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Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Several Lives of Orphan Jack, written by Sarah Ellis. Groundwood, 2003. $14.95 ages 8 and up

"He woke up in thin daylight
with the wisps of a dream and
no idea where he was. Dripping
ink, sheep singing sea shanties.
He pulled his scattered thoughts
For the first morning of his life
he had woken up, not to the loud
clanging of the dormitory bell and
the rebreathed air of twenty boys,
but to sunshine, new air and his
own plan."

For some strange reason, it took me a long time to get to reading this fine book by the celebrated and very accomplished Sarah Ellis.  I had read about it, I knew it was shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award in English for Children in 2003 and you would think that I would have taken the time then to sit back, relax and savor her story. I did not. But, it's never too late in books, and life to make up for past mistakes.

And so this week, I met young Jack whose life has been spent at the Opportunities School for Orphans and Foundlings. It's not easy making a life there, but Jack is an honorable and disciplined orphan who stays out of trouble at every turn. So, he is unfazed when called to the headmaster's office:

"Breathing stopped all over the room. A summons to the headmaster could cause many a stomach to come loose from its moorings. But Otherjack stood up looking as calm as a pudding."

Jack has no cause for concern. He  is twelve and trouble has not yet darkened his door. Little does he know that the headmaster's presented opportunity will change all that. Jack is offered a position as apprentice to a bookkeeper. It is his way out of the orphanage and on to living a new life. It sounds exciting and purposeful. It takes no time for Jack to discover that he has no love of or gift for numbers, columns and all that this new learning entails. It seems his only recourse is to leave and seek a life beyond the bookkeeper's office.

As he travels he learns much about the outside world and his place within it. He is spirited and shrewd, and is quick to realize that his many long, lonely nights at the orphanage have provided a skill that bodes well for him and his life in the larger world.

Sarah Ellis has created a warm and wise story about a boy who wants more from life than what is originally offered. I love her love of words and her ability to use those words to create a character whose life is enriched by a love of words himself:

'He picked up his dictionary and began to flip.
Vicissitude. A change in fortune."

And later:

"That's for the nonsense peddler. He's got all kinds of nonsense - absurdity, folly, trash, moonshine, twaddle, drivel, claptrap, bosh, balderdash, gobbledygook -"

Each chapter holds special delight for the astute and observant word collector with its charming alliterative finish:

"Flitters and fetchers and friends, said Jack to himself. That's the life of a wandering boy."


"Nightshirts and nightcaps, he said to himself as he dozed off. That's the life of a family man."

Wouldn't you love to know Jack? You need to read this wonderful book!

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