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