1118 The housemaid of Point Ellice

House of Crows
by Edeana Malcolm

Vancouver: Three Ocean Press, 2020
$24.95 / 9781988915265

Reviewed by Valerie Green

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If you are a fan of British Columbia’s early history, especially pertaining to the capital city of Victoria, or if you simply love all history as a history buff, you will definitely enjoy House of Crows by Edeana Malcolm, published by Three Ocean Press.

The book tells a fictional story of three generations of strong women and is set in Victoria between the 1850s and the 1890s. The three women live together in what the granddaughter (Maggie) describes as The House of Crows because her grandmother and mother always wear black in mourning for their husbands, and she herself wears black as a maid working for the O’Reilly family at Point Ellice House on the Gorge waterway.

The story begins in 1891 with granddaughter Maggie on her way home from work at Point Ellice to the home she shares with her mother and grandmother. Her day has been somewhat exciting and she is anxious to tell her mother and grandmother what has happened.

Point Ellice House, circa 1970, on the Gorge Waterway, Victoria, now a municipal, provincial, and national historic site. Postcard courtesy eBay
Believed to be the Norman Morrison. City of Victoria Archives

It then reverts back in time to the 1850s when her grandmother, Edie, first arrived in the colony in 1852. She came from Scotland with her husband (John), her sister (Bella) and her children, Jamie, Sam and Lucinda (Lucy) aboard the Hudson’s Bay Company’s immigrant ship, Norman Morrison.

They had left behind a hard life in Scotland hoping for better prospects in the new world but soon discovered that life was no easier unless you worked really hard. John had been indentured to Kenneth McKenzie, the bailiff at Craigflower Farm for five years with the promise of his own farmland at the end of his indenture. But John was a man who preferred alcohol to hard work so most of the family’s every-day work and problems — housework and raising the children — fell on Edie’s shoulders while he went on frequent drinking sprees at the Fort. Edie’s sister, Bella, had already decided to return to England with the ship’s cook who had promised her marriage on the voyage out. So Edie feels alone.

Victorian housemaids, England. Courtesy Victorian Era

I felt a certain disappointment when the author first jumped forward in time from Edie’s story to her granddaughter Maggie’s in 1891, without knowing anything about Maggie’s mother, Lucy, apart from when she was a small child. However, I could soon see the logic to this plan. It makes the reader want to know more about how grandmother, mother and granddaughter, came to be living alone together by the 1890s in the House of Crows.

Gradually we learn more about both Edie and her daughter Lucy in those in-between years as they both share immeasurable losses and pain. Both of Edie’s sons eventually leave home and the women are forced to make difficult decisions but always find the strength to do what needs to be done.

By the 1890s, Maggie’s story of hard work and heartbreak continues the three-generational cycle and is similar to her mother and grandmother’s, but Edeana Malcolm’s story also shows the resilience of these women at that time in history.

I particularly enjoyed the way Malcolm tells her story through the eyes of these three women as I firmly believe that is the best way to tell an historical story — showing the experiences of those who actually lived it.

Kathleen O’Reilly. Courtesy Point Ellice House

If you are familiar with Victoria’s history, you will especially enjoy and appreciate the excellent background research that went into telling this story with accuracy and insight. The book is also peppered with stories of real-live events at that time. We hear about Kathleen O’Reilly’s proposal from Captain Stanhope, which she rejected, and which Maggie finds difficult to understand. She knows that most certainly “she would have gone to England with Captain Stanhope and she would have taken Granny and her mother with her…. but then she was young and adventure called her.” Maggie longed for a better and more exciting future than just being a maid at everyone’s beck and call. We also learn about the tragedy of the Point Ellice bridge collapse through Maggie’s experiences on that day.

Cover to Mrs (Caroline Agnes) O’Reilly (1831-1899). Courtesy Michael Hamilton Postal History
Edeana Malcolm on Mt. Work near Victoria

Edeana Malcolm’s style of writing is both informal and easy-going. I particularly enjoyed passages such as:

Lucy watched Mam praying in the pew beside her, her eyes scrunched tight and her lips moving soundlessly. It seemed such a useless activity. Surely what Mam prayed for was never granted … (otherwise) her brother would not be dead now

Or:

The February sun had enough heat to warm Maggie’s shoulders as she walked home from work early one Saturday afternoon. It felt good after the cold, drizzly days of winter and she felt her shoulders loosen and relax.

I also love happy endings, but by the end of The House of Crows the reader will be left wondering if there will indeed be a brighter future ahead for Maggie and her mother and the cycle of hard work and sadness will be broken.

Author Edeana Malcolm lives in Victoria and is very familiar with the present-day location of the area she writes about in House of Crows. She has previously written five novels about her ancestors who came to Nova Scotia in the 18th and 19th centuries and is currently the president of the Victoria Writers’ Society.

Her novel House of Crows is a book to be savoured and enjoyed.

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Valerie Green

Valerie Green was born and educated in England where she studied journalism and law. Her passion was always writing from the moment she first held a pen in her hand. After working at the world-famous Foyles Books on Charing Cross Road, London, followed by a brief stint with M15 and legal firms, she moved to Canada in 1968 where she married and raised a family, while embarking on a long career as a freelance writer, columnist, and author of over twenty non-fiction historical and true-crime books. She is currently working on her debut novel Providence, which will be published soon as the first of The McBride Chronicles, an historical four-generational family saga bringing early BC history alive. Now semi-retired (although writers never really retire!) she enjoys taking short road trips around BC with her husband, watching their two beloved grandsons grow up and, of course, writing. Editor’s note: Valerie has recently reviewed books by Janie Chang, Gina McMurchy-BarberEric WaltersGail Anderson-DargatzAlan TwiggLeslie Howard, and D.B. Carew.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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