Friday 3 June 2022

Our Animal Hearts

Finished May 12
Our Animal Hearts by Dania Tomlinson

This historical fiction novel is set in British Columbia's Okanagan area before, during, and after World War I. The narrator is Iris Sparks, who is twelve as the book opens. She lives with her parents, a Welsh mother Llewelyna, English father Noah, and younger brother Jacob. Her father travels often as he is still managing his family's coal mines in Britain. Her father's family looks down on her mother and when her paternal grandmother visits, she criticizes their manners and clothes and tries to instill upper class attitudes into them. But Iris is more of a free spirit. She is tutored by an older Indigenous man named Henry, a friend of her mother's who has an extensive library and vast cultural knowledge. Henry teaches her not only Milton and Spinoza, but also how to call animals and find edibles in the woods. He tells her Indigenous legends including one of a lake monster, Naitaka. 
As the book opens, Iris's mother receives a present from her husband of a peacock egg. When it hatches, she names the bird Saint Francis and it becomes a pet, going with her almost everywhere she goes and she spent much of her time in her fenced garden, treating it like a room that she felt at home in, and where others were sometimes permitted access. Shortly after this, Iris witnesses her mother's first seizure, something she is asked to hide from the rest of the family. 
Llewelyna is a woman who believes in the paranormal, fairy tales from her childhood in Wales, and the existence of a monster in the lake nearby. Henry also believes in the ghosts of his ancestors, and talks of them to Iris, so she isn't surprised to start seeing them either.  Iris also makes friends with the daughter of a Japanese man her father hires to manage their orchards, Azami. Azami is also adjusting to her life as an immigrant. While her family has adopted Christianity, she tries to keep some customs from their culture. 
As Iris grows up, Jacob is sent away to boarding school in England, Llewelyna's seizures grow more frequent, and Iris finds herself caught between worlds. Then World War I begins and the men and older boys leave to fight. 
Iris's world offers challenges in understanding, in love, in friendship, and in the things she must do to continue to thrive. This is a story of change, of the issues of otherness, and of what constitutes home. A fascinating read. 

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