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The Sister's Tale

A novel

by Beth Powning

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non-classifiable, historical, death, grief, bereavement
list price: $23.95
edition:Paperback
published: 2021
ISBN:9780735280021
publisher: Knopf Canada
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Description

A novel of orphans and widows, terror and hope, and the relationships that hold us together when things fall apart.

With murder dominating the news, the respected wife of a New Brunswick sea captain is drawn into the case of a British home child whose bad luck has turned worse. Mortified that she must purchase the girl in a pauper auction to save her from the lechery of wealthy townsmen, Josephine Galloway finds herself suddenly the proprietor of a boarding house kept afloat by the sweat and tears of a curious and not completely compatible collection of women, including this English teenager, Flora Salford. Flora's place in her new "family" cannot be complete until she rescues the missing person in her life, the only one who understands the trials she has come through and fresh horrors met since they were separated years before.

Reconnecting with characters of Beth Powning's beloved The Sea Captain's Wife, The Sister'sTale is a story of women finding their way, together, through terrible circumstances they could neither predict nor avoid, but will stop at nothing to overcome.

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Excerpt

ONE
Mouse Traps Duly Set

IN JOSEPHINE’S PARLOUR, Mr. Fairweather sat close to the Franklin stove, hands held open to its heat. His eyes were like a dog’s, trusting and earnest, and Josephine wondered at his distress. She enjoyed the rare occasions when they were alone together, remembering how, when they were schoolchildren, he had once slipped her a misspelled note, folded to the size of a pansy.

Dear Josephine, will you mary me?

“I apologize for this intrusion, Mrs. Galloway,” he said. “It is because of the urgency of the matter, a young girl.”

He sat back from the fire, turned to her.

“But first, tell me what you hear from your husband.”

“I have only my last letter from him when he was provisioning the ship in New York. Now, of course, he is at sea so I won’t hear from him for some time.”

She closed her eyes, briefly, rejecting even the possibility of sympathy. Her fingers stroked the nap of her cuffs, like petting a cat.

“It is the way for a sea captain’s wife.” Her voice was steady, held riches. “I am accustomed to it. But please, tell me. What young girl?”

“As you know, my duties are . . . extensive. We have no almshouse in Pleasant Valley.”

A year ago, when Harland Fairweather was appointed Overseer of the Poor by the Justices of the Peace, his wife, Permelia, had whispered the news to Josephine as they were leaving church. He does not want to do it. She smelled of the new wintergreen tooth cleaner from McClean’s Drug Store. He will have to pay a substantial fine if he refuses. I told him he must take the position.

Harland and Permelia lived with four daughters in a mansard-roofed brick house next to Fairweather’s Gentlemen’s Clothing at the lower end of Josephine’s street, where Creek Road met Main Street. Josephine often witnessed Harland in the office at the back of his store, stern and remote, like a display behind glass. All the men in her own family were business owners. Her husband’s father owned the town’s largest dry goods store; her own father, now in partnership with his two sons, owned a boot and shoe factory.

“I have seen the discussions about the almshouse in the paper,” Josephine said. “I concur with the opinion that the poor should have such a place, well-staffed and provisioned by the province.”

He paused, surprised, and she surmised that Permelia did not read the brand-new Weekly Record. Or perhaps, careful with her grammar, her manners, the people with whom she associated, she perused only the social notes. Growing up, Permelia had been, if not poor, at least disadvantaged; her widowed mother had worked at the steam laundry.

“There is much discussion, indeed,” he agreed. Relief, she saw, that he could discuss this with her; and a hint of yearning, quickly hidden by a return of his eyes, and hands, to the stove’s heat. “Based upon the exigencies of taxation rather than compassion.”

She brushed her hands down her skirts, looking at the tips of her shoes. His care for her held no threat or urgency, only made her feel the poignancy of such a friendship.

At the end of the room was an outflung octagonal turret, where the Christmas tree stood, filling the parlour with the aromas of moss and sap. Last night, Josephine and her daughters had decorated the tree with popcorn chains, gilded walnut shells, and stars made of paper-lace.

“I have read about the auction, Mr. Fairweather. Once a year, paupers are offered for sale.” The bidding went downward, rather than up. The lowest bidder won the pauper. “It saves the province money.”

“Precisely. There is a girl up for auction. I have visited her. Her name is Flora Salford.”

He folded his hands in his lap and watched the fire. She saw his lips tighten, pained.

“Why? Why is she up for auction?”

“Evidently she was brought from England by one of the philanthropic people or organizations. She mentions a lady whose name she may never have known. She . . . Flora . . . has been here in Canada for five years and has somehow fallen through the cracks, as it were. I suspect that Maria Rye is the philanthropist responsible. Have you heard of her?”

“Yes.” Josephine had seen pictures of Maria Rye in the newspaper. She was an Englishwoman. The children she brought to Canada were known as “Miss Rye’s girls.”

“She is a bit slipshod in tracking the children, especially those not taken to her distributing home in Niagara-on-the-Lake but dropped in Halifax or St. John.” A log crumbled. He prodded the fire into shape with the poker. “The short of Flora’s story is that she went to a farmer and his wife, who were both killed in a carriage accident.”

“I heard of that accident, on the Mine Hill. Terrible.”

“The girl has no one and so has ended up on the pauper rolls. Hence she is to be sold at auction.”

“She has no one? No friends of the couple who could take her in?”

“No. I tried . . .”

Harland broke off, leaning forward to peer out a patch of window where the frost ferns were dissolving.

“I begged him not to go out this morning. It is twenty degrees below, I told him.” Harland kept a weather station. Every morning, he raised a flag on the roof of his house so he could see the least twitch of breeze. “It is one and one-half a degree colder on this morning than it has been on any December twenty-third for nine years.”

Josephine craned to see out the window, touched by his concern. Snow rose as from the bristles of an invisible broom; drifted, iridescent in the morning sun. Beyond the expanse of snow-covered lawn, she could see Harland’s elderly father walking down the street, terrier at his heels, the tassels of a paisley shawl flirting with the tops of his boots. The dog scurried, eyes squinted against the cold—reluctant, obedient.

“There’s a reason we call my father The Commodore, you know. He will brook no interruption in his routine. Save for death, as he says.” He watched a moment longer. “Ah, well.” Harland sat back. “No, as far as I can tell, Flora is utterly alone. I managed to find a family to take the girl through Christmas. They will have her until the auction.”

Josephine brought to mind the customary image of a Home Child—“street Arabs,” they were called, assumed to be rough, ill-bred, untrustworthy.

“Why have you come to me, Mr. Fairweather?”

“Unfortunately, Mrs. Galloway, I cannot offer her to you as a servant. By dint of poverty, like any pauper, she has been made a ward of the province. I must beg you to come to the auction . . .”

She drew back.

“I have never—”

He raised a hand. “I understand. I beg you, nonetheless, to come to that rabble of hard-faced men and I will hear your bid, no matter how softly you may give it, and I will make sure that my gavel comes down for you. I fear for that child. She is . . .”

He played a few imaginary piano keys with two fingers, looking at the ceiling. A leaf dropped from an aspidistra with a leathery tap.

“You and I have daughters of our own. Flora is fifteen. Despite the evident hardship of her history, despite the lack of . . . all, you know, that we have given our own daughters . . . she is an exceptionally beautiful young person. And what those men will—”

“Ah,” Josephine interrupted. She brought the back of one hand to her mouth, closed her eyes and took a long breath. The ticking of the clock, the crackle of the fire—wind-brushed snow spun past the window.

“Yes, Mr. Fairweather. I can find work for her.”

“The auction will be held after Christmas,” he said. He relaxed back into the chair, crossed his legs. “At the train station. I am in your service, I am indeed. You lighten my heart with your kindness.”

“No, no. I have so much. A husband, a family. All of this.” She offered him her home on the palm of her hand. “It is the least I can do.”

The smell of baking gingerbread rose from the kitchen. A maid, carrying linens, came down the stairs, passed through the hall. The ornaments on the Christmas tree turned, borne on invisible currents of sweet-scented air.

She stood in the door watching as Mr. Fairweather walked down the drive between shoulder-high snowbanks thrown up by Mr. Dougan’s wooden shovel. Cold thinned her nostrils—like the crisp edges of Ellen’s butter cookies.

Lucy, seventeen, and Maud, fifteen, would soon be walking home from the Pleasant Valley Academy, the daughters of a sea captain, well fortified against the cold in their long wool coats, mittens and fur hats. George, attending the University of Mount Allison College in Sackville, was returning tomorrow on the train.

She watched Harland as he swung firmly down the hill in the direction The Commodore and his dog had been heading—towards home, dinner, family; and she was gripped by her husband’s absence and the dangers he risked. She tried to dismiss fear, although she could not—it remained, dark, dull, tarnishing happiness.

In the parlour, she resumed her seat before the fire. She took Simeon’s last letter from a pile on a marble tabletop and ran her hand over the paper with as much tenderness as if vellum were skin. She unfolded it, read for the fifth time:

My dear Josie,
I write from New York, where I am comfortably installed in 
The Grand Hotel while “Marianne” is being provisioned. 
Sailor is curled at my side.

Sailor. His beloved St. John’s water dog.

I have agreed to take six women—a mother and two daughters
travelling with servants—to South Carolina. Mrs. Holdwell’s
daughter is to be married in Charleston. I told her we would head
southwards in the New Year, passing Cape Hatteras and keeping as
far east as possible from the Outer Banks. I struggle to complete my
crew. It is getting harder to find seasoned seamen than in Uncle N’s
day. The first mate is experienced but in poor health. The second
mate is only nineteen, although willing and honest. I have not yet
found a man as capable of navigation as I am myself.

It was the fault of his Aunt Azuba and Uncle Nathaniel in Whelan’s Cove, she thought. All his boyhood, picking apples in his uncle’s orchard or sitting on their veranda high over the Bay of Fundy, he’d imbibed seafaring tales: rounding the Horn; sighting a ship stranded on an iceberg; Antwerp’s museums; the volcanic islands off Java.

Sea captains’ wives are now a rare thing; they are perhaps even pitied. The sea will be my mistress, he’d said, when asking for her hand in marriage. I will not mind, she’d murmured. Mount Allison Wesleyan Academy schooled, modern and brazen, she’d been oddly thrilled by the idea of the sea as seductress. And although their parents did not approve, the wedding was sumptuous and Simeon had proved them wrong with his success.

She slipped the letter back in the envelope and held it to her cheek, watching the fire. The sea, as seductress, had become a thing she wished he would renounce.

He would miss another Christmas.

She rose, restless, went into the front hall and lifted a calling card from a silver dish. She studied its scrolled letters, thinking not of the visitor they represented but of the house rising up around her with its routines—polished salvers on the sideboard, the order sent to Mr. Cardwell’s butcher shop, mouse traps duly set—and of how she must contrive to cause no ripple, no storm, as if to do so would threaten Simeon’s voyage.

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Contributor notes

BETH POWNING's previous books include the bestselling novels The Hatbox Letters, The Sea Captain's Wife, and most recently A Measure of Light, a Globe and Mail Best Book and winner of the inaugural New Brunswick Book Award for Fiction. Her works of memoir include Seeds of Another Summer: Finding the Spirit of Home in Nature, Shadow Child: An Apprenticeship in Love and Loss, and Edge Seasons: A Mid-Life Year. In 2010, Beth was awarded New Brunswick's Lieutenant-Governor's Award for High Achievement in English-Language Literary Arts. She lives on a 300-acre farm near Sussex, New Brunswick, with her husband, the renowned sculptor Peter Powning.

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Editorial Review

“Powning’s approach to historical fiction is, as ever, tactile and immersive.” —The Globe and Mail

“Beth Powning is one of Canada’s most prolific writers. . . . Her latest epic is a sprawling tale . . . [that] bring[s] back beloved characters from her lauded 2007 masterpiece The Sea Captain’s Wife. . . . Both well researched and deliciously entertaining, this book finds Powning at the top of her game.” —The Maritime Edit

“Meticulously researched and masterfully crafted, Beth Powning’s The Sister’s Tale is a captivating, unforgettable read. Populated with compelling, tenacious and relatable characters, this book is a potent reminder that meaningful change can start with a single voice.” —Ami McKay, bestselling author of The Birth House

“Beautifully crafted, The Sister’s Tale transports us to the very heart of Victorian New Brunswick, leaving us richer for what we have seen there: the strength and courage of its women.” —Eva Stachniak, author of The Chosen Maiden

“Beth Powning is one helluva good writer.” —Donna Morrissey, author of Sylvanus Now

The Sister’s Tale is a mesmerizing story of loss, betrayal, and the strength to not only find hope amid the ashes, but rise from them. Beth Powning’s lyrical style breaks and mends hearts in equal measure. I found it very difficult to put this novel down. Highly recommend!” —Genevieve Graham, bestselling author of The Forgotten Home Child
 
“In Beth Powning’s newest novel, we enter a world where pauper auctions leave the most vulnerable for sale and women are non-persons in the eyes of the law. Set in Maritime Canada in the late 1880s, The Sister’s Tale brilliantly balances storytelling with keen insight into the gender politics, society and culture of the time. For many, this novel will introduce new and disturbing aspects of Canadian history. Suspenseful and thought-provoking, The Sister’s Tale resonates with relevance during our current times of political and societal challenges, and ultimately illuminates the timeless role of friendship and family. A highly recommended read.” —Ann Yu-Kyung Choi, author of Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety
 
“Beth Powning has done it again. This time shedding light on a shameful slice of Canadian history––New Brunswick’s pauper auctions. The novel introduces us to an unorthodox household of nineteenth-century women and girls struggling to survive and thrive in a world dominated by men. Powning’s prose shimmers. Her characters come vividly to life in this tale of sisterhood, female friendship, and the power of love and loss.” —Cecily Ross, author of The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie

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