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Marianne Brandis (1938-)


Canadian writer Marianne Brandis is noted for her ability to recreate convincingly the Canada of the early nineteenth century—particularly in and around the city of Toronto—for young readers. As Jeanette Lynes and S. R. MacGillivray noted in Canadian Children's Literature, "Brandis provides . . . meticulous research in re-creating the lives of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary historical events." In novels such as her "Emma" series—The Tinderbox, The Quarter-Pie Window, and The Sign of the Scales—Brandis gives her teen protagonists multi-layered pasts, complex personalities, and challenging problems to overcome. "I do not see myself as specifically a children's writer," she once told SATA. "I write for adults as well and find that there is a great deal of common ground."

Brandis was born in The Netherlands, but moved to Canada at the close of World War II. "English is my second (though now most comfortable) language," she once explained to SATA. "We came to Canada just before my ninth birthday, and as part of the process of learning English, I read a great deal. Knowing more than one language meant that I was aware of the various ways in which different languages work; therefore I was constantly exploring alternative ways of saying things. That, I have found, is a very useful habit for a writer to have."

Brandis began writing as a way to channel her imagination. As she once told SATA, "I began writing because I wanted to do what my favourite writers did—create imaginary worlds and explore the real one." At university, she enrolled in a creative writing course; "the most important thing it taught me," Brandis recalled, "was how to read other people's books so as to learn from them. For the rest, I have learned by trial and error, and by means of useful criticism from my friends and readers."

Writing and researching her novels takes up most of Brandis's time. She once admitted, "my hobbies and other activities are mostly connected with writing. I read a great deal, and most of what I read is relevant to the subjects or style of my own work. I am very interested in history; when I travel I make a point of visiting museums and historical places. For me it is impossible to distinguish 'hobby' from 'research.' My novels are concerned with the way people actually lived in the past or with the more private side of the lives of prominent people. Wherever I go, and in whatever I read, I look for facts and insights which illuminate this."

Brandis's first novel for young adults, 1982's The Tinderbox, recounts the adventures of fourteen-year-old Emma Anderson and her younger brother, John. The two live in a frontier hamlet near the nineteenth-century city of York, now known as Toronto. The story follows the two siblings as they lose the rest of their family members in a tragic fire and have to decide what to do next. The Tinderbox was followed three years later by The Quarter-Pie Window. In this work, Emma and John are forced to depend on their wits and ability to survive after being taken in by their businesslike but not motherly guardian Aunt MacPhail, who takes advantage of her niece and nephew and employs them as servants in her hotel. Emma is initially angry about her difficult new life, in which she is burdened by the responsibility of caring for John and her grieving about her parents' death, as well as the need to adjust to life and work in the hotel and the town. But she gradually draws upon her inner strength and compassion and is finally able both to accept her parents' failings and to take responsibility for her own situation. "The fine research and authentic flavour that characterized The Tinderbox are present in this work as well," Anneli Pekkonen noted of The Quarter-Pie Window, although she added in her Books in Canada review that certain characters lacked development. William Blackburn, writing in Canadian Children's Literature, praised the psychological aspects of the novel, stating that Brandis "succeeds in putting meaningful adventure well within the grasp of her intended audience."

In the continuing "Emma" saga, sixteen-year-old Emma is sent to work at a shop in 1830's Upper Canada where a mystery is unfolding. (Cover illustration by James Bentley.)

The Sign of the Scales further continues the story of Emma and John, this time following Emma—now nearly sixteen—to her new job at a general store in town. While learning the ropes as a shopkeeper, Emma begins to suspect that not all business transacted at the store is legal. She bravely decides to confront the smuggling operation she discovers, despite consequences that might threaten a love interest. Reviewing the 1990 novel in Canadian Children's Literature, Diane Watson commented that while the protagonist's overly judgmental attitudes might prove off-putting to some readers, "Brandis has achieved a good balance of narrative and historical detail." Callie Israel was even more enthusiastic in her Quill & Quire review, maintaining that Brandis's "prose is rich with pungent descriptions and authentic details." Israel added, "Emma is a believable and engaging heroine whose feelings and actions will ring true with contemporary young adults."

Brandis focused on the early nineteenth century in 1992's Fire Ship, a coming-of-age novel that takes place during the War of 1812. Thirteen-year-old Daniel Dobson and his family have moved from the United States to York, Upper Canada, where his father and brother, both of whom are carpenters, help to build a British frigate. At first Daniel is excited by the possibility of going to war aboard the completed ship, the Sir Isaac Brock. However, his attitude changes after he witnesses the brutality of war first-hand by working alongside a local surgeon to treat those who are wounded in the American invasion of the city, later known as the Battle of York. Praising Fire Ship as "a good novel," Anne Kelly added in her Canadian Materials review that "the issues it raises—from name calling to the realization that not all dreams come true—are real and of interest to young readers."

Brandis considers her 1996 novel, Rebellion: A Novel of Upper Canada, to be perhaps the most difficult book she has written because of the complexity of both its story line and character development. She also found it a challenge to weave fact and fiction seamlessly in the tale, which uses actual men and women from history. The story centers on fourteen-year-old Adam Wheeler, an emigrant from England whose arrival in the city of Toronto coincides with the Rebellion of 1837. While noting that the small-scale rebellion has rarely been taken seriously by modern historians, Brandis explained in Canadian Children's Literature that "wars are always frightening to the people who live where they take place, and especially to children. However the events are assessed by later historians, to the children who endure them they are violent, incomprehensible, and terrifying, the stuff of life-long anxieties and nightmares. Developing these ideas into a novel that would work as a story and at the same time give insight into history and human lives required much research, recollection, reflection—and revision." In the course of the novel the author unveils, through Adam's eyes, the politics of the time and contrasts the class unrest that prompts the rebellion with the situation in England during the same period. "Though he recognizes . . . that power resides with the rich and privileged in Upper Canada as in England, Adam nonetheless is encouraged to believe that class divisions are less strictly drawn in his new country," observed a Canadian Children's Literature critic. The reviewer noted that by the end of the novel Adam has expectations of "a future undreamt of in the hard land he left behind."

After finishing Rebellion, Brandis took a break from writing for young adult readers for several years. She completed Finding Words: A Writer's Memoir. Here she explored the ways in which her writing was rooted in her own life: in her experience of being a child in Holland during World War II, of being a child immigrant, of living on a pioneer farm in northern British Columbia, and other aspects of her life. This exploration provided valuable insights (for both herself and her readers, as she told SATA) into how her books came to be written, as regards both their content and the process of researching and writing.

Finding Words was praised by Canadian Children's Literature contributor Gary Draper, who wrote, "her gifts for the telling detail and the well-shaped anecdote serve her as well in illuminating her own life as in bringing to vivid reality her invented characters from the past." As Brandis told Draper in an interview, she found that the process of writing her memoirs taught her much about herself as an author. "The most important thing I learned was that my writings had all along been based much more closely on my own life than I had thought—my outer life but also, very significantly, my inner life," she said. "My characters were loners and introverts: so was I. Their inner lives and outer actions showed a pattern of fearfulness at first and then determined challenging of the fears: so did mine."

As she shared with SATA, Brandis has also written an unpublished, in-depth biography of her mother, who was a writer and whose published and unpublished work provide detailed and fascinating documentation of the life of a woman in the twentieth century. Brandis further described her mother as "a woman of letters who moved from one language to another, and who remained creative in spite of a decades-long struggle with severe rheumatoid arthritis."

Brandis told SATA, that she "is currently at work on a novel set in present-day Canada with flashbacks going back more than a century in the life of a fictional family, and on a memoir about being a single woman."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, July, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Quarter-Pie Window, pp. 1880-1881; September 1, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Tinderbox, p. 112.

Books in Canada, April, 1988, Anneli Pekkonen, review of The Quarter-Pie Window, pp. 23-24; October, 1990, p. 29.

Canadian Children's Literature, Volume 46, 1987, William Blackburn, review of The Quarter-Pie Window, pp. 76-77; Vol. 61, 1991, Diane Watson, review of The Sign of the Scales, pp. 85-87; Vol. 79, 1995, Jeanette Lynes and S. R. MacGillivray, review of Fire Ship, pp. 76-77; Vol. 84, 1996, review of Rebellion: A Novel of Upper Canada, p. 105, and Marianne Brandis, "Rebellion: The Back of the Tapestry," pp. 80-82; spring-summer, 2002, Gary Draper, interview with Brandis, pp. 82-99.

Canadian Literature, summer, 1998, J. R. Wytenbroek, review of Rebellion: A Novel of Upper Canada, pp. 159-160.

Canadian Materials, September, 1990, review of Sign of the Scales, pp. 219-220; January, 1993, Anne Kelly, review of Fire Ship, p. 15.

New Quarterly, fall, 2002, Marianne Brandis, "Past Present: Imagining and Writing History," pp. 18-33.

Quill & Quire, July, 1990, Callie Israel, review of The Sign of the Scales, p. 38; December, 1992, p. 28; September, 1996, review of Rebellion, p. 74.

Resource Links, December, 1996, review of Rebellion, p. 85; April, 2003, Laura Reilly, review of The Quarter-Pie Window, pp. 34-35.

School Library Journal, March, 1983, Lynette Tandy, review of The Tinderbox, pp. 186-187.

University of Toronto Quarterly, fall, 1992, T. L. Craig, "Special Nests," pp. 33-34.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Shennen Bersani (1961-) Biography - Personal to Mark Burgess Biography - PersonalMarianne Brandis (1938-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Writings, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Work in Progress