“The Boarding House”
“The Boarding House” is engaging historical fiction for young readers and a finalist in the First Book category of the High Plains Book Awards. Author Marcia Melton, former teacher and librarian, draws upon her long family history in Montana for facts and atmosphere.
The story takes place in 1914, a time when there were two very important issues in Montana politics: women’s suffrage and the rights of miners and their families. Emmie Hynes, an 11-year-old, is the central figure. The main theme, care and support of family and friends in times of emotional and physical hardship, is demonstrated through the relationships between Emmie and her mother, her brother Conrad, her best friend Dorothy, and others living in a small Montana town.
Some adults might find this believable story a bit sentimental, but I doubt most 10- or 11-year-olds would be troubled. “The Boarding House” is filled with simple but important details and descriptions of such things as a two-room schoolhouse, a box social, a suffrage rally with Jeanette Rankin, and a major fire. The historical information is meted out in a way that falls easily into place. For example, Melton writes that for their ride in a “shiny black touring car” from Phillipsburg to Butte, “ Mama told Emmie to wear her yellow pinafore because yellow, white, gold and purple were the colors the suffragettes, the ladies working for the vote, wore. ... Emmie felt dressed for Sunday.” Throughout the book, Melton has smoothly integrated fact and fiction so that readers, drawn into a heartfelt story, barely notice being educated.
The tragic death of Emmie’s father in a mining accident is the event that moves the family from Butte to Phillipsburg. It is there that Emmie’s mother, with daily help from Emmie and Conrad, runs a boarding house. The death of a parent and the difference between Emmie’s response and her brother’s is written with sensitivity and is appropriate for young readers. On Emmie’s first trip back to Butte, Melton writes, “Emmie had thought it would be fun to see Butte again, but it wasn’t ... her thoughts went back to the days in their old house. Right back to the day when a man had arrived at their door and told them that a hoist at the mine had gone out of control, dropping the wire cage deep into the mine.” Mrs. Hynes travels repeatedly to Butte to work with a lawyer who tries in vain to secure for the family financial help from the mining company. Safety and compensation for families whose men were injured or killed while working in the mines is also dealt with in a manner suitable for young readers.
“The Boarding House,” which includes excellent discussion topics, is for classroom and home, a book for all pre-adolescents but especially intriguing for those children who live and attend school in Montana.
Martha Cochrane is a Billings author. She has published one chapbook and writes occasionally for The Billings Outpost.