Published: 28/07/2017
ISBN: 9781788035484
eISBN: 9781788031691
Format: Paperback/eBook



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The Finding
by Meg Campbell

Esther, (13), is crippled and kept hidden in a cottage by her ignorant and superstitious family. Her joy is her baby sister who plays 'mermaids' with her on the floor, untroubled by her disability. One day her mother takes the baby to a lady who has come to live in the big house on top of the hill, and who makes photographs. Esther has overheard the fishermen's children whispering about the lady’s black hands (stained by the photographic chemicals). They run away when she wants them to model for her because they think photography is witchcraft. Esther is terrified at what may happen to her treasured little sister. She attempts the impossible: to drag herself up the hill after her mother in order to rescue the baby. Halfway up she is discovered by Tom, (15), the local clergyman's son who should be studying but has slipped out with his sketchbook onto the downs to make a drawing of a kestrel in flight.

Tom thinks the girl is hurt and picks her up and carries her to the lighted glass house at the top of the hill where Mrs Cameron is photographing the baby. Esther sees her little sister and thinks she is in danger. She struggles out of Tom’s arms, falls against the glass and it breaks. Mayhem results and the picture is ruined. The photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, famous for her pioneering photographs, including pictures of children, is furious. Then she sees the beauty of the girl beneath her rags and asks Esther to model for her. That Esther cannot walk is not a disadvantage as posing requires sitting still for long periods.

Mrs Cameron also asks Tom if his father will tutor her son, Henry and the Tennyson boys, and the children become friends. Thus the two children enter the fertile and creative world of the artists and writers who formed the Pre-Raphaelite circle at Freshwater around the Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson. The unconventional circle teaches them to value individuality and to overcome prejudice.

Through a series of ups and downs each grows into their true self. Esther is taken up to London by Mrs Cameron to see a doctor and becomes a patient in the new Great Ormond St Hospital for children. She learns to read and returns to the Island, able to walk with crutches, and sets up a stall where she sells souvenirs to the new tourists. Tom gets to meet the artists George Watts and Edward Lear. He makes a drawing of a stricken vessel and sends it off to the Illustrated London News and is offered a job as a roving artist-reporter. There is a suggestion that one day he will defy convention and come back to marry her.

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The Finding is a beautifully written historical novel set in nineteenth century Isle of Wight. It is told through the eyes of Esther and Tom in alternating chapters. Esther is thirteen and crippled, following an infant illness. She has never been to school and is kept hidden at home by her ignorant family, and away from the stares of her superstitious community. Her only joy is her beloved baby sister, whom she will do anything for. Esther is wilful and determined, and yearns to be independent and not simply just another ‘mouth to feed’. Tom is fifteen and the son of the local curate. He is sensitive and kind-hearted, and a talented and aspiring artist. Both Esther and Tom are saddled with a burden. For Esther, it is being crippled; and for Tom, it is his parents’ expectations for his future career as a clergyman. They are brought together at the beginning of the story, when Tom finds Esther crawling up a hill to rescue her beloved baby sister from the clutches of ‘the Witch’. ‘The Witch’ is Julia Margaret Cameron, the pioneering British photographer, who wants merely to photograph the baby.

Meg Campbell cleverly interweaves the pre-Raphaelite circle of Mrs Cameron’s friends into the story, Alfred Tennyson, George Watts and Edward Lear. Esther becomes a muse for Mrs Cameron’s photography, and Mr Watts’ portraits. Later, they take her to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital to try and strengthen her legs so that she may walk again. Tom becomes friends with the confident Henry, Mrs Cameron’s son, and the gentle Tennyson boys. Both Esther and Tom benefit from the enlightened acceptance of Mrs Cameron and her circle, which sets them on their respective paths to finding their place in the world.

Meg Campbell has a gift for storytelling. It is gentle and insightful, and at times humorous. This book will appeal to children with a love of historical fiction, but is equally a simple and compelling enough narrative for those unaccustomed to this genre. It could also be a great springboard for teaching related to English art, history and culture from this exciting time.

by Colleen Holland


 

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