Local authors bring historical Forest Mills to life in epic late-1800s novel

Photo by Jessica Foley/Kingstonist.

Editorial note: Next in our continuing local author series, Jessica reads ‘Finding Home.’ Thank you to author Laurie Ness Gordon for providing this book free of charge to facilitate this article.

Longtime friends Laurie Ness Gordon and Ruth Burke Allen have co-authored an epic piece of historical fiction, which I had the pleasure of reading over the past few weeks.

Set in Forest Mills, on the Salmon River, Finding Home is the story of a young English girl, orphaned by cholera, who comes to Canada in the late 1800s and builds a life through significant challenges.

Sarah Phillips learns of a Canadian relative after her mother succumbs to her illness, and though she is only a child at the time, she makes plans to find her way to Canada as soon as possible.

Working as a domestic, or servant, Sarah is secretly taught to read and write by the daughter of the house – a skill that helps pave Sarah’s path to reunion with her aunt in Canada. However, when the lady of the house finds out, Sarah is sent away.

Luckily, she lands on her feet at the Home of Industry, where poor and orphaned children are taken in off the streets, given some schooling and training and then shipped to the new settlements in Canada, to be farmhands, apprentices and household help. These “Home Children” were sponsored by the church, social services, and government organizations, to reduce overcrowding in British cities, and to give the children a better life.

As fortune had it, Sarah was able to leave for Canada, to watch over and care for the younger children on the voyage. But life in Canada doesn’t begin well for her.

Sarah’s aunt lives with her daughter and family. The daughter, Lily, married a poor farmer who is very frugal and greatly dislikes change. As one might imagine, he does not take well to the idea of another mouth to feed, even if it is a relation.

Not to be undone by this setback, Sarah remains resilient. As she had already made the acquaintance of others in town while helping the Home Children arrive at their placements, she simply asks for advice and support from those she’s met along the way, and she manages to finally feel at home in the small town of Forest Mills.

But that’s not the end of the story. A local young man has caught Sarah’s eye, and she his. As in any good epic story, the relationship between Sarah and Richard is not at all straightforward, and an assorted cast of characters surrounds Sarah, both helping and hindering in equal measure.

The ending surprised me, and left me wanting to know more about what happens to Sarah – and Gordon shared that she is considering a sequel.

When asked how this book came to be, Gordon shared that she and Allen were looking for an excuse to spend more time together after Gordon moved back to the Kingston area after retirement.

“Ruth and I have known each other for over 40 years,” she told Kingstonist in an interview.

“Ruth lives in Forest Mills, a small hamlet on the Salmon River, a 10-minute drive north of Napanee. When she and her husband bought the 40+ acre lot and built their house, Hugh found documents indicating that James McKitterick, an early resident of the area [who features in the novel], had tried to sell shares in his Town Plan, hoping to take advantage of the boom he foresaw. Unfortunately, Road 41 bypassed Forest Mills in favour of Roblin, so the prosperity he envisioned never materialized.”

Intrigued by this piece of local history, the women chose to base their story in Forest Mills “to bring the area to life once again,” Gordon explained.

“Originally, we wanted to set the novel during the rebellions; however, when our research in the archives in the Lennox and Addington Museum turned up little about 1837-38, but plenty about the 1870s, we switched our focus.”

Fascinated by the idea that ancestors of friends to live across the Salmon River from Ruth had owned the sawmill and shingle mill in Forest Mills, the pair built on the idea of exploring how the families in the area may have lived and worked.

“We started there with Richard as the main character but, as we threw around ideas, we decided on Sarah, the servant orphaned in London instead. Sarah’s quest for family brings her to Canada where she meets Richard,” Gordon stated.

“I have always been interested in the Home Children. We discovered that the first were brought to Canada in 1869 by Annie Macpherson, who predated Dr. Thomas Barnardo (the name most commonly associated with this child immigration scheme). Home Children seemed a perfect way to link Sarah’s and Richard’s journeys. And Macpherson’s distributing home was located in Belleville.”

The first draft of this book took about five years, according to Gordon.

“Historical fiction takes a lot of research. Ruth drew on her experience living on a farm outside Ottawa during part of her childhood. I spent three days at Upper Canada Village (The photograph of the sawmill there is on the front cover.) We consulted knowledgeable people such as the author of a book about the distributing home in Belleville; a member of the family who bought Gibbard Furniture from the original owners; an authority on historical maps; and a gun expert. We read books about Newburgh Academy, Home Children, the Bahamas, Marchmont Home and used online historical, geographic and etymological resources,” she detailed.

After a professional fourth edit revealed many areas that needed attention, the pair attempted an edit while on holiday together in PEI. While Gordon remained task-oriented, Allen did not enjoy the editing process.

“Eventually, Ruth decided that editing was not the fun that writing had been and turned the whole project over to me,” Gordon outlined.

“I left the manuscript for a couple of years. When I returned to it, I recognized gaps in the story and wrote two more subplots, working them into the story from the beginning. I did fill Ruth in on what I was doing, but she was dealing with her husband’s illnesses and subsequent death – a terrible blow to us all.”

A writers group provided Gordon support, and “honest, constructive feedback that improved the story immensely,” she revealed.

“Although Ruth and I had slashed 100,000 words, when I finished the final manuscript, the length was still over 186,000 words – a daunting length for traditional presses, who turned down the opportunity to publish the book. Early readers had enjoyed the complexity of the novel and enthusiastically supported my decision to self-publish, feeling that the current interest in Home Children and the fact that the story is set locally would draw in historical fiction enthusiasts.”

This reader agrees – anyone who enjoys historical fiction, especially with the focus on the local area, will enjoy reading this 450+ page novel.

The pair launched their novel in December 2023, and chose not to have a proper book launch event so close to Christmas.

“Sales of our novel have been brisk, necessitating a second printing, and the feedback has been gratifying,” Gordon shared. “One person borrowed Finding Home from a friend, but halfway through the book, decided to buy her own copy. Several people have asked hopefully if there will be a sequel. I’m considering it.”

Gordon will be holding a few writer events this spring.

  • On Saturday, Apr. 13, 2024, she will be at Books on Main in Bath from 2 to 4 p.m. doing a book reading and book signing, with financial assistance from The Canada Council for the Arts through The Writers’ Union of Canada.
  • On Saturday, May 25, 2024, find her at the South Frontenac Museum, 5595 Road 38, Hartington, holding a presentation, Where Fact Meets Fiction, at 2 p.m. She will explore interesting tidbits of the story and further explore local connections.

Finding Home is available to purchase at Novel Idea in Kingston, Trousdale’s General Store in Sydenham, Books on Main in Bath, or from Gordon directly. Reach out to her at [email protected].

Jessica Foley is the Assistant Editor and Lead Content Writer at Kingstonist, and is a passionate reader. When time allows, Jessica reads books written by local authors and offers Kingstonist readers her own take on a book review, with an overview of the storyline, some insights from the local authors, and her thoughts on what she’s just read. To submit ideas on local books/authors for Jessica to consider, email her at [email protected].

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