Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Listening Tree by Celia Barker Lottridge

Nine year old Ellen Jackson lives on a farm in Saskatchewan with her mother, Martha, and father, Mike. It is the summer of 1934,  and another bone dry day like many in the past four years. What use to be a thriving farm is now dusty and barren. Ellen's parents have sold all their cattle and Ellen's pony. Mike, has hopped a train and gone to British Columbia to find work. With almost no money left and nothing to farm, Martha decides to accept her sister, Gladys, offer to come live with her in Toronto. Gladys runs a boarding home and has room to take in both Ellen and Martha.

They move to Toronto where Ellen's mother gets a job cleaning the house of a wealthy friend of her sister. Meanwhile, Ellen struggles to find the courage to meet the children living in the house next door to her Aunt's boarding house. She takes to climbing the large elm tree outside her bedroom window and listening to the children play. The elm becomes Ellen's " listening tree" where she can learn about the three children, Charlene, Joey, and Gracie.

The situation changes drastically one day when Ellen overhears a conversation between two men who are determined to force the children's family out of their home. Forgetting her shyness, Ellen knows she needs to tell someone what she has heard and act. Together Ellen and the three children come up with a plan that just might save Charlene and her siblings from "flitting".

This short novel provides young readers with a good idea of what life was like in Toronto during the Great Depression and how people sometimes helped one another through this difficult time. Many problems common to the Great Depression, such soup kitchens, homeless and unemployed young men are not dealt with but Lottridge does give her readers a sense of how precarious life was for some families. Charlene, Joey and Gracie's mother owes forty dollars in back rent - a large sum for a family in 1934. Families who couldn't pay their rent, often "flitted", that is, left in the middle of the night. My father who was born in 1920, often told me about how his family moved from home to home during the 1930's because they were unable to pay their rent. They simply packed up and moved at night. My grandparents lost all of their money, just enough to buy a house, in the stock market crash of 1929.

Casa Loma
The Listening Tree also sets part of the story at Casa Loma, at one time the largest home ever built in Canada. Unfortunately Lottridge doesn't give much background information in her note at the end of the book. It was built between 1911 and 1914 by Sir Henry Pellatt, founder of the Toronto Electric Light Company. Pellatt was a renowned philanthropist who loved the British royalty and all the attendant pageantry and pomp associated with the aristocracy. The castle was designed by one of the most prominent architects of the early 20th century, E.J. Lennox. You can learn more about Casa Loma at

Lottridge ties up most of the story lines adequately; Charlene's family is helped, Ellen's situation in Toronto seems secure, and we learn that her father has found work on a farm in northern Alberta, where the drought wasn't so bad.

Again I take issue with what is a reasonably good book trapped in an awful cover that is unappealing to young readers. It seems to be almost a foregone conclusion that a Canadian novel will have a terrible cover. Celia Barker Lottridge is a first rate author who deserves better.

Lottridge who lives in Seaton Village, a part of the Annex in Toronto, Ontario, decided it might be interesting to explore what life was like in her neighbourhood during another era, in this case, the 1930's Depression. The author wanted children to learn about this era and what life was like in Canada during the difficult times of the Depression.
“I saw it as a time when life was full of practical problems—the majority of people were having to cope with the day-to-day of getting money … the Depression had a huge impact here in Canada, but I don’t think a lot of children or adults have any idea of how extremely hard it was. We like to forget about hard times,”
(taken from )

Recommended for 9 to 11 years of age.

Book Details:
The Listening Tree by Celia Baker Lottridge
Markham: Fitzhenry & Whiteside 2011

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