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30 October 2011 QUEEN OF HEARTS by Martha Brooks, Farrar Straus and Giroux, August 2011, 214p., ISBN: 978-0-374-34985-1 


"Sister Therese, walking by my desk with her yardstick, pokes me awake on several occasions throughout the fall and early winter.  One December day she keeps me after school.  She stretches her long legs in front of her, her cracked black shoes showing below her long black skirts.  Sister Therese and I love and hate each other in equal measures.

"Today I love her.  I wasn't looking forward to walking home through the snow and then going directly to the barn, so I'm happy for this delay.  My hands, like her shoes, are cracked--and red.  My nose drips.

"Because we're alone she can let down her guard.  She has an orange in her pocket, which she pulls out and slowly peels.  She offers me half.  I haven't seen an orange since last Christmas.  Every winter the nuns are sent a crate of them from somewhere.

"I quietly eat my half of the orange while she eats hers.

"'You used to be a gifted student, Marie-Claire,' she says at last.  She uses words like that when we are alone, too.

"I shrug.

"What's wrong with you this year?  Why are you always sleeping in class?'

"'I don't know.'

"'You don't sleep at night?'

"The smell of orange fills the dusty classroom.

"'Perhaps you are missing Yvette,' she says, with the tiniest sniff of disapproval.

"Yvette LaBossiere, who got pregnant just as Maman predicted, was sent to live with her aunt in Winnipeg in the early fall.  One day she was here, the next she was gone.  She could at least have said goodbye to me, but she didn't.  So much for our friendship.

"I shrug again.  I have another cold, and these days I never feel well.  This, more than anything, makes me sorry for myself.  What can I tell her?  It would only sound like complaining, and I'm too proud to complain."


QUEEN OF HEARTS is the coming-of-age story of Marie-Claire Cote who, at the dawn of WWII, is an adolescent growing up on her family's farm outside of the village of St. Felix, Manitoba.  The farm is across the valley from the Pembina Hills Tuberculosis Sanatorium. 


QUEEN OF HEARTS begins late in the spring of 1940, with Marie-Claire's charming paternal uncle unexpectedly showing up at the farm for an extended visit.  Oncle Gerard has been off, in the waning days of the Great Depression, living a rough hobo life.  By early fall Gerard has fallen seriously ill and has been diagnosed with TB.  Due to overcrowding at the sanatorium, he continues to live with Marie-Claire's family until a bed eventually becomes available. 


After entering the sanatorium, Gerard succumbs to the disease and, by the end of the following autumn, Marie-Claire, her brother Luc, and her little sister Josee, are all diagnosed with TB and brought to live at the sanatorium.  It is there that Marie-Claire will find first love and learn about true friendship. 


"It was not until 1946 with the development of the antibiotic streptomycin that effective treatment and cure became possible.   Prior to the introduction of this drug, the only treatment besides sanatoria were surgical interventions, including the pneumothorax technique -- collapsing an infected lung to 'rest' it and allow lesions to heal -- a technique that was of little benefit and was largely discontinued by the early 1950s."

-- from the Wikipedia article on Tuberculosis


What a difference a decade and a drug can make!  Thanks to streptomycin, there was a world of difference between author Martha Brooks's childhood (She was born in '44.) and mine (I was born in '55.).  Ms. Brooks grew up on the grounds of a tuberculosis sanatorium in Manitoba, where her father was a thoracic surgeon, her mother was a nurse, and people young and old quite often died from TB.  For me, "consumption" was something I learned about from reading Dickens; as far as I know, I've never in my life even crossed paths with a person with an active case of tuberculosis.


"Patients trapped in their beds.  Pulled out of their warm rooms and onto a long frozen balcony.  As for me, I can't turn onto my stomach like I'm used to doing.  I'm stuck on my back, afraid to move, afraid of bringing frost inside the covers.

"I miss having my warm little sister in bed beside me.  I miss her soft breathing.  Where is she tonight?  What happens if she has to pee?  What if she wets her bed?  Who will hear and help her if she's crying and afraid?"


Now, after a morning of reading QUEEN OF HEARTS, I've experienced life in a 1940s TB sanatorium.  Martha Brooks, through her attention to detail, transports readers to a faraway past, giving us a keen sense of the era and the region in which the story is set.  She also gives us a real feel for her characters.     


As we learn from Marie-Claire's young roommate Signy, those who in previous decades suffered from tuberculosis include Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Robert Louis Stevenson, and John Keates.  Unfortunately, tuberculosis is an infectious disease that continues to affect millions worldwide, with drug-resistant strains challenging scientists to keep up.  The Wikipedia article refers to almost 10 million new cases of tuberculosis and nearly 2 million related deaths in a recent year, mostly in developing countries.  While rare here, TB is a disease that can still be contracted in America.  After reading this memorable sweet-sixteen-in-a-sanatorium story, I readily see why each time I've begun a job that involved working with children, one of the pre-employment legal requirements has been a TB screening test.


Richie Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com
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