CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 24. . . .February 26, 2010
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.
Ruth Sands is a freelance writer from Vancouver, BC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.