Bess on her own in Canada and Sharlie’s Kenya Diary by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

Standard

These two stories, the second pair of “geography readers”, will probably only be read by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) completists; but I enjoyed them.  I thought that they were very well-written, and I’m sorry that they weren’t longer: full-length books about Bess and Sharlie would have been so much better than, say, “Beechy of the Harbour School”!  The plot of the Canada book is rather thin and silly, and the Kenya book hasn’t really got a plot, but, for stories of this length, that doesn’t matter: the appeal is in the descriptions of the Okanagan region of British Columbia and many areas of Kenya.  Considering that EBD never visited either, she does pretty well with them.  The stories were intended to be educational and there’s some information in them about farming and produce, and also about soil erosion and vanishing lakes in Kenya, which may strike much more of a chord now than it probably did in the 1950s, but they’re more descriptions of the scenery than anything else.  There’s also quite a bit about the wildlife in Kenya, although, sadly, no-one has a pet lion cub (I love “Born Free”).

And both main characters are very appealing.  They both come from uncomplicated backgrounds.  Sharlie’s parents take her to Kenya with them because they *don’t* want to dump her somewhere, but she also has a term at school there because both she and they accept that kids do actually have to get an education and look towards getting a job!  Neither has a major character flaw requiring reform.  They’re just nice, ordinary girls, the sort who never get to take centre stage in full-length books.  And these are very nice reads.

The publishers have padded the book out with long introductions.  There’s nothing wrong with them, except that the Kenya one bizarrely mixes up Lancashire and Cheshire, but, having paid for fiction, I think I’d rather have had some short stories instead.  Oh well.  There’s also a note about the “patronising” language used about the natives in Kenya.  I’m not sure that it was any more patronising than the language used in EBD’s other books about the “peasants” in Austria and Guernsey, but they are given a voice, whereas, unfortunately, we don’t actually hear from any black characters in this.  However, EBD did devote a fair bit of the book to discussing the local customs – even if, as in A Chalet Girl from Kenya, she misunderstood/misused the word “shauri”, but she must have read that somewhere – which a lot of authors at the time would not have done.

Bess, then.  Fifteen-year-old Bess and her parents and two younger brothers live on a wheat farm in Saskatchewan.  When her dad suffers an accident which is going to put him out of action for several months, Bess is dispatched to Vancouver Island to find a cousin with whom they have lost touch and whose address they do not have (their letters to him have been returned), to ask him to abandon his own affairs and come and help. As you would.  The idea is that she’ll go to the first post office or police station she finds, and they’ll be able to track down the said cousin.  You do wonder why her mum didn’t write to the post office or police station, or indeed just engage a manager, but, OK, that would have spoilt the story.

She goes off with a woman whom she meets on the train and, hey presto, the woman’s brother-in-law knows the cousin.  But he’s moved.  To the Okanagan Valley.  So off Bess goes again, and she then goes off with a man whom she meets on a ferry, and, of course, he knows the cousin too.  Her propensity to go off with complete strangers is really rather worrying, but she finds the cousin, he agrees to come and help out, and she gets to spend some time looking round the area.

It’s a very silly plot, but the descriptions really are lovely.  Sadly, we hear very little about Vancouver (which for some reason is referred to as “Vancouver City”) or Victoria, which are both wonderful cities, but we do hear a lot about the Okanagan Valley, and the fruit farms there, and life around the lake.  It really made me want to go to British Columbia again!   It’s such a lovely part of the world, and that came across very well in the book.

Chalet School fans will know that Ted Grantley’s eldest brother was fruit farming in British Columbia, and that Bette Rincini was living in Saskatchewan.  I do wish that EBD had written about the experiences of the many Chalet School characters whom she dispatched, temporarily or permanently, to different parts of the Commonwealth; but she didn’t.  However, Sharlie and her parents meet a Mr and Mrs Scott in Kenya … are these Paul and Maisie Scott, the parents of Jo Scott?

Sharlie’s dad has to go to Kenya on business, and his wife and daughter accompany him.  The story’s in the form of a diary which Sharlie keeps to show her schoolfriends when she gets home.  They travel around, and it sounds wonderful – they see the main cities, go on safari, see lakes and waterfalls, and also see one of the “shauris” which Jo Scott talks about.  There’s some environmental stuff.  And some talk about locusts – which I associate with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “On the Banks of Plum Creek” but which are still causing problems in parts of Africa now – and also a bit about the history of East Africa.  Am I the only one who, whenever I see the word “Zanzibar”, immediately thinks “Ah, Freddie Mercury,” or does everyone do that 🙂 ?

So, two fairly short stories, but I liked them.  No-one other than an EBD fan is going to spend £13 on this book, but I’m glad I did!