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Fiction Literary

The Difference

by (author) Marina Endicott

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Sep 2019
Literary, Siblings, Historical
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2019
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2020
    List Price

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From one of our most critically acclaimed and beloved storytellers comes a sweeping novel set on board the Morning Light, a Nova Scotian merchant ship sailing through the south pacific in 1912.

Kay and Thea are half-sisters, separated in age by almost twenty years, but deeply attached. When their stern father dies, Thea returns to Nova Scotia for her long-promised marriage to the captain of the Morning Light. But she cannot abandon her orphaned young sister, so Kay too embarks on a life-changing voyage to the other side of the world.

At the heart of The Difference is a crystallizing moment in Micronesia: Thea, still mourning a miscarriage, forms a bond with a young boy from a remote island and takes him on board as her own son. Over time, the repercussions of this act force Kay, who considers the boy her brother, to examine her own assumptions--which are increasingly at odds with those of society around her--about what is forgivable and what is right.

Inspired by a true story, Endicott shows us a now-vanished world in all its wonder, and in its darkness, prejudice and difficulty, too. She also brilliantly illuminates our present time through Kay's examination of the idea of "difference"--between people, classes, continents, cultures, customs and species. The Difference is a breathtaking novel by a writer with an astonishing ability to bring past worlds vividly to life while revealing the moral complexity of our own.

About the author

Marina Endicott’s second novel, Good to a Fault, was winner of the regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best Book Award, Canada and the Caribbean, a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and one of The Globe and Mail’s Top 100 Books of 2008. Her debut novel, Open Arms, was a finalist for the 2001 Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award and broadcast on CBC Radio’s Between the Covers. Endicott’s stories have been featured in Coming Attractions and shortlisted for the Journey Prize and the Western Magazine Awards. She was born in Golden, BC and grew up in Vancouver, Nova Scotia and Toronto. She has been an actor, director, playwright and editor, and was Dramaturge of the Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre for many years. She lives in Edmonton.

Marina Endicott's profile page


  • Winner, Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction
  • Winner, City of Edmonton Book Prize
  • Short-listed, Georges Bugnet Award for Novel

Excerpt: The Difference (by (author) Marina Endicott)


The ship became the world. They had a house to live in, the long skylighted saloon and their cabins, Aft; and the deck for their out­door walking path, as long as they kept out of the way of the work. Another flight of stairs down from the Aft saloon, they were allowed to visit the trim galley, fitted out like a carpenter’s bench with every needful tool on its hook, all polished copper and wood and steel-lined bins. The crew lived farther down, where Kay was not to go. Deepest below in the hold it was all case oil and coal, but Kay loved the orderly smell of the upper cargo deck: tea and mahogany, the familiar church-reek of tallow candles and sweeter beeswax, pine and cedar and other woody smells, spices she did not know. It was dark, but once one’s eyes grew accustomed, the rows of pillars between boxes were like the great roof posts in the stable at Aunt Lydia’s; and that was the other smell, the bleached stable smell of chickens and three well-kept young pigs, waiting to be roast pork. Sunlight slanting down through bulkheads lit upon nothing grimy or rank. “A tidy ship, no slatternliness about her,” Francis said—not bragging, but assuring Thea that she would be comfortable and safe.
Still, it was a little lonely, to walk through this world a few steps behind two people who were mostly focused on each other. And not what Kay was used to, having had all Thea’s attention until now.
Over the long ocean day, broken into portions by meals and the brass bell that rang to indicate changes of the watch, Kay wandered this new world, alone among the crowd of crew, shy to speak to the men but not wanting to be in Thea’s pocket all day. She found a hiding place or two; in that way she was like old Seaton the ship’s carpenter, dreaming in his lifeboat. In the afternoon, when the wind rose and they put on sail and the ship began to slant into true motion, Francis asked Mr. Best (that was the name of the lump-nosed second mate from the beautiful night) to show her the wooden seat tucked in at the starboard side of the fo’c’sle, where she might be safe out of the hubbub but still look out and perhaps spot land as they came closer.
Kay felt a softening toward Francis, almost tender; prickling back to caution whenever he shouted orders or was brisk with Mr. Wright or made one of the other seamen grovel or snap-to and say, Aye aye, Sir! He was easy in command. When he came down to supper, he began training Kay in the way of the sea, but he was never Father’s sort of schoolmaster, and she understood his instruc­tion was directed more to Thea than to herself.
“A barque can outperform a barquentine at any run, far better at sailing to windward than a full-rigged ship might be, at rising to the wind—well! Easier to handle in all seas. Perhaps the Morning Light is not the best runner, but we make compromise our servant and take the best elements of the fore-and-aft rig and the full, to be the most efficient rig at sea—and with a much-reduced crew—” In his enthusiasm, Francis had moved to boastfulness, which came oddly from his mouth; he was usually inclined to understatement. “Twenty-two this trip, well in hand, allowing for mishap or illness. Let’s see the Flying Dutchman race round the Horn with less than seventy!”
Thea smiled for his keenness, and Kay saw that she held her tongue from saying fewer to correct him.

Kay did not care for this new entity, Francis-and-Thea. She worried over what it might mean, how her own life would be changed, or Thea’s. All this time out at sea, yet her sister had not recovered her usual quiet vitality, but still sat sopping and droop­ing over the teapot at breakfast, and more often than not went back to lie down white-faced in their cabin, eyes shaded with one hand and her mouth in a wavering line.

Their bed was over-large for a ship; Francis had had it made especially. Carved edge boards kept the featherbed from shifting, but made it uncomfortable to sit on the side to comb Thea’s hair or pat her hands with rosewater or any other thing that might be nice for her. If only Thea would get up and come out on deck into the delicious wind, she would feel better.

Nausea did not stop her from nagging Kay about lessons and her sampler and the various ways she ought to be spending her days, and demanding to be shown a page of conjugations. “Amo, amas, amat . . .” Thea said, not in a loving voice, and, “Amamus, amatis, amant,” Kay mouthed back, clacking like a ventriloquist’s dummy, but she sighed and fetched her books. She was of course eons past the baby verb to love ; she wondered if that was the only Latin verb Thea recalled.


Another long day slid like water through water, but the next morn­ing was different. Kay dreamed in the early dawn, a quiet dream of a sick woman in a metal bed: white-faced, blue shadows under her eyes, a bald head. The walls were green behind her and the sheets yellow; the colours of the dream were strangely clear. Was it her mother, in heaven? She had a sweet face, not like Kay’s. Perhaps if Kay were kinder. Thea said one’s face only became beautiful through good deeds and loving thoughts.
The dream did not frighten Kay, but it made her worry about her sister dying, as both their mothers had died, so instead of dress­ing and running up the ladder to the deck, she went into the saloon.
Thea was in the saloon already, drinking tea, looking very ordi­nary. Kay must have slept late. The strangeness of the morning puzzled her still, until she realized—it was the stillness that puzzled her. The ship rested at anchor, tossing only lightly in the harbour’s swell and seep. They had come to Boston in the night.

After she had eaten and drunk her tea and redone her copy­book from yesterday to Thea’s cross-grained satisfaction, Kay waited at the rail by the ladder to the boat for Francis and Thea to be finished their farewell. Thea was to have come to the shops to fit Kay out with the necessary clothing but Francis said she should lie down this morning. They were debating it still, Kay could hear through the open skylight—what Francis was to buy, and whether he should bring Thea a poultice or a tisane or something from the pharmacist.

Perhaps Thea would feel better on dry land again? Kay did not care, she only wanted to get on with it or begin to shriek like the gulls that wheeled about the ships. Her head hurt, and her throat hurt too. Nobody bothered about her, only about Thea. They had only come to Boston harbour because they were forced to keep her with them, only because of her unwelcome presence. If only Thea had not had her half-sister coming along so inconvenient, they would be on the rolling main with the wind set fair for Africa.

Kay’s spirit reared a little within her chest, because she was a person, and if they did not see and understand her, she might jump off this ship into the dinghy and row to the wharf and walk the tilt­ing wooden walkways into Boston, looming behind the dark ware­houses, and disappear in its alleys never to be seen again by those who did not understand her anyway.

But Francis came up behind her, saying, as if she had not been waiting and waiting, “Now, young Kay, off we go, and smartly— Mr. Best must make the chandler’s office before noon.”

The dinghy went over the waves in quite a different movement from the ship, plunging and backing as the oars ploughed on, Mr. Best (he gave her a wink with one kind piggy eye) and Jacky Judge at the oars. The back of Jacky’s neck and his arms had a matte smoothness Kay did not mind looking at, but not when he could see her. She dipped a hand into the harbour water and let it run along, cupping the moving wave. Behind them the Morning Light, all her sails stowed, receded into a low shape in the water, a collection of black sticks against the foggy sky.

The usual commotion of ropes and mooring held them up at the little wharf, and then Francis went striding down the shaking boards so that Kay had to run to keep up. Her legs were used to tilting now. They walked (too quickly, Francis never slacking his pace) up to the tramline. The tramcar came and plunged them down and then up into the great walls and crackling, energetic depth of the city.
Francis was not one for talking as they went, and neither was Kay, so that suited them both. But she was still caught between fright and fury at being sent off alone with him—whom she hardly knew and was half-scared of, although she would not say so to Thea. He was older than Thea, who was nearly thirty now, quite an old spinster to be new-married, Cousin Olive said, and how sad that she wasted her youth raising Kay.

As the tramcar turned onto Summer Street, Francis pointed to Filene’s, the big store Thea had said they must visit. He ordered Kay to look sharp and hopped off as the tram lurched to a stop, turning back to give a hand to Kay.

She scorned to take it—oof, the pavement was farther than her legs had thought. They hustled to the curb through the welter of traffic and looked up at the brown bulk of the building, great glass doors glowing with brass and interior golden light. Beautiful doors, sectioned like an orange in a skin of brass hoops, went round in a glass drum. It was like skipping rope, to find the right moment to enter the carousel, and then take tiny, rapid steps inside the moving wedge of floor, all your feet were allotted. Inside, the light was startling, rays and beams sparking off myriad edges of glass and brass. The brilliance sent Kay back a step upon the threshold, almost back into the revolving swirl.

Francis barked, “Ladies’ haberdashery?” at a nearby girl in a dark skirt and a trim blue shirtwaist with a pretty collar that Kay wished she might have. The girl (whose hair was perfectly swept into a Gibson, whose teeth were jagged, whose little boot toes peeped beneath her skirt) pointed to the moving stairs.

Kay held tight to the handrail, one step up from Francis. He had ushered her on in front, as if he was perhaps afraid of the motion himself. Or to catch her, if she panicked at the step-off and fell. But she had been on moving stairs before, in Montreal, on their way from Blade Lake; she knew to lift her foot and hop as the treadle-step approached the end. It was Francis who stumbled a little.

A fearsome woman, shaped like a prow and jacketed up to the throat, took Francis’s order from his hand. “Serge skirts, two; white waists, two; middy blouses, four—yes, yes . . .” She ran her eye down the list Thea had written and turned to inspect Kay’s legs. “Stockings.”

“Very well,” Francis said, like he said at dinner to excuse Mr. Wright from table. “All that you think fit. We had time for nothing but her boots before we sailed.”

Kay stood it. In the close dressing room, people put blouses over her head and measured her waist and her bust, which she did not like. She told them she had no need of camiknickers, but the prow-fronted woman paid no mind and set aside six plain, ugly ones and a number of vests. The middy blouses were fetched and stacked. One of the serge skirts fit; an underling took a seam-ripper to another to let the waistband out, squatting on a stool in the corner. Then she hemmed both skirts quickly, with long, slanting stitches Thea would not have let Kay set.

The last item on the list was white muslin dresses, two. The under­ling rolled in a rack of mixed whites, embroidered or plain, sleeves small and large. The manageress picked out one that had nothing nice about it at all, and one Kay liked, which almost felt comfort­able. She did not see why she could not have two just the same, and said so, and the manageress nodded. The dresses went over her head and back again too, and then two plain shifts that needed tucks taken, until she thought she might screech. But she did not let herself, because she had won over the dresses.

At last it was done. While the packages were wrapped in blue paper, Francis stood by the counter, legs wide-braced, jingling coins in his pocket. He reached over to tweak Kay’s cheek and said, “Luncheon? Cake? Come, sprogget, we might as well amuse ourselves.”

Because Thea was not there, he meant. His humour and his kindness were both too heavy for Kay to help him with.

Down the moving staircase, taking the view of the marble hall below; then they burst out into the street, afternoon sun now light­ing the other side of the cobbles. Francis hailed a horse cab and stowed the package behind. He told the man they were starved, and the horse gee’d up. The cab jiggled over the stones, in a quiet way, to the Westminster Hotel, where the rooftop restaurant had gay striped awnings attached to a set of Grecian ladies holding up their spears. First of all, per Francis’s orders, petits fours; then a dainty plate of cut sandwiches. Francis had a bowl of chowder—to test the Boston version, he said. He was pleasant company. Kay wished she did not feel a sense of caution. But she remembered how careful they had always to be with Father, who as principal of the Blade Lake School also held a position of authority. And she did not know Francis as Thea did.

“If only your sister was not having so hard a—” He stopped.

Kay took another sandwich: chicken with a spiced yellow dress­ing, and raisins. Francis did not start again.

“Hard a what?” Kay asked, at the end of her sandwich, which was delicious.

His face had gone stiff. Was he angry with her? “Well, perhaps she will tell you herself, when she thinks it time,” he said.

He seemed to think she was seven years old instead of going on thirteen.

There was one last yellow sandwich, and a pity to waste it, so Kay took it. Before she bit, she said, “I have not had a moment’s queasiness. I have my mother’s strong stomach.”

“Thea’s mother was more delicately reared.”

Thea’s mother Maria was, had been, Maria Wetmore. She was Francis’s second cousin—all those Yarmouth people were related— so he would not hear a word against her. Kay’s own mother, Eliza Warner, was just a country girl from the land north of Battleford. But she died too, when she was about to have another baby. Kay thought about that other little babe sometimes, the dead brother or sister. And of her young mother, whom she could not remember at all. Perhaps it was her sweet face that Kay had dreamed of that morning.

When they had finished, they took the brass elevator back down to the street and the uniformed man gave them the package with Kay’s clothes and whistled for another cab. They were bowling along the street when Francis leaned forward and tapped the man.

“Stop a moment,” he told him, and the cab pulled up, the horse blowing wetly through his mouth as if disgusted.

They went into a little shop with gold lettering on dark-glassed windows. Francis walked up and down the glass-topped counter, peering into the black velvet depths. At last he pointed, and the clerk took out a pearl pin shaped like a new moon. Plain, but pretty. Kay approved.

“Do not tell Thea,” Francis said when they were back in the buggy. “We’ll keep it a secret until later.” He looked confused and mysterious.

In a cascading shuffle of thinking and discarding—Thea’s birth­day long past, and Christmas too long ahead, until later when?—Kay saw that of course Thea must be going to have a baby, as people almost always did, once they were married. Once vague things had been done to them that did not bear thinking of. While Francis was paying the driver and hailing Mr. Best, Kay turned her head to the salt-smelling sea and blew through her mouth like a horse.

Editorial Reviews


“One of those very, very rare books: It breaks your heart (over and over), is heavy with sorrow and has no neat endings or answers—and yet, it also opens you up to wonder, making you yearn to know more, see more and love more.” —The Globe and Mail
“There is so much in this book to linger over. . . . [A] novel to return to again and again. . . . [A] quiet, elegant triumph.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Endicott artfully combines a bracing world voyage and the equally transformative journey of a young woman discovering and honouring her genuine nature. With her passion for all the creatures and cultures she encounters, Kay shines as a timely embodiment of the solace of human connection across time and space.” —Booklist (starred review)

“The Difference is such an immersive reading experience, the kind that makes one think, and think again . . . . I loved being at sea with Kay and Thea, and found it hard to part from them. How movingly the novel considers the otherness between people, between the world and us, between human and all other life. . . . Its boldness has a deep humility. Marina Endicott allows her characters to exist without being afraid of their (and our) moral dilemmas and failures, or the gap between our intentions and our understanding. She also writes about goodness so well—so beautifully and joyfully. . . . I feel as if I could close my eyes and still be at sea with these characters. A wonderful, brilliant book." —Madeleine Thien, Giller Prize-winning author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing

"A beautiful book, so lovely in its graveness, and in its comedy … The cut of the prose is so keen and the happenings are so finely wrought that it contorts where it can't help but contort, around the places where unanswerable grief comes into our lives." —Helen Oyeyemi


“Delightful, tragic, gloriously elegiac and riddled with puns—Close to Hugh is just like life, only so much more beautiful for being art.” —Lynn Coady, author of Strange Heaven
“I love Marina Endicott's writing. I adore the exquisite, unfussy grace of her language, the dexterity and range of her storytelling. Close to Hugh is slyly humorous, delightfully and cheekily observant of contemporary manners, and most importantly, filled with warmth and generosity. It was an absolute thrill to disappear into this book, to spend time with each and every character.” “Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap
“Oddly original and charming . . . the novel addresses huge and general questions about the meaning of life and the universe with remarkable specificity.” “The Globe and Mail
“[A] pun-filled examination of the ways art and life rub up against each other . . . a joyful four-door, intergenerational farce.” “National Post
“Ambitious . . . watching two people discover each other after having been denied happiness for so long is a delight. . . . a genuine page-turner.” “The Vancouver Sun

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