Connections: ‘The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children’ and ‘The Lost Sister’

The Lost Sister by Andrea Gunraj

A book about sisters is always appealing, but what made this one even more so for me is that part of the story is inspired by Garnet Smith’s childhood experiences while living at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. A book about this Home came out not long ago, and this novel provided the perfect opportunity to finally read it.

The character inspired by Garnet Smith is a woman named Paula (a valued community volunteer) who becomes a much-needed friend for Alisha, the protagonist.

At the heart of The Lost Sister is the relationship between Alisha and her older sister Diana. Alisha sees Diana as the perfect daughter – the favoured one who can do no wrong – and often has feelings of jealousy and animosity toward her. (“I had wanted my sister to suffer.”) One day Diana goes missing, and although Alisha thinks she might know what happened, she doesn’t tell anyone. (“I would preserve myself the only way I knew how. I would lie.”) This decision she makes becomes a huge part of her and how she feels about herself.

I was the cowardly sister. But that day in June of 1998, I somehow fooled myself into bravery. I waited outside for hours, wandering through the public library stacks and small streets and parks of my neighbourhood as the sky turned deep blue and settled to darkness, a few feeble star points surfacing above the city’s pollution. It was my first real attempt at defiance.

Alisha is consumed by guilt. She feels responsible for her sister’s disappearance and deserving of punishment. (“It should have been me.”) The fact that punishment never comes almost makes things worse – now she walks around feeling unworthy of other people’s good opinion of her.

The accusations I had awaited, the terrifying and freeing revelations, simply never came. I felt sure that the pit of swirling shadows that yawned under my feet would stay, antagonizing me but never quite sucking me in. I was caught in some kind of in-between life, and it seemed I would stay there.

I folded the cuff of my sweatshirt up to my forearm and dragged the tip of the blade across my skin, cutting a long line between my left wrist and my elbow. I watched as the red edge sparked and stung and oozed into a wave. Blood pooled and dripped onto the floor, one, two, three times over. It was an impermanent fix, I understood that. But the pain enveloped my whole body and settled the rage in my stomach.

In addition, Alisha suffers from knowing she can never fix things between herself and her sister, while Paula, who has been estranged from her own sister for decades, still has a chance to reconcile.

Are all sisters like this? Despite their plans and better judgments and life and death, are they only able to survive in reference to each other? (A theme also recently explored in Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin)

The proceeds of this novel go to VOICES, the Victims of Institutional Child Exploitation Society, and specifically toward the Garnet Smith Education Bursary for young people connected to survivors of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children.


The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children by Wanda Lauren Taylor

The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children was “formed out of a desperate need… to provide for orphaned and neglected Black children at a time when they were not permitted entry into white orphanages“. So intentions were good. But at some point along the way, things went terribly wrong and society turned a blind eye.

Wanda Taylor explains that this book is an “attempt to learn where and how a functioning, civilized society failed its most vulnerable citizens. It is an honest look at the facts to try to determine what can be learned from the mistakes that were made. Most importantly, it is a step towards helping former Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children residents as individuals, and the community, to become whole“.

Children in the home experienced a wide range of conditions; from hunger and neglect to physical and sexual abuse. A big chunk of the book is dedicated to telling the stories of former residents, including the story of Garnet Smith – the man who inspired the character of Paula in Andrea Gunraj’s book The Lost Sister.

While few outside knew what was happening at the home, people had knowledge that something wasn’t right. These included government officials, community members, relatives, and those staff members who were not inflicting harm on the children but had witnessed others do so.

The book addresses the history of social work in the province and the part it played in this tragedy, as well as information about the 2014 settlement agreement between the former residents of the home and the government.

Apology to the former residents of the home from the province of Nova Scotia.

What novel have you read that has prompted you to pick up a book with a connection?

19 thoughts on “Connections: ‘The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children’ and ‘The Lost Sister’

    • Naomi says:

      So true. And, I think, because there was only one home like this one, it’s not at all widely known about here – even now.
      Thanks for reading! 🙂

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    It’s a bit of a long bow because I read Irene Nemirovsky’s Suits Francaise a long time ago, but it was in my mind when I bought Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba because it’s about how French women got by during the Occupation.

  2. madamebibilophile says:

    This sounds very moving. We’ve had similar scandals around institutional abuse in the UK. It’s absolutely tragic and I was interested to see the reference to healing in Wanda Taylor’s book, because I really hope that can happen for people.

    • Naomi says:

      I hope so, too! I’m fortunate enough not to have ever been through anything like that, so it’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like, and how the healing process would work.

  3. Cathy746books says:

    I have a sister (my only sibling) and there is 13 years between us, which is why I think that we don’t think of ourselves solely in relation to the other. This sounds like a really moving read.

    • Naomi says:

      Good point, Cathy. I wonder if age gap makes a difference? I have three sisters, and I wonder if, in my case, the intensity of the connection gets spread out between all three? Is it stronger when there are only two sisters?

  4. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    Megan Mayhew Bergman’s book of short stories, Almost Famous Women, made me want to read about all the real life women she portrayed. I did pick up Beryl Markham’s memoir West With the Night because of it.

    • Naomi says:

      I know I’d feel the same way if I read that book! It’s on my list, but maybe if I don’t read it I can save myself a few extra books. 😉

  5. annelogan17 says:

    Really interesting connection here! I want to read the fiction book first, it looks great (and beautiful cover!). The second book reminds me alot of Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead which I read a few weeks ago, how sad it is that we keep discovering these previously unheard of stories of neglect 😦

    • Naomi says:

      It’s so sad. And makes me wonder how many more there will be… or are happening right now that we don’t know about yet.
      Now I want to read Nickel Boys…

  6. Susan says:

    I like the theme of the novel about sisters … and like how you paired these two books together. I can’t think recently of a book that had a connection …. hmm. But I always want to pair novels with similar themes but haven’t done that yet.

    • Naomi says:

      I love reading similarly themed books together, but am not always able to do it. And once too much time has passed after one book, the urge starts to fade.

  7. buriedinprint says:

    Both the connection you’ve drawn with Alix Ohlin’s book and the connection that Anne’s drawn with Nickel Boys are great! I’m also reminded of Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse and memoirs like Bev Sellers’ They Called Me Number One.

    I guess the two books, non-fiction and fiction, that are connected that I’ve read most recently were both about the Congo, one about real-life efforts for conservation of the bonobos and a novel about a white man’s journey into the Congo as a journalist and the conflicts/connections with various people working for NGOs in communities there, but they were both by the same author (Deni Ellis Bechard), so that’s not quite the same thing because I borrowed them both at the same time and only afterward discovered there were connections.

    You know I’ve read the Gunraj. My favourite part — that you haven’t mentioned already — was the list of books that Paula recommends to young Alisha. Love them all!

    • Naomi says:

      Yes! I didn’t even mention that, did I? And now I can’t even remember what they are, because it’s been so long since I read it and I don’t have a copy of the book.

      It definitely made me think of the residential schools – the difference being that most of these kids were orphans (but not all!).

      • buriedinprint says:

        Were they orphans? I was wondering that (my copy of the non-fiction book is still en route from the library, with the video I’d requested, and who knows when that action will complete!). So most of the children there actually didn’t have family? I assumed that a lot of them (like Paula and Ave) would have been removed by people who thought the girls shouldn’t be cared for by their parents, people who assumed that being raised by white people would always be “better”, but that they were not actual orphans. I’m looking forward to reading Taylor’s book at some point, either way.

      • Naomi says:

        At first, I think, the intention was to house children with no parents, but then it extended to children whose parents couldn’t take care of them, temporarily or permanently. Interestingly, the author of the book and her siblings spent some time there while their mother was in the hospital.
        The other thing is that I believe most, if not all, of the staff were also members of the Black community.

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