The Way It Is by Donalda Reid
Ellen dreams of becoming a medical researcher, but in 1967, girls are not expected to be interested in the sciences, let along enroll in accelerated programs to prepare for university. Brainy and shy, Ellen has little interest in the things that the other girls at school go mad for–boys, fashion, dancing–she’d much rather spend her time in a lab learning something new. When her father suddenly realizes that life is too fleeting to waste doing a job he feels no passion for and decides to move to the Interior to run a resort with Ellen’s mom, Ellen believes they are being selfish and ruining her chances by taking her away from the program she worked so hard to get into. Never did she expect that moving to Salmon Arm with her parents would expose her to a whole new range of experiences and the chance to finally find friendship and love.
Any girl who has ever been the awkward, shy, smart girl who always sits at the back of the room in class can relate to Ellen. Too tall, too smart, and too out of touch with the things that other students her age enjoy, Ellen feels that she will never fit in and so does her best to become “invisible”. After years living in the same place and going to school with the same set of students, Ellen perfected her invisibility, but moving to Salmon Arm changes all that and forces her to cope with the experience of being the new one in town. One of the scenes that I most enjoyed was the one where Ellen goes to register for classes. The high school in Salmon Arm doesn’t offer a science program like the one she was participating in, so she has to compensate by taking the most advanced science courses the school offers. Of course, when the school councilor sees the courses she selected, he tries to dissuade her on the basis that she’s a girl and no girls take those classes. It’s one of the first scenes when Ellen is forced to stand up for herself and come out of “invisible mode,” and it’s a great reminder of the strides women have made that girls today can take any classes they want (I was one of two girls in my graphic arts class through middle and high school; gender is still an issue in schools with regards to the kind of classes girls will enroll in, but I never had to defend my right to enroll for the class).
Gender issues aside, the novel also deals with racism and miscegenation. The resort that Ellen’s parents rent is located on reserve land, as Ellen soon discovers, though the Indians who live on the reserve are not allowed to run the resort or make use of the property. Ellen feels strongly about the discrimination against Salmon Arm’s Indian population and starts to take note of the ways in which the Indians are made to feel like second-class citizens when in town. When she makes friends with Tony, the only Indian student at her school, Ellen wants to learn more about him, his people, and the impact of race on his life. The novel is eye-opening and insightful, especially for readers who may be unfamiliar with the history of Canadian Indians (or Native Americans in general). The dynamic between Tony and Ellen is great; they get to know each other in a way that is sweet and realistic. Neither of them are made to appear as victims; both encounter sexism and racism, but they face it and stand up to their beliefs.
Ellen’s gradual transition from shy nerd to confident, bright young woman, also comes across as a natural part of the plot. There is no sudden Cinderella-esque transformation. Ellen changes her style and tries to do some of the things that other girls like to do–like going dancing–but she does not suddenly become the life of the party or the most popular girl in school. I liked that; it’s another one of those elements that made Ellen a relatable character.
I really enjoyed the novel. It made me realize that I haven’t read much on the ’60s, though it’s such a fascinating period. Oddly enough, when Ellen was helping Tony look up information on schools and scholarships, I kept waiting for her to log on to her computer… then I would smack myself and remember that the story is set in 1967. Shows I’ve become way too accustomed to the presence of technology in my readings.