Oh how I love Mabel Riley: A Reliable Record of Humdrum, Peril and Romance by Marthe Jocelyn. Set in Canada in 1901, and with a protagonist who aspires to be a writer someday, the comparisons with Lucy Maude Montgomery's beloved Anne Shirley are unavoidable and apt. While Montgomery's Anne books start in 1878 and span nine books and forty-two years in the main character's life, we only get a glimpse into three months of the life of Mabel Riley, but an amazing three months they are! As we learn from the "identification" page in the front of the novel, which poses as a diary, Mabel Riley is a forward looking girl. Besides listing her hat and glove size, birthday and hair color ("I wish I could say raven but really it's dung-beetle brown") we learn that a person she finds noteworthy is Miss Nellie Blye. Blye was a pioneering female journalist of the time who is most noted for her record-breaking trip around the world that followed the path of Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne) and for faking insanity in order to study a mental institution from within, eventually exposing the inhuman treatment and conditions of the women being held there. And finally, after the prompt titled "Wish:" Mabel writes, "To see the world and have the world see me!" This should give you a pretty good idea of what you are in for, but even so, I was surprised and delighted by Mabel and her adventures.
On Friday, August 30, 1901, fourteen year old Mabel Riley and her older sister Viola leave their home in Ambler's Corner and travel to Sellerton where Viola will take the post of teacher in the one room school where Mabel will take her eighth grade examination and assist with the younger scholars. The two will board in the home of the Goodhands, a farming family. As they are disembarking, Mabel notices a young lady stepping off the train only to be greeted with a shout and a fierce hug from her beau. The hug turns into a kiss and the two are promptly accosted by a woman with a "hefty bosom and a stern look" who scolds and jabs the couple with her parasol. This scene, early in the book, is a perfect example of the world Mabel is living in as well as a harbinger of things to come. Even in this small town, social customs are being challenged and liberties are being taken by the young. Mabel and Viola settle in with the Goodhands and their twenty year old son, Alfred. On her first Sunday in Sellerton, the sisters are visited by many of parents of students at the Sellerton school who have come to the Goodhands to appraise the new teacher. The first visitor is Mrs Forrest, the parasol wielding woman from the train station, who makes her displeasure known from the start, telling Viola that she was not happy to hear that a woman had been hired to fill the position previously held only by men. Viola answers her with, "I expect there will be more women every year training to be teachers. Times are changing, it seems." To which Mrs Forrest sniffs, "We're not pleased with the notion of change." Before she has even started teaching, Viola faces a formidable foe. However, in the end, Mrs Forrest turns out to be Mabel's foe, not Viola's.
Shortly after arriving in Sellerton, Mabel begins her romantic novel with characters inspired by Helen and Philip, the lovers at the train station. Mabel's story is entertaining and her writing exciting if a bit florid at times, but is most interesting how, while meant as an entertainment for her friend Hattie back in Ambler's Corner, it turns out to be parallel to the lives of those she comes to know in Sellerton. One of the people Mabel meets and is instantly taken with but also troubled by, is the local "widow," Mrs Rattle, who lives down the road in a cottage she has named "Silver Lining." Although the other women in town snub her, Mrs Goodhand, due to a sense of Christian Duty, sends her a loaf of cornbread every Sunday and Mabel takes on the role of delivery girl. The two bond instantly when Mrs Rattle confesses that she never eats the hard, dry corn bread, but instead feeds it to her ducks. They bond further when Mabel spies Mrs Rattle's Underwood typewriter and learns that she had been a journalist but was fed up with the society column she was forced to write. When Mrs Rattle asks Mabel to help her serve tea at the next meeting of her book group Mabel is excited and honored. Her good feelings turn to fear when she realizes that the book group is a front for the meeting of suffragists hoping to improve the working conditions of the women at the Bright Creek Cheese Factory, owned by the Forrests. Mabel is saddened by the stories the women, including Mrs Rattle who has taken up a job there, tell of their long days with few breaks and fines for tardiness and talking, but she is also horrified when the women talk of striking to call attention to their plight.
Mabel struggles with her fear of the adult situations she has gotten herself into as well as the knowledge that her actions could jeopardize her sister's teaching post, the salary from which is crucial to the welfare of her widowed mother and four siblings at home. She desperately wants to do the right thing but is constantly reminded of the negative attention she draws to herself and the difficulty she has already made for her sister as well as the Goodhands, who sell their milk to the Bright Creek Cheese Factory. One of the reasons Mabel is such a wonderful character is that, much like Anne Shirley, she is an iconoclast who, through her actions and beliefs makes the world, or her small corner of it, a better place. On top of it all, Mabel (or Marthe Jocelyn) is a thoughtful and descriptive writer. While reflecting on the death of Mrs Goodhand's father, Mabel remembers her own father who only recently died and reflects on the nature of memory itself. She writes, "I do remember the sudden hole of not having him. The sound of my mother's leaky sniffling in the night, the discovery of his cap on its nail a month after he died, the charred tobacco in his pipe, sucked dry by his very own breath that was not breathing anymore." When Mabel is forbidden from visiting Mrs Rattle and feeling distressed by this she writes, "Viola thinks I'm sulking, but it's not so simple as that. I am forlorn and thwarted. Like holding a pitcher full of feelings and having nowhere to pour." I don't think I've ever read a better description of an emotional state than this one, in children's or adult literature.
However, my favorite passage comes at the end of the book when Mrs Rattle and Mabel are saying their goodbyes. Sensing Mabel is about to cry, Cora says to her, "Dear Mabel Riley, when I was your age, I knew nothing beyond lessons in French and drawing with my governess. I was filled to the brim with other people's knowledge. I would have made a good parrot, but my head was as empty as this room. That is why I find you so admirable, Mabel. You are already asking questions and seeking answers. I wish you had been my friend when I was fourteen so that I had not wasted years having a lazy mind." While there were times in the course of the novel where it seemed that involving Mabel in her causes was reckless of Mrs Rattle, ultimately these women were living in times when seemingly reckless behavior was what ultimately resulted in expanding their freedoms. I think that is one of the most subtle and important aspects of this book. Marthe Jocelyn finds a way to create a magnificent character and tell an exciting story while opening young reader's eyes to the hardships and injustices faced by women and ways that society and individuals faced the modernization of their worlds in the last century.
Readers who like this book will also enjoy two of my (other) favorites: