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The Belonging Place


by Jean Little

             Three-year-old Elspet Mary's life changes dramatically the afternoon her Mam goes shopping in Aberdeen for their dinner.  Knocked to the pavement by a runaway horse, Elspet Mary's mother dies instantly.  Little Elspet's neighbors care for her until her sailor father, whom Elspet Mary hardly knows, returns from his latest voyage.  Unable to care for his daughter because of his seafaring life, Da places her in the care of her maternal uncle and his family, in the small Scottish village where Mam grew up.  Soon, Elspet Mary's father is lost at sea, leaving her an orphan.

In Glen Buchan, Elspet comes to know her mother's relatives:  Uncle William (her mother's brother); gentle, mothering, Aunt Ailsa; and their children, cousins Hamish and Charlie.  Soon, Elspet chooses to call Aunt Ailsa and Uncle William "mother" and father."  Aunt Ailsa's mother, "Granny Ross" - whom everyone calls "Granny" - becomes Elspet's grandmother, too.  Elspet is filled with a warm, welcome sense of belonging. 

Elspet Mary does not, however, find acceptance with her maternal grandparents, from whom her mother had been estranged. A glimpse of the grandparents' "dark, silent house (22)" gives Elspet a hint of her grandparents' feelings.  Grandfather Gordon refuses to forgive his deceased daughter for running away to marry Elspet's father.  Consequently, he does not even acknowledge Elspet Mary's presence in his home.  Grandmother Gordon seems torn by the past, the present, and her husband's obstinacy.  Rather than accept sweet Elspet Mary, Grandmother Gordon declares that Elspet is "Heathen-looking. . . . Not a bit like us."

Despite the sting of rejection by her grandparents, Elspet Mary has a feeling of returning to her roots, to a "belonging place (17)".  This feeling is disrupted when Uncle William, who has adopted Elspet, sets out with his brother for Canada to make his fortune.  In a year, he returns for the rest of the family.  

But Elspet doesn't want a new home.  She must leave behind her extended family, at least temporarily, including Granny Ross and her pet cat.  She is filled with panic:  "Away from here, mothers were knocked down by runaway horses . . . . the world was filled with danger and loneliness . . . . And we would have to cross the ocean.  Da had gone to sea in a ship and had never returned (55)."

Despite Elspet's fears, her severe seasickness, a terrible storm at sea, and the threat of a cholera outbreak, the Gordon family - including the newest Gordon, toddler Hugh - safely travels to their new home in "Upper Canada," Nichol Township.  (A map of their travel route would be a helpful addition.)

In The Belonging Place, Little uses the first person technique that allows the reader to hear and feel what Elspet Mary feels.  When we, the readers, hear what Elspet hears, we gain an understanding of her Scottish heritage:  Da, Mam, bairn, poppet, dinna, laird.  When we, the readers, feel what Elspet feels, we gain an understanding of her strong need to belong to someone, some people, and some place:  ". . . the tall, dark trees [in Nichol Township] . . . made the place so different from the treeless land near Glen Buchan.  I would never feel at home here.  And I needed a girl to be my friend."

 Will Elspet find a friend?  Will Elspet find a "belonging place" in her new home?  The "Prelude" to her first-person account gives a clue:


                       Here begins the story of Elspet Mary Gordon, who was born Elspet Mary Iveson on January 2nd, 1832, in the city of Aberdeen, Scotland, and of how she first became an orphan and then found a new family and traveled with them to a far country where she found, at last, her heart's home, the place where she belonged. (xvii)


 Canadian author Jean Little has received many awards for her writing, including a Canada Library Association Book of the Year Medal (for Mama's Going to Buy You a Mockingbird, 1985) and a Canada Council Children's Literature Award (for Listen for the Singing, 1977).  Severely visually impaired, Little uses a talking computer to write. (Little 2003)

A Canadian educator, Jerry Diakiw, suggests that there is a Canadian national identity characterized by many commonalities.  Many of these can be found in The Belonging Place.  The commonalities include being a land of adventurers and innovators (the Gordons' great adventure in homesteading in Canada); being a nation of immigrants whose residents have a strong regional identity (in this book, Scottish immigrants to Nichol Township/Ontario); an awesomely beautiful, rugged country; and having a foundation in European traditions with a rich cultural heritage (Scottish).

These commonalities are evident in The Belonging Place, and Little brings them out in her "Acknowledgement."  She gives credit to her "ancestors who left their ain folk" to venture to Canada.  She also gives credit to Scotsman James Dow, who, like Elspet Mary, settled in Canada and, in 1857, built the home in which Little lives. The story's heroine is named for Dow's wife, another Elspet.

In the "Acknowledgement," Little points out one drawback of the story:  Elspet's tale has a more modern sound than it would have had in the 1840s.  The characters' speech is "not as broad Scots as it would have been, but . . . [Little did her] best to get the flavour right."  Little wanted her readers to have no trouble with comprehension, noting that as a lass, her mother "could not understand the broad Scots speech of her own grandmother."

This is a very satisfying tale, a story that fills the reader with the same sense of belonging that Elspet learns.  Little got the flavour just right!



Diakiw, Jerry. 1996. The school's role in revealing the commonplaces of our national culture and identity: A multicultural perspective. Multicultural education: The state of the art national study, Report 4: The challenges and the future.

Little, Jean. 2003. About me: Spotlight on Jean Little: Acclaimed children's author.



Little, Jean. 1997. The belonging place. Toronto; New York: Viking.  ISBN 0-670-87593-7



This review was written for a graduate class in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

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