‘Queen of Hearts’ by Martha Brooks

Book Reviews

Queen of HeartsReviewed by Harriet Zaidman

Tuberculosis, TB, consumption – mere decades ago the diagnosis meant death at worst for the stricken, or at best, years of isolation from society. The development of antibiotics in World War II changed the treatment regime for this airborne disease, which in large part has always been considered a disease of poverty.

Beginning in the 1850s in England, medical authorities isolated tuberculosis sufferers in antiseptic sanatoria located in rural areas. The thinking was that taking them from overcrowded conditions would reduce the spread of the disease, and that enforced rest, fresh air and good food would smother the opportunistic bacteria. Surgical procedures, now thankfully abandoned, were employed on those whose health did not respond to benign measures.

Winnipegger Martha Brooks, one of Canada’s best writers for older adolescents, has set Queen of Hearts in rural Manitoba during World War II, in a world she knew well. She was raised on the grounds of a sanatorium near Ninette, Manitoba where her father was the medical director and her mother a nurse. As a child Brooks saw how patients lost contact with their families due to physical separation and the distance of time. The emotional damage caused by loneliness and the sterile hospital wards, as well as the rigid attitudes held by many staff took its toll on many, some of whom were fated to spend the rest of their lives in these institutions.

Marie-Claire, a 15-year-old farm girl, develops tuberculosis through contact with an uncle, who dies. Her younger brother and sister are also infected, and her brother quickly meets the same fate. Marie-Claire is left shattered, virtually abandoned by her parents for whom a son was of greater importance than a girl, alone with her thoughts in a colourless room filled with other unhappy souls.

Her best company turns out to be Signy, who at 16 has been sick for four years. To treat her stubborn condition doctors performed extreme surgery – a thoracoplasty, in which several ribs are removed and the infected lung permanently collapsed. But Signy seems to be implacably cheerful in spite of the dystopian environment and parents who send beautiful gifts in the mail rather than visit.

In 2002 Brooks won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature for True Confessions of a Heartless Girl. Readers will identify with her characters because she creates authentic personalities who think and speak like typical teens. Previously, Marie-Claire had accepted the constraints of her patriarchal, religious home and community. Her sanatorium experience, though, opens the teen’s eyes to new possibilities. Rebellious, she expresses contempt for the local physician who missed diagnosing the illness in its early stages. She calls her father “stupid” because he is embarrassed that his children are sick. When her brother dies Marie-Claire knows that her mother’s “ridiculous” late-age pregnancy, is only to make a replacement boy. Signy, too, despite her outward optimism, speaks candidly about her bleak future:

“…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.

Told in the first person and in the present tense, the reader is right beside Marie-Claire during her long, arduous experience that is nevertheless full of suspense and excitement. The sanatorium is, after all, a society in itself, and it is richly described – from clanging bedpans, to carbolic soap smells, ‘Klondiking’ patients in toques, sweaters and blankets to sleep outdoors on frigid winter nights and sun-bathing nude on the roof in the summer – it’s a new normal Marie-Claire can’t wait to escape.

‘Chasing the cure’ was the ironic name given to the mind-numbing, soul-destroying years it took to defeat the tuberculosis bacterium, proving that even the sickest people can see humour in their plight. But there are also good things about the ‘san’. Marie-Claire gets to read more books, which broadens her outlook. There are complicated relationships among the medical staff and patients. The world is changing outside and she learns that some women get further education, good jobs and independence. She finds romance and most of all, develops hope as she recovers.

Brooks has been a finalist three times for the Governor General’s Award, and won many other prizes for her long list of novels, which include Two Moons in August (1991), Bone Dance (1997) and Mistik Lake (2007). She is also an accomplished playwright and a jazz singer.

Queen of Hearts will ensure her continued prominence in Canadian literary circles and in the hearts of young and older readers looking for fine writing.

Groundwood | 208 pages |  $15 |paper | ISBN #978-0888998286

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Harriet Zaidman

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian and book reviewer living in Winnipeg.