CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 1. . . .September 3, 2010
Queen of Hearts.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2010.
205 pp., pbk., $14.95.
Grades 8-11 / Ages 13-16.
Review by Joan Marshall.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
"Half a pound is half a pound," I tell her. "Better than nothing."
"Come on," I say. "This isn't a contest. Why don't you want to talk about it? You usually never want to stop talking."
"You want me to tell you the truth?"
"Sure." Okay, now she's going to speak her mind. Except maybe now I don't want to hear it. As Maman would say, careful what you wish for.
"I was twelve," she starts off, "when I was diagnosed with this stupid damn disease."
And she's even swearing! What will fall out of her mouth next?
"I didn't even have – you know – breasts." She lowers her voice at the word "breasts."
"We're alone, Signy. And you got your breasts."
"Small ones," she says with a sob.
"Oh, for pete's sake. Everybody's are different. Even cows."
"Yes, but now," she goes on, recovering herself, "when I try to stand up straight I can't because one shoulder is lower than the other and my back is humped on one side. Even if I get out of this place, even if I dress up in the prettiest, most expensive clothes in the world, I won't look like a normal girl and that's never going to change, now is it? Really it won't."
What can I say to that? She's right. It won't.
"And who will love me?" she adds in a small voice.
In the summer of 1940, Marie-Claire Cote is 15, a strong healthy girl with a 10-year-old brother Luc and a six-year-old sister Josee. Her father's delightful brother, Gerard, who's been riding the rails looking for work, comes to stay on the family farm, but he soon succumbs to tuberculosis and is moved to the local Pembina Hills Sanatorium where he dies. Then Marie-Claire and her siblings develop TB and find themselves battling this ugly disease in the same institution. Luc, the sickliest child, dies, while Josee responds to treatment and returns home fairly quickly, leaving Marie-Claire to suffer the boredom and despair of long-term illness. Marie-Claire develops a friendship with her roommate Signy, an Icelandic girl who has been ill for seven years. They struggle over the next two years through the excruciatingly slow recovery process, both of them writing to servicemen fighting overseas, whose letters trail off as they meet English girls. A new patient, young fiddle-playing Julie, helps them to attract boys from the Cottages who are healthier and closer to the end of their stay at the San. Marie-Claire falls in love with Jack Hawkins, another patient. After she moves out of the infirmary to Creighton Cottage, she commits to the difficulty of visiting and remaining friends with Signy, with whom she spends her Christmas pass when she could be going home to see her new baby brother and her family.
Marie-Claire is a good French Canadian farm girl who loses her faith but stretches her character toward adulthood and begins to look forward to the opportunity to take a university degree. She deeply loves her family and is hurt by her father's reluctance to visit, only understanding his guilt and pain as she becomes older. Uncle Gerard's fond nickname for Marie-Claire is "queen of hearts," a play on the word "hearts" to show that she is his beloved niece. When the San's chaplain shows Marie-Claire the magic trick of making the queen of hearts disappear from a pack of cards, she later wakes from a nap to find several queen of hearts cards in her bed and a book of poetry: she's the resilient character who will persist and recover from tragedy. Although Marie-Claire is a girl of her times, her fears, anger, rejection of God, and battle to be a good person will resonate with the intended reader. Secondary characters Jack, Signy and Mrs. Thompson the head nurse, are well-developed personalities who shine in their own right besides acting as foils for Marie-Claire's character.
The setting for Queen of Hearts, the TB sanatorium, is so realistic that you can smell the carbolic acid used to clean up after patients vomit. Descriptions of patients' symptoms and their treatments leave nothing to the imagination. Brooks uses her knowledge of TB sanatoriums, gained from her childhood spent at the Ninette, Manitoba San, where her father was on the medical staff, to great effect. From patients spending the nights sleeping outside on balconies despite the cold, to the nutritious plentiful food, to the naked sunbathing, Brooks creates a world that, although fortunately long disappeared, will horrify and fascinate today's young readers.
The writing appears effortlessly smooth, with the dialogue between characters moving the plot along so well. Marie-Claire tells the story in her own words in the present tense, creating a sense of urgency, including not only the necessary plot details but also her own internal thoughts.
Although this novel will clearly be historical fiction for today's young readers, it is a brilliantly written gem that will appeal to the thoughtful teen willing to read about Manitoba's rich past.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
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