Monday, December 20, 2010

Queen of Hearts

Toronto: Groundwood, c2010.
206 p.

Tuberculosis was a terrible diagnosis even just a few decades ago. The infectious nature of the disease led to the growth of Sanatoriums, in which the diseased were quarantined while they went through their lengthy treatments (some were there for years). There was a Sanatorium in Saskatoon, abandoned by the time I knew of it, but the great hulking empty building always fascinated me and yet spooked me when I was a young teen. I never broke in to go exploring like others we'd heard about; simply looking at it from a distance was creepy enough, and I have a couple of photos from a series that an artistic friend of mine created before the building disappeared in 1990.

So when I received an ARC of this teen novel, set during wartime in a prairie sanatorium, I immediately sat down and read the whole book.

Brooks spent her childhood on the grounds of the Ninette Sanatorium in Manitoba, since her father was on the medical staff, and she has created the fictional Pembina Hills Sanatorium as the setting of this story. But her familiarity with such a place is clear. The setting and the relationships between the patients are both clearly drawn and very believable. Brooks details some of the more uncomfortable treatments, such as naked sunbathing, sleeping outside on winter nights so the cold air could help the lungs, or laying absolutely still unable to do anything at all, not even read. She also mentions some of the disfiguring and invasive treatments that bad cases could suffer.

The basic plot is this: It is 1940, on the prairies of Manitoba. Marie-Claire Coté is the eldest of three children, whose lovable Uncle Gerard shows up tired out from riding the rails trying to find work. His exhaustion and constant cold turn out to be TB, and he is taken off the to "the San". Sadly, he passes away there, and shortly after all three children are diagnosed with TB as well. They are sent off to the San, but it is segregated by gender and age and seriousness of infection, so all three are separated. This is one of the hardships of the treatment. Marie-Claire is the main character, and she develops a hard-won friendship with her roommate, Signy, who has been there for 7 years and is pretty much unvisited by her parents by this time (though she does receive elaborate gifts).

There are new relationships developed during the two years that Marie-Claire has to stay in the Sanatorium, both with Signy and one of the nurses who turns into a mentor, and with a teenage boy who was a patient as well. Alongside the isolation and restricted circle of the San, the story draws in world events, with the shadow of the war hovering, shown in letters that Marie-Claire and Signy exchange with soldiers who have gone overseas.

The story captures an historical moment that young readers may not be familiar with and it does so in clear writing that doesn't pull any punches, but yet is not graphic or gratuitously disturbing. The atmosphere of the book is one of hope, showing Marie-Claire's growth into an adult sense of responsibility and loyalty. Fans of the constantly ill and dying heroines of Lurlene McDaniel's books may enjoy this, and go away with a brighter sense of optimism and a new understanding of historical reality.

For more detail, Lucy Silag writes an excellent review in the Globe & Mail

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