Indian Head-Wolseley News Review - The Secret of the Stone House

Reviewed by: Kay Parley

The Secret of the Stone House by Judith Silverthorne (Coteau Books, 2005) takes place on the SE fringe of Moffat in 1903. Anyone from the area with a young schoolgirl on the Christmas list will want to grab this book. Moffat church and cemetery are mentioned, as are Wolseley, and the grain elevators of Glenavon. It is a thrill to find the area emerging in children's literature.

The author apologizes in the acknowledgments for skewing the time frame a little. It is fiction, so we can forgive the fact that it is not a factual history of Moffat. Some Moffat names are used, but not where we would expect to find them. There were no stone houses as close to Glenavon as the one in the story, and no two-story houses at all. Moffat stones were all story-and-a-half. We can easily forgive that. If a stone house is to be featured in a book for young girls, we want it to be a big stone house.

The Secret of the Stone House is a trip in more ways than one. Anyone who reads the first book in the series. The Secret of Sentinel Rock, will be familiar with Emily and the way in which she unlocked the secret of time travel. In that book, she went into the past and met her own great aunt Emma, who died young. They became fast friends. Time travel is a wonderful tool for awakening a feeling for the past in young readers.

In this book, Emily gets back to 1903, just in time to see the family building their stone house. She meets bubbly little Molly, who will one day become her own grandmother, and a dear young boy, "Geordie," who turns out to be her great uncle. Geordie appeared in the first book, but he has a much bigger role in this one.

There is enough detail in the book to give young readers an idea of pioneer times. There is a sodder, a team of draft horses, a ride on the broad back of a Clydesdale, and a raging prairie fire. I found only one serious historic error. There is a scene in which boys are "sheeting" the interior walls of the new home. There were no "Sheets" at that time, only of the painstaking work of tacking on strip after strip of lathe and then plastering over it, which is why old walls have bumps and hollows. The best of plasters could not produce a surface flat as plasterboard. 

Silverthorne's great strength is characterization. The characters are nice people, friendly and non-threatening, but totalling believable. They are typical of the Scots who did settle that area. They are hard-working and obedient to authority, yet they are all individuals. I found myself wanting to be with them.

The book is part of a series, From Many Peoples, which presents stories for young readers about the many cultural groups who settled Saskatchewan. Judith Silverthorne has done an excellent job of presenting the Scots. They are very typical in character and, though she lets them speak good English, they use just enough Scots expressions to give the story an ethnic flavour. It's all there - love of social life, pride in work, interest in education. 

Even the mysterious ESP for which highland women were know is there. (Emily herself has inherited it, or she wouldn't be so adept at time travel.)

The writing is excellent. The author moves the story along with her usual clarity and momentum.

Don't let The Secret of the Stone House be for the exclusive pleasure of the younger set. Read it before you wrap it. I found it facinating enough to please an adult too, and I was especially pleased to see the way in which Emily's interest in history was intensified as she watched the stone house being built. I felt the true value in this book was the way in which Emily came to realize the importance of her inheritance. Now I can't wait to find out what happens when she takes that intriguing ancient Celtic mirror to Scotland.

Book on in this series, The Secret of the Sentinel Rock, won the Saskatchwan Book Award for Children's Literature, 1996.

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