Velocipedes, elephants, and other mysteries
by Linda Demeulemeester
Toronto: Red Deer Press, 2023
$14.95 / 780889957299
Reviewed by Alison Acheson
“If a man didn’t give a fig as to whether or not a woman had a beard, Effy decided he’d probably make a passable husband” —Ephemia Rimaldi
Ephemia Rimaldi is a wonderful mix of adventure (Let’s run away with the circus!), mystery (WHERE is the cursed sapphire?), and historical novel (“Circus workers were one of the first groups to demand equal pay for equal work”).
I’m loath to add the word “educational” to the mix, as that seems just too dry for this bit of fun. But as with all my favourite reads as a young person, I always appreciated those I learned from, especially when the learning was absorbed with a spoonful of story-sugar.
Ephemia, or Effy, is “almost thirteen.” Her circus ringmaster father left her with relatives when she was a small child, and she’s been tossed from one to the next until landing with the inimitable Great Aunt Ada; none of the others can handle Ephemia. But together the old woman and the young girl forge a relationship over suffragist marches and educational yearnings. Aunt Ada promises she will fund these aspirations.
Regrettably, Aunt Ada exits our world at the close of chapter one, and Effy is surrounded by all those rellies who tossed her, all hoping to be recipients of Ada’s last will and testament.
Although Burnaby writer Linda Demeulemeester has published a number of stories for young people (like the Grim Hill series), Ephemia Rimaldi is her first historical novel, and she’s chosen rich subject matter and a volatile time. The history of women in Canada struggling to be able to vote isn’t as straightforward as it might seem and—without getting into details of the temperance movement—this story hints at the motivation of some to serve as “moral guardians.”
One of Effy’s aunt’s friends speaks to this, and the author furthers the knowledge and possible discussion in her notes (without having to dive fully into the topic of prohibition, and women fighting to squelch alcohol consumption and its role in domestic abuse). I appreciate this bit of reality, instead of simply speaking to “women’s equality” and the right to vote; the fight went beyond, and came from other directions.
Demeulemeester also includes the role of the bicycle in the suffragists’ movement; her end notes add an enlightening piece, and the closing pages include an interview with her, for further interest.
Moving on from the crazed rellies, Ephemia Rimaldi is a story of circus life and women being recognized in equal ways for their work and for what they bring to the table, at a time when women were deemed “fragile.” The story questions how classism functions, and can provoke a real conversation about how we support each other, and at times fail to do so. There’s some fruitful girl-to-girl reckoning: how can we encourage each other, and connect?
The word “privileged” does come into play—and that’s unfortunate, as the word is defined in the story by our contemporary mores, as opposed to what would have been at the turn of the last century. Perhaps it’s considered easier to unpack for now in 2024, but it might have been presented in a different way and in the language of the times. It’s problematic to present other times with current language. But I’m an old history major; it may not be a problem for others.
Building the understanding in young people that language changes, and we cannot read old texts as we do now seems critical to learning to comprehend and appreciate other eras and ways of thinking. The author shares the difference between historical accounts that are from “primary” sources and “secondary,” and shares the research process in her closing notes. She uses some wonderful vocabulary of the time with words like calamity, flimflam, twaddle, pantaloons, camphor, mutton… “Hurricane lanterns,” “parsley sandwiches,” and “velocipedes” evoke the past in these pages.
A significant theme throughout is one of superstition versus rational thinking. The inevitable “fortune teller” of the circus is questioned by Effy, and she is critical of even Aunt Ada’s superstitious nature. The theme is perhaps a bit heavy-handed, and struck me as being at odds with Effy’s wonderful capacity to push on for a new life. A truly rational person might be more accepting of the status quo! But it’s the main character’s dreams that lead her on a most daring path as she confronts the realities of Balally the circus elephant, the financial challenges of running a circus, and the greed of too many around her.
Effy does learn that self-righteousness can become superiority, and superiority can lead to not seeing others. She learns that selfishness is narrow vision, and to open her eyes to others and their plights. All her life, she’s heard negatives about the circus people who are her genesis, yet when she gets to know them and spends time with them she learns about humanity.
The thread of animal rights, focusing on the elephant Balally, is another major thread; really, the plot is filled with threads. At times, I lost a sense of passing time and place, but to Demeulemeester’s credit she weaves the threads and works with them, and altogether it’s great fun to see them come together: a bit of romance with the bearded lady, a snag or two of flower lore, the riding of a velocipede in the circus ring, and all manner of odds and ends of knowledge become metaphors throughout.
There is a solid central thread of finding one’s purpose as Effy plans to go to school and even on to higher learning—a challenge for women then. For Effy, finding her purpose means going beyond what she knows at present.
Her mind is opened to how others get by, and what others need. One after another, she explores the work of the circus artists, from being an assistant to the fortune teller, to taking a turn on the trapeze, and more. I think young readers will particularly enjoy the circus aspect of the story
Effy’s problem-solving capacity—from running away using convincing dramatic skills to thinking up circus acts—is truly inventive. She is observant of the world around her and resourceful in her responses.
Ephemia Rimaldi illustrates friendship and connection, not to mention valuing and honouring others.
Alison Acheson is the author of almost a dozen books for all ages, with the most recent being a memoir of caregiving: Dance Me to the End: Ten Months and Ten Days with ALS (TouchWood, 2019). She writes a newsletter on Substack, The Unschool for Writers, and lives on the East Side of Vancouver. [Editor’s note: Alison Acheson has also reviewed books by Hanako Masutani, Julie Lawson, George M. Johnson, Janice Lynn Mather, Jacqueline Firkins, Barbara Nickel, and Caroline Adderson for BCR; and Dance Me to the End: Ten Months and Ten Days with ALS was reviewed by Lee Reid.]
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (nonfiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster