House of Crows
House of Crows is a captivating read.
Three generations. Three women. Three stories that span the formative years between 1852 and 1898, alternating narratives between Edie, the grandmother from Edinburgh, Scotland;
Lucy, the mother, who grieves the death of beloved husband; and Maggie, the daughter, who works as a maid for a wealthy family that live on the ocean’s edge. These women forge a path
through very challenging times and their stories lay the foundations of possibility and hope for our modern world.
Written from seeds scattered through historical sources, the women’s voices in this novel have an authenticity seldom seen in historical writing. They say that crows speak a specific dialect
unique to the west coast, and this story captures the language from the vantage point of the newcomer.
Author Edeana Malcolm weaves the story of three women into the history of Victoria as it grows from isolated wilderness to burgeoning metropolis. House of Crows reminds us that place is
identified by the people who live there and the stories that made them who they are and vice-versa.
If you love historical fiction and stories about women by women for women… this is your book!
Sheri-D. Wilson, D. Litt, C.M., Member of the Order of Canada, Poet Laureate Emeritus of
Calgary and author of Open Letter: Woman against Violence against Women
Crossing the Ocean
i. On the Streetcar
A wayward curl of light brown hair tumbled free from Maggie’s maid’s cap as she took it off. She tucked it back up as best she could with one hand, then stuffed her cap in her apron pocket. She picked up the lantern to look around the kitchen. The washed china had been put away on the shelves in the pantry, the floor had been swept and the big black stove had been scrubbed clean. She didn’t want Li yelling at her in the morning.
Oh, how her feet ached! She wasn’t used to being on them all day. School had been so much easier.
Maggie carried the lantern with her into the scullery. She put it on the counter and blew it out. She took off her apron and hung it on the hook by the servants’ entrance. Then she put on her overcoat and opened the door. She walked through the O’Reillys’ well-manicured English garden, out the gate and down Pleasant Street in silence.
Should she walk home? Granny would think the new-fangled streetcar was a waste of her money. “A penny saved is a penny earned,” she’d say. But Maggie didn’t think her feet would take her so far this evening and she couldn’t wait to get home to tell Mama and Granny the latest news. A few drops of rain left dark spots on her long black skirt, sealing her decision. She crossed Bay Street to the streetcar stop. It wasn’t long before a streetcar shuddered to a stop in front of her.
She got on and placed five pennies in the box. As the streetcar lurched forward, she fell into the closest wooden seat. A group of schoolgirls giggled in the seat behind her. Her own school friends would have swooned to hear Maggie’s romantic gossip, but now there was only Mama and Granny to tell and they weren’t likely to get so excited.
The moment Maggie had turned sixteen, Granny insisted she leave school and work to contribute to the family expenses. So, Mama had used her contacts as a seamstress to get her a job as a maid for one of the most important families in Victoria. Mr. Peter O’Reilly was the provincial Commissioner of Indians and his wife Caroline was from the distinguished Trutch family.
As the streetcar trundled along to the other side of town, Maggie glimpsed the familiar two-storey wood-clad box that was home. She yanked on the cord to let the driver know she wanted off. Lifting her skirt a little so she wouldn’t trip, she ran the short distance down Cormorant Street. She went around to the back entrance, knowing she’d find Granny in the kitchen. She scraped her shoes on the boot-scraper and went in.
The comforting smell of Granny’s mutton stew filled the warm kitchen. Almost disappearing in her widow’s weeds at the big black stove, Granny hunched over the large pot she was stirring, contrasting starkly with the bare whitewashed plaster walls.
Before Granny could speak, Mama entered, dressed in widow’s black as well, but her gown had the very latest flourish of frilly caps over the shoulders. Her face glowed as she rushed to welcome her daughter with open arms. She hugged her, then took her by the shoulders.
“You look happier today,” Mama said. “Did you have a good day?”
“Yes, yes,” Maggie said impatiently, slipping out of the embrace.
“Give me a chance to take off my coat.”
She laughed as she took it off and hung it up. Then she sat down at the small wooden kitchen table. Mama sat across from her.
“You’ll never guess what happened today.” Maggie leaned toward her mother.
Granny placed a bowl of stew on the table.
“Speak plainly, lass, and deliver your news.” Granny’s Scottish brogue was still in evidence though she’d lived in Victoria for forty years. “We’ll have no guessing games at this table.”
Granny pulled out a chair and sat down.
“It was just a figure of speech,” Maggie protested. “Not a guessing game.”
Granny glared at her. “Just tell us your news.”
There was no use arguing with her.
“Captain Stanhope has proposed marriage to Miss Kitty O’Reilly! And she has accepted!”
“Who is Captain Stanhope?” Granny demanded. “And is he a suitable suitor for the likes of Miss O’Reilly?”
“He’s a British naval officer at Esquimalt, and what’s more, his father’s an earl! Miss O’Reilly will have to move to England to live after she marries him.”
She picked up her fork. A vision of the Queen of England flashed into her mind. A sort of fatter version of Granny, she was sitting on an immense throne in a shimmering crystal ballroom with a diamond tiara on her head and a sceptre in her hand. Maggie set down the fork.
“Perhaps,” she mused, “Miss O’Reilly will need a lady’s maid when she goes to England. Wouldn’t that be exciting? Do you think she’d take me along as a lady’s maid? I should like to go to England.”
“I dinna think they need any more lady’s maids in England. Besides, we need you here,” Granny said. “Now, eat your food.”
The queen in her vision glowered at her before vanishing. It was just like Granny to spoil her dreams. Maggie nibbled at a forkful of mutton.
Mama spoke at last. “Perhaps I’ll be asked to make the wedding gown?”
“Don’t be silly, Lucinda,” Granny said. She put on a hoity-toity voice. “Every young lady of quality hires the House of Worth for her trousseau.”
“I suppose,” Mama said. “Still, that’s exciting news, Maggie. I do love to hear tales of romance.”
At least Mama seemed to appreciate her news.
“But,” Mama continued, “I think it’s a shame Miss O’Reilly will have to leave our beautiful Victoria. Do you think Captain Stanhope would consider staying here?”
Maggie had thought about this. “Not if his father dies and he becomes the earl. Then, he’d have to go back to fulfill his duties and Miss O’Reilly would have to go with him. She’d be Mrs. Stanhope then, or… What is the wife of an earl called? Do you know, Mama? The wife of a prince is a princess, the wife of a duke is a duchess. Do you think it would be an earless?”
“Stop talking nonsense,” Granny interrupted, “and eat your stew.”
“Aren’t you going to have some?”
“We’ve already eaten, dear,” Mama replied.
“Well,” Granny piped up again, “Miss O’Reilly couldna have found a better suitor if you ask me. I hope you find someone even half as good, Maggie.”
Maggie couldn’t picture what being married would be like even though she and the other girls at school had talked about it all the time. Granny had said Mama’s marriage had been happy, but Maggie couldn’t remember her father and her mother never talked about him.
She took another bite of stew and realized she was hungry. As she chewed, she imagined travelling to England, the place where history had happened. At school, she’d loved hearing the stories of the dramatic lives of kings and queens. Perhaps one day she’d see a real palace, not just fake Dunsmuir Castle up on the hill near Central School. Perhaps, one day she’d live in a beautiful house like the O’Reillys and have her own maid to wait on her.
That was not likely to happen even if she went to England, not if she was a maid herself. Granny was right. She picked up her fork and took another mouthful. Her dreams would never come true unless she found a rich suitor, perhaps one of Miss O’Reilly’s cast-offs or Captain Stanhope’s friends. But Maggie didn’t know much about men. Not only had her father died when she was small, but her grandfather had died before she was born. The only men she’d ever known were the teachers at school and the clergy at the church, all stern and unapproachable.
“Well, travelling to the other side of the world for love isna sich a good idea!” Granny said. “Miss O’Reilly should stay right here with her family.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Mama said.
What did they know?