, and Toronto’s upper-crust Rosedale neighbourhood. In fact, many of Pearson’s protagonists are so entwined with their environment that it plays a major role in their development as people. Usually, this involved each young girl communing with nature and finding herself in the process. During this process, each girl spent a long time at a cottage, which seemed to me to be a small step up from camping, another mysterious pastime. My only comparison for rustic living was seeing labourers building brick huts off the main streets of New Delhi, and they definitely were not doing it for a “natural” experience. In Pearson’s books, nature is a magical place where characters are able to think, reflect, and often change their behavior and personalities just by looking at some water or climbing a tree. As a city dweller, this was very intriguing. I had never before thought about the immense power of nature to help tween girls strengthen their character and embrace changes in their lives, but I really wanted it to happen to me. During my only attempt at camping, I tried to look at a tree, or sit on a rock, and be thoughtful and introspective about my life until that point. I was eight and it rained the whole time, which left me feeling like I had failed Kit in some way because I couldn’t do what her characters learned to do—steer a canoe, go barefoot outside, learn self-confidence. “Real” Canadians reveled in the potential discomforts of the outdoors; I just wanted to go home.

The_Sky_Is_Falling_coverAnother important component of Pearson’s books that I felt was lacking in my own life was the separation between children and parents. In The Daring Game, Eliza is separated from her parents for a whole year because she wants to go to Ashdown. In A Handful of Time, Patricia is sent away while her fancy parents work out their divorce terms at home. In the Guests of War trilogy, Norah and her brother Gavin are sent as “war guests” from Britain to Toronto. This was another intriguing element of “real” Canadian life that I saw exemplified in Pearson’s books as something exotic and exciting, despite the fact that often, the children did not want to go away.  This separation was usually the catalyst for the communing with nature that I also couldn’t do, and I felt I was missing out on an important Canadian experience if I didn’t get to do it as well. This was quickly squashed by my mother, who found the concept of sleepovers bizarre, let alone summer camp. I remember being furious with her for not letting me go—didn’t she understand that she was making it harder for me to be a real Canadian? Once again, I had failed Kit.

It took me a long time to realize that the protagonists of Kit Pearson books were not icons of authentic Canadian living. As I continued to read her books, and better understand that Canadian identity was a little more complex than I had originally thought, I saw more valuable and applicable aspects of Pearson’s writing than her love for button-nosed Anglo girls with abandonment issues. I realized that I didn’t have to identify completely with the author and her characters to get a lot out of her work, and that Pearson’s ideas about Canadian-ness were more universal than originally met the eye. Her characters are always brave, smart, and interested in the world around them. Pearson’s vision of girlhood is respectful and understanding, but never condescending or silly. In her books, girls are people to be taken seriously.

As I attempt to learn a little bit more about my country through its national literature canon, I can’t help but think of Kit Pearson and how much she taught me about Canadian history and culture. I know she would forgive my ineptitude in wilderness exploration and parental separation, because I related to her books in other ways. Without her, I wouldn’t be inspired to read the work of Munro, Ondaatje, and Davies, which I know I should probably get to sometime. I might even go camping again.

Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite is a writer and editor living in Toronto.

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