________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 24. . . .February 26, 2010


Bitter, Sweet.

Laura Best.
Halifax, NS: Nimbus, 2009.
144 pp., pbk., $10.95.
ISBN 978-1-55109-736-7.

Grades 5-7 / Ages 10-12.

Review by Ruth Sands.

**** /4



One evening Mama showed me the metal tin in her dresser drawer and made me count the money that was inside. My hand trembled as I reached in and removed the paper bills. There was more money in that little tin than I had ever thought of seeing at one time. Through all her years of penny-pinching and making do, Mama had put a small fortune aside: a whole big stack of ones, twos, and five dollar bills—money not even Daddy knew she had. She admitted that she had started saving before we moved to Dalhousie.

“Your uncle Tom slipped me a hundred dollars after the funeral,” she said. “Shoved it in my dress pocket with your father standing right there in the room. He said that Mum wanted me to have it. And it was fair of him, Pru. He didn’t have to do it.

I’ve thought about it at least a hundred times, the fact that he didn’t have to give me anything. But I couldn’t tell your father. You know what your father was like. When he had his mind made up about something there was no one could change it. I knew if I told him it would just set him off again. Look how he behaved when Tom sent that parcel. And the honest truth was I didn’t know what he’d do with the money. I thought he’d waste it on something we didn’t need. Your father was impulsive that way. A man with big dreams.

” I could hear the desperation in her voice as she tried to explain it to me. When she was finished talking, she took my hand in hers. “Tom isn’t a bad man, Pru, no matter what your father thought,” she said with a sigh. I guess him giving that money to Mama proved it, at least in her mind.“This money will keep the family together after I’m gone,” she told me. “It’s for you and Jesse to know about and no one else.”

Bitter, Sweet, by Laura Best, is the story of the Burbidge children as they try and make a life for themselves in a secluded spot in the interior of Nova Scotia. Set mainly in the present in 1948, the reader is introduced to Pru Burbidge, the eldest girl and narrator, as she waits to see if the car that has arrived is ‘the law.’ She and her siblings are living in constant fear that someone will realize they are on their own and, therefore, take them into foster care and split them up.

     The children’s tale is a sad one. Their father is a drinker and a gambler with big dreams and little wherewithal to make them come true. He moved his family into an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and then abandoned them when he lost his nerve to work in the logging industry. Their mother does her best to keep the family together and solvent. With the help of Mr. Dixon, a social worker, she manages to apply for welfare money and family allowance, and with their father’s long-time friend Reese there to help with things that need doing around the house, the family survives. But soon Pru’s mother takes sick and, as she realizes that she won’t be getting better, she starts to prepare her children to survive on their own. She warns them that, if people know she’s gone, then the children will be seized and split up and that it is up to Pru and her older brother to make sure that doesn’t happen. When neighbours begin to suspect that there is something suspicious going on in the Burbidge household, the children take drastic measures to make sure that they honour the promises that they made to their mother. After the return and subsequent re-abandonment by their father, the children are forced to realize that they need help from family and the community around them.

     Best has done an amazing job crafting this novel. The story flows smoothly from present, to recent past, to distant past and all the points in between. The reader is never lost as Pru shifts from the actions of the present, to her recollections of her mother’s instructions in the last days of her life, to the memories of the events that have led to where the family is now. Pru is a strong voice for the narrator and resounds with all the passion, sadness and resignation that the children are feeling. The reader really gets to know each of the children through Pru’s experiences and really cares about their plight. You want the children to succeed in their efforts to keep going on their own, while at the same time hoping that someone will come along who can give them a real home and give them back at least a part of their childhood.

     Along with the strong story telling and fascinating characters, Best also give us a good sense of Nova Scotia in the 1940’s with her descriptions of the small Dalhousie community. Daily household activities, the employment situation, and social welfare at the time are all detailed without bogging down the story. This novel is a real treat of a read and is highly recommended.

Highly Recommended.

Ruth Sands is a freelance writer from Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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