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Book Review

The Root Cellar by Janet Lunn has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Twelve-year-old Rose Larkin’s parents were killed in a car wreck when she was 3. After that, she lived with her wealthy, but emotionally distant, grandmother in Fifth Avenue apartments. When her grandmother dies, she’s sent to live with Aunt Nan, her husband and their four boys in their ramshackle home near Lake Ontario in Canada.

Rose overhears her cousins talking about her snobbishness, and she is miserable in her new surroundings. She’s also perplexed when she encounters a little old woman dressed in clothing from 100 years in the past. The woman tells Rose she’s Mrs. Morrissay, and she seems surprised that Rose doesn’t know her. Rose wonders if she’s a ghost.

Rose discovers an abandoned root cellar. If she steps inside at just the right moment, she finds herself in the mid-1800s. She meets a girl her age named Susan. Susan works for the parents of a slightly older boy named Will Morrissay. Susan, Will and Rose enjoy a wonderful day together, and Rose never wants to leave.

She does go back to her aunt and uncle’s home, then returns to the cellar three days later to find Susan has aged three years. Will has gone off to fight in the Civil War. Even though the war has been over for some months, Susan has not heard anything from or about Will. Rose returns to modern day and does some research to find out where Will might have been fighting. Her cousin Sam shows her kindness, so she tells him about her experiences traveling through time.

Rose returns to Susan, and the two decide they must head to Washington, D.C., to find Will. Rose dresses like a boy to provide added protection on the trip. The two travel by train until they have to make a quick escape from a surly, drunken man at a stop.

Because of their escape, they miss the train, which is carrying all of their money, tickets and belongings. The girls work to earn money until they can afford to take the train again. They ask everyone they can about Will, and they eventually find him in Washington. His friend Steve has recently died, and Will blames himself for not getting the young man to a hospital sooner. Will tells the girls about the agonies of battle. They finally convince him to return to Canada with them.

The journey changes Rose from being a selfish, snobby girl into a brave young woman. She realizes she wants to return to her aunt, uncle and cousins’ home. Will helps her return to the root cellar in a terrible storm. She makes it back to present day, but the cellar is destroyed.

She can no longer travel back in time to visit her friends. Rose is sad about this but does her best to become part of her new family. They welcome her warmly, and she prepares a special Christmas meal for them. Mrs. Morrissey appears to her again, and Rose realizes she is actually Susan as an old woman. Susan tells Rose she married Will, and he lived for quite a while after the war. Rose knows she’s seeing Susan for the last time, but she feels content in her new life.

Christian Beliefs

When the girls tell a woman they’re going on a trip to look for Will, she tells them they should stay put. She says the Good Lord’s been running the world for this long, and He’ll keep doing it without their help. A woman on the train says God will provide for her family even though locusts ate their crops. A woman with whom the girls board prays over them at dinner until the soup gets cold. Susan says she’s not afraid of hard work, but she does dislike cold Christians because that’s not what God meant Christians to be. Will thinks Abe Lincoln’s face looks like the face of God. Susan murmurs prayers several times on the girls’ trip.

Other Belief Systems

Will’s mom says his family is cursed. He threatens to cast a spell on Susan if she tells his mother he’s going to war. Susan credits Rose with having good luck, which allowed her to help save Will. Mrs. Morrissey says she isn’t a ghost; she is simply able to shift through time.

Authority Roles

Rose’s aunt and uncle make a special effort to help her feel at home when they realize she’s struggling. Her grandmother and other older relatives cared for her needs but offered little affection.


The word d--n appears. Characters make exclamations like “Lord’s mercy!” A former soldier calls down “God’s curses” on the war, the army and his unfaithful wife. The word h--- is used to describe war and the hot weather. Will tells the girls how he watched young men being shot up and dying in war.


A soldier tells the girls his wife ran off with another man. She said it was because there was no money coming in while he was away at war. A man offers to buy Susan a pretty dress if she will show him a good time.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Theft: Soldiers sometimes steal food to survive. Rose runs off with a wad of money from a man who has failed to pay her for her work. After she’s far away, she realizes she got a few dollars more than he owed her. She feels guilty and wishes she could give it back.

Lying/Deception: Rose lies to her new family and others. She sneaks into her uncle’s car to go on a trip with them, even though she was forbidden to do so. She pretends to be a boy on her travels with Susan.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

10 and up


Janet Lunn






Record Label



First published in Canada by Lester & Orpen Dennys Limited, 1981; this edition published by Seal Books, an imprint of Random House of Canada


On Video

Year Published



Canadian Library Association Book of the Year, 1982


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