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This is a moving and subtle novel about a 10-year-old motherless child, Ellie, who lives in an accurately rendered rural Saskatchewan of 1954. In this hardscrabble world Ellie strives to please her embittered grandmother. Grandma disowned her only daughter, Maggie, when she eloped in 1944 with the man who became Ellie’s father. For 10 years after his wife’s death in childbirth, Ellie’s dad was a single parent. Now, laid off from his job in a mill, he starts travelling for a cookware company and needs a place for Ellie to stay while he is on the road.
As is typical in a society less child-focused than ours, Ellie minds her manners and does her best to get along. She is diplomatic, unassertive and obedient. From her Uncle Roger, a farmer disfigured in a barn fire, Ellie learns more about her mother. Tumbleweed sky was her mother’s phrase for cloud clusters before rain. The clouds, she said, were like people who have forgotten how to love. With stoicism and resolve, Ellie tackles her grandmother’s housework assignments, rehabilitates an injured magpie, rescues a duplicitous neighbour and gradually melts Grandma’s heart around the edges.
This gentle, insightful book does not have a Hollywood ending. Rather, it is realistic and open-ended. Tumbleweed Skies is one of the best orphan child novels since Anne of Green Gables.
Ruth Latta, OCT, is an author and educator who teaches writing courses in Ottawa.