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Friday, October 1, 2010

Queen of Hearts, written by Martha Brooks. Groundwood, 2010. $14.95 ages 12 and up

  "In my heart of hearts I've always wanted a sixteenth birthday party. Yet even though it falls on an apparently special day, winter solstice, I'm not holding my breath - no pun intended.
   Sunday, again. Six days after my pneumothorax, and the great day has at last arrived finding Signy, the rich city girl, and me, the poor country girl, sitting as usual on bedpans.
   TB, I'm beginning to discover, is an equal-opportunity kind of disease. The only requirement seems to be that you have lungs."

Martha Brooks never lets me down! I eagerly anticipate each new book, and she does not disappoint. I finished one book last night and decided that I would just 'start' this new one. I began with a chapter or two in mind...not a good I was half-way through when I finally had to turn out the light. This morning, having nothing urgent to do, I picked it up again. Ah, the second half is now history! And I'm not sorry that I didn't get the laundry started, or the kitchen cupboard sorted, or even an early morning shower. I am instead, left to savor the story of a young, headstrong, healthy, opinionated girl whose life is stopped in its tracks when she contracts tuberculosis.

We meet Marie-Claire Cote in the summer of 1940. She is the eldest child in the Cote family, with a younger brother and sister. Her Uncle Gerard arrives in need of a place to stay, and stay he does, until failing health and a tuberculosis diagnosis sends him to the Pembina Hills Sanitarium where he dies.  Unfortunately for the three children in the family, they are soon battling this debilitating and threatening disease, each with a variation in symptoms. Luc, who has always been susceptible to illness cannot fight the dreaded disease and eventually dies. The family is devastated. Josee, the youngest, responds well to her treatment and is soon discharged.

As we live with Marie-Claire through the prescribed treatment...complete bed rest, sleeping in the outdoors despite the freezing Manitoba temperatures, and few visitors...we come to understand the terrible toll tuberculosis took on those afflicted with it. She watches patients arrive and die, becomes aware that many have been there for long periods of time.  She is angry, bored, sorrowful and anxious to find her way out of the prison that keeps her trapped, awaiting good health.   Her friendship with Signy, her roommate is complicated. Signy is one year older, but has been ill for seven years. She counts on Marie-Claire to help her find solace and some sunshine in each day. It is a formidable challenge. For two years they struggle together through the process of healing.  When a new roommate arrives, she brings a change for the two young women...she is a fiddler and that helps them make a connection with some of the young men who are recovering in another building. They are healing and closer to full recovery. Marie-Claire meets and falls for Jack Hawkins, who was her brother's roommate. A move from the infirmary to Creighton Cottage affords her some freedom, but she is drawn back to Signy in an attempt to help her continue her healing.

Martha Brooks is a writer whose characters resonate with readers for the long term. Marie-Claire is not easily forgetton and that is a grand compliment to the author's insight and research. She spent her early years living at the Manitoba Sanitorium in Ninette, Manitoba where her father was a doctor. That setting and her remembrances of her experiences there provided the inspiration for this remarkable story. It is hard to imagine that world, but she brings it vividly to life for her readers. She knows much and shares it all, with candor and no-holds-barred. Her story is a fictional account of a part of Manitoba's rich history.

My husband's parents both spent time at the 'San' in Ninette. I wish I had asked more about life as they lived it then and how they were treated in the community as a result of contracting the dread disease. Isn't that what happens too often?

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