Way back in 2012, I was out in Ontario celebrating the 100th anniversary of the War of 1812, staying in Brant County, one-time home to Sara Jeannette Duncan, E. Pauline Johnson, Adelaide Hoodless, and other notable early Canadian women. Although Brantford was fascinating, I was rather sad that it lies so far from Westport, up near Kingston, where author Lyn Cook lived at that time. I had spoken to Lyn Cook a number of times by telephone; she was a delightful woman: sharp, engaging, knowledgeable, and with a sense of humour that made me really want to meet her in person. But alas, on that trip, it was not to be. The next best thing, though, was visiting the… bookstore? library? home? of Mr. Nelson Ball, who had been slowly selling off his Canadiana library over the years, and who had a store of Lyn Cook first editions. Having already depleted my book budget, I could only choose one, so I purchased The Secret of Willow Castle, the favourite childhood book of Lisa Wood, my host in Brantford. She loved this book so much, she tells me, that she forced her parents to take her to Napanee, to see where it takes place. Doubtless Napanee has changed since 1834, but one always hopes to find something of the story still lingering…
For The Secret of Willow Castle is based on real people: Henrietta MacPherson and her family existed; she appears on both the 1861 and 1871 Canadian census records, still living with her parents. A comment in the end matter of the book tells us that “in the town of Napanee, Ontario, Henrietta’s home still stands now, as it did in 1834, on the river bank looking towards the falls. The mills are gone but a plaque in a hillside park marks their place, and the willows still trail their branches in the quiet waters of the pond.” The house is in fact now the Napanee town museum, with its own website. So too is there ample historical evidence of Henrietta’s cousin John Alex, who weaves his way in and out of her life, an inspiration to her growing sense of honour and responsibility. John Alex is in fact John Alexander MacDonald, destined to be the first Prime Minister of Canada. There are sufficient indications of his growing political acumen, and discussion of his future should he choose to enter politics, but never is he firmly identified. The unaware reader does not stumble over the politics in the story, which are natural comments made by the adults, not ideologies masking as narrative. Politics are only interesting to Henrietta because she is a curious child who wants to know what the adults around her are discussing. The reader, like Henrietta, learns just enough to stay interested: “’Tis not usual for young ladies of eleven to be interested in politics, childie, but if you want to know, I’ll tell you” (31), her father tells her, and includes her in his discussion with John Alex about William MacKenzie’s leadership, couching his discussion in terms that young Henrietta will understand.
Despite its extensive and solid connection with Canada’s real history, I read The Secret of Willow Castle with no introduction other than that a friend had liked it. I knew nothing of the history of Napanee, or its connection to John A. MacDonald or Canadian history as a whole. To me, The Secret of Willow Castle was an entrancing story of a young girl being raised by an affluent and morally honourable family in the early 1830s. The tone of the novel reminded me of Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins (1875), undoubtedly my favourite book as a girl, as the sense of a young girl needing to learn her place in the world, not only as a woman but as a member of an entitled family, resonates in both.
The story begins with young Henrietta MacPherson—having recently celebrated her 11th birthday—awaiting the arrival of her favourite cousin, John Alex. John Alex brings her a present, but in her excitement, she demands that she receive it immediately. The moral current of the novel is set here, for her father allows her to open the present, but not to actually use it until she learns to behave in a more controlled manner. John Alex agrees, noting that she will learn such control as she grows older. While Henrietta is not—and does not become—a meek, obedient child, such as this scene might suggest both the author and the parents would like, she does learn both control and responsibility through the course of the story. Allowed to accompany her father to the gristmill they own, she discovers a mysterious new friend, Sarah, who has created a “secret castle” in a willow tree by the river. The girls become fast friends, hiding notes in the tree when they cannot meet, but contriving to meet whenever they can. The friendship between the girls is the underlying thread that weaves through the other events in Henrietta’s story: being barred from a skating party; attending a fair; meeting the neighbour’s slave, Jim, and questioning the morality of his situation; helping to settle a long-standing feud with another family; visiting the local wise woman for medical aid; being surprised with a trip on a river schooner; and participating in the day-to-day life of young girls in the mid 1800s. The girls’ lives are thrown into turmoil, though, when Sarah, an orphan servant to a neighbour, is at risk of being sent away to a family fallen on hard times. Just as the crisis reaches its climax, Henrietta falls dangerously ill. Narrative expectation tells us that all must work out in the end, and the reader can almost—but not quite—see the path of Sarah and Henrietta’s story before it unfolds. There is no overarching dramatic tension in the story—despite a few tense scenes—but drama and excitement are not the point of The Secret of Willow Castle. This novel has significantly more substance than the faster-paced sensationalist story often written for youth today. The Secret of Willow Castle is both an extremely well researched and seemingly faithful representation of early Canadian life, and a heart-warming portrayal of a young girl’s growth into a strong, liberal-minded young woman to whom friendship and family remain paramount.