For those who love history, I have included in this novel my own grandmother’s true story presented as the story of Renée’s great great grandmother, Nana Sinclair. While researching her school history project, Renée discovers a tiny book with faded writing. It’s a diary, kept by her great-great-grandmother, Maggie (Nana) Sinclair, a British child immigrant. Connecting Nana’s life with immigrants today takes on an immediate relevance when a Syrian refugee family arrives in Catalpa Creek. Tension mounts. Prejudice and fear surface and turn to violence.
An intriguing story of laughter and tears, To Begin Again will nudge you to think deeply about acceptance and discrimination. How does faith or lack of it, affect your own response to events and people in today’s world?
Introducing many current issues, To Begin Again is an excellent book club choice. The discussion questions are right there in the back of the book.
(Note: I’ve chosen to give you a little taste of Nana’s diary. In the novel Steve and Renée take turns telling the story from their own point of view. At this point Renée is speaking in first person. She has invited her friend Susie over for the evening. The two teens and Steve sit down to begin reading the diary. )
To Begin Again
“Look,” I said, and held up the little book. “It’s my Nana Sinclair’s diary. Starts in 1902.”
“Neat,” Susie said as she took it from me. Gently she stroked the leather binding. “Feels good in my hands. This is history, real history.”
“Yup. I found it in Grandma Rushton’s trunk. I’m going to use it for my history project. Want to read it with me?”
“Sure, I like history, especially when I can hold it in my hand.”
“Let’s sit on the couch in the living-room.” I picked up the diary and the tea tray. Dad stepped out of his study as we passed and followed us. Wow, he really is interested, I thought. Susie and I plopped down onto the couch.
“Go easy on those springs,” he said, and eased his long body down beside me. “I’m not ready to buy a new couch just yet,”
Susie laughed. I groaned and opened the diary, “Let’s get to it.”
September 7, 1902
Diary, you’re my birthday present. I am 8 today. Little Bill ate to much cake at my party. He threw up. Mama wore a beutiful dress when she kissed us good night. She and Papa are going out.
September 10, 1902
Diary, Mama and Papa had an aksidint. Nanny Kelly says they are ded. She’s crying. Uncle Bruce came. He keeps shaking his head. He says we can’t live with him. I want to stay here with Nanny Kelly? I miss Mama.
I stopped reading. “Her parents are dead…both of them? How awful.” Dad said nothing. He must be thinking about Mom. I sure am. An accident – people weren’t safe even back then.
“This isn’t fun. It’s sad.” Susie said. “Keep reading, Renée. I want to know what happens to Nana and Little Bill.”
September 15, 1902
Diary two ladys in long black coats and bonits came today. Uncle Bruce said we had to go away with them. We could bring only 1 toy. Little Bill brot his bunny. I brot you diary cause mama gave you to me. The ladys took us to a big old house full of children. They said it’s an orfanige. I’m scared.
I pictured Nana and Little Bill standing abandoned in a long, dark hallway. Nana, her little head held high, back straight, like a miniature soldier determined to be strong, clutched the diary close to her heart. Only her eyes betrayed her pain and fear. Little Bill was huddled close to her, gripping his beloved bunny by the neck, its feet dangling at his side. My heart ached. I set the diary down.
“Given away to an orphanage! That’s cruel,” Susie said.
Dad answered, “When their Uncle Bruce refused to care for them, there must have been no one else. Back then, there was no government-sponsored Family and Children’s Services like today.”
“What about Nanny Kelly? Why didn’t she take them home?” Susie asked.
“She probably had no home herself,” Dad said. “Back then nannies lived in. With the death of her employers, she would be searching for another place. She’d have no claim to the children, and no money to care for them.”
“That’s just horrible,” I responded.
He put his arm around my shoulders. “I’ll read for a while.”
September 28, 1902
Diary, I am hungry all the time. Meen Harold steels our food. I told matrin. She grabed Harold by the ear and told him not to. He leaves me alone but still takes little Bills. I share what I get with little Bill. I want my mama. If papa were here, he’d beet Harold.
December 25, 1902
Diary, it is Christmas Day. Matrin gave us all a big orange. I told little Bill to eat his right away before meen Harold could take it. I did to.
Extra Info about Barnardo Children and my grandmother, Margaret Sinclair.
My Grandmother, Margaret (Maggie) Sinclair and other children travelled to Canada on the S.S. Dominion 2.
The ship that came to be known as the Dominion (2) was launched in Belfast in 1893 as the Prussia and sailed for the German Hamburg-American line. In 1898, the Prussia was sold to the British Dominion Line and was renamed the SS Dominion (2). At this time she was refitted and reconfigured to provide accommodation for 200 First Class, 170 Second Class and 750 Third Class passengers. This rebuild took only a few months before she was ready to go on the Liverpool – Quebec – Montreal route on the Dominion’s Line’s principle service in May 1898. Other ports of entry included Halifax and Portland, Maine.
The Dominion (2) carried 6,876 British Home Children to Canada from various organizations including Dr. Barnardo’s. There was a steady stream in the numbers of children sailing on board the Dominion with the busiest years being 1903 (786 children), 1905 (562).
For information concerning travelling by ship, steerage class, at the turn of the century: