1203 Kate Harding, fledgling medico
by Leanne Baugh
Markham, ON: Red Deer Press, 2021
$14.95 / 9780889956360
Reviewed by Valerie Green
A very vivid opening scene in Leanne Baugh’s book Wild Bird might well seem a little too graphic for young adult readers. Nonetheless, it is a necessary opening to a story about the hardships faced by women during early colonial days on Vancouver Island and the choices they must make.
The many challenges women had in those days — excruciating childbirth often ending in death, the lack of being able to choose one’s own path in life, or often having to marry into wealth in order to help their own family survive — are all vividly described by Baugh.
Baugh’s protagonist, Kate Harding, is faced with many of these dilemmas as she strives to find her own path in life. And, although the story is set over 160 years ago, some of the same issues are still very pertinent to young adults in today’s world.
When Kate’s father, a doctor, is away tending to a patient, Kate at sixteen years old has to assist her mother deliver another baby which comes early. The baby, like others before it, does not survive in the sparse childbirth conditions of the small colonial settlement of 1861 Victoria. Kate wonders why women continue to put themselves through this agony. She longs to be a doctor herself and feverishly studies to learn all she can from her father’s medical notes. But inwardly she knows her dream of being a woman doctor will never happen.
Instead she is expected to marry well to help her family whose finances are dwindling. Jeremiah O’Brien, a much older, rich merchant in the town, is planning to propose to her on her seventeenth birthday and Kate feels obliged to accept — even though she has no feelings for the man and in fact feels only repulsion for him.
To compound her problems, she becomes attracted to a young naval officer on the HMS Forward, Hugh Ashton, and it soon becomes obvious that he reciprocates her feelings.
Meanwhile, Kate is fascinated by the fact that local Indigenous people have much to offer in the way of medicine which the white colonists are not willing to accept. Instead they see Native people as mere servants to the colonists. When their own maid leaves them to get married, Kate’s mother is herself forced to hire Lucy, a young Native girl, to help her with the housework. It is through Lucy that Kate comes to know so much more about the Indigenous people. She also learns about trust and faith and, in Lucy, has someone in whom she can confide. Kate’s younger brother, James, also adores Lucy because she is so kind to him.
In addition, Kate has the friendship of Sister Mary Providence who loans her books and encourages her love of medicine by reading these books. Kate also befriends a girl named Rebecca who has been sent from New York to stay with her aunt in Victoria because of a scandal surrounding her. Rebecca’s sense of adventure fascinates Kate and Rebecca would love to see Kate’s attraction to Lieutenant Hugh Ashton develop further because she too finds the wealthy older merchant, Jeremiah O’Brien, repulsive. He is always hovering on the perimeter waiting to claim Kate as his own once she reaches her seventeenth birthday.
Some of Kate’s dilemmas are related to the reader through correspondence she has with her older brother, Arthur. He is living in London studying medicine at their father’s request, even though he would much rather be an artist living in Paris. Both siblings are living the lives they do not want. Kate would love to take her brother’s place in London, but the idea of a woman studying to become a doctor is impossible at that time in history. Or is it?
With the tragic background of a virulent smallpox epidemic ravaging the city in early 1862, Kate must make decisions about her life. The author cleverly interweaves real-life characters into her story — famous historical characters such as Amelia and James Douglas, the Pembertons, and Joseph Trutch, a man who frequently spoke his mind about his dislike and disrespect for the natives, calling them “savages” and thereby encouraging racism. That, in itself, makes this book very pertinent to today’s world in view of the recent discoveries at Residential Native Schools throughout the province and shows how bigotry and racism in the Colony first began.
Both the vibrant, eye-catching cover and the delightful sketch of a map of Victoria in 1861 are definitely worthy of praise. And Baugh’s additional “Historical Note” at the end of the book effectively explains life in colonial days.
Leanne Baugh’s Wild Bird makes for an enjoyable and easy read while at the same time teaching young readers about the hardships that existed at that time. I think there could be a demand for a sequel to Wild Bird.
Baugh is also the author of Last Words (Red Deer Press, 2019). She lives in Victoria, BC.
Valerie Green was born and educated in England where she studied journalism and law. Her passion was always writing from the moment she first held a pen in her hand. After working at the world-famous Foyles Books on Charing Cross Road, London, followed by a brief stint with M15 and legal firms, she moved to Canada in 1968 where she married and raised a family, while embarking on a long career as a freelance writer, columnist, and author of over twenty non-fiction historical and true-crime books. She is currently working on her debut novel Providence, which will be published soon as the first of The McBride Chronicles, an historical four-generational family saga bringing early BC history alive. Now semi-retired (although writers never really retire!) she enjoys taking short road trips around BC with her husband, watching their two beloved grandsons grow up and, of course, writing. Editor’s note: Valerie Green has recently reviewed books by Sara Cassidy, Catherine McKenzie, Mary-Anne Neal, Vanessa Winn, Edeana Malcolm, Janie Chang, and Gina McMurchy-Barber.
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