________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 18 . . . . April 27, 2007


The View From a Kite.

Maureen Hull.
Halifax, NS: Vagrant Press/Nimbus, 2006.
338 pp., pbk., $15.95.
ISBN 978-1-55109-591-2.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Darleen Golke.

*** /4


On my sixth birthday he built me my first kite, in the garage, me watching, handing glue and the ball of string to him as needed. The kite was made of butcher paper, a shiny brownish-pink like old blood washed down the drain. There was no bridle, just the kite string poked through a tiny hole and tied to where the keep and spar crossed and were lashed together with twine and glue. The tail was string with bits of wrapping paper from my presents tied to bows along its length. It was like a rainbow with fragments of flowers, and bunnies in bonnets, and candle-lit birthday cakes crinkling in the wind. We took it to Dominion Beach and he ran along the sand in his bare feet, stubbing his toes on rocks and cursing, glancing back over his should to see it if had taken off yet. Eventually it went so high we had no more string and I couldn't hold it, we had to hang on to it together. It flew out over the hungry licking ocean. I was screaming with excitement, scared it would fall in the water and be eaten by waves.

"Imagine the view!" he kept yelling. "Imagine what it looks like from up there, Gwennie! You could see for hundred of miles!" Then he stumbled, and there was only me to hang on. It lifted me off my feet.

"Let go! Let go!" shrieked my mother from where she sat, sideways in the front passenger seat, feet on the ground, stocking rolled down and her dress lifted past her knees to let the air circulate. I let go, and the earth smacked me and the kite twisted out of sight.

"Gone to heaven," he said, before I could think about crying. "It's taking all the bad luck away, Gwen. In China they have a special ceremony called Driving Away the Devil; they fly kites and then turn them loose so they carry away all the bad luck."

"Temporarily in residence" at the Cape Breton Sanatorium in the 1970's, 17-year-old Gwen MacIntyre struggles to cope with the tuberculosis that changed her from a "pudgy hundred and twenty-five" to a "feverish, wispy, ninety-pound weakling." Gwen befriends worldly-wise fellow teen, Mary, spends considerable time researching the history and development of tuberculosis treatments, and pursues her ambition to become a writer by writing "at least one page a day" in a journal that she writes in code because the nursing staff reads her work. "We're all just holding our breath until we get out for good, not wanting one detail outside to change, so we won't have missed anything," she confides. Mary intends to escape and marry well; Gwen aspires to "write novels and plays and have tragic love affairs," to avoid a "pedestrian life."     

     Patients, based on progress like gaining weight and strength, occasionally earn weekends at home that for Gwen means Aunt Edith's house in Nova Scotia's Bras d'Or Lakes area. After the "family tragedy," her father's attempted murder-suicide that put a bullet in her mother's brain rendering her a vegetable but succeeded in spattering his brain matter all over the wall, Gwen moved in with elderly Aunt Edith who is now gradually sinking into senility. Gwen angrily chases off an enterprising journalist who offers substantial money for an "exclusive interview" to write her story in a "Father blows hole in mother's brain" tabloid style. Gwen's mother now resides in an institution with people who have lost "some part of what makes them human' - "lost, burnt or dead, or blood-starved, or diseased, or never there in the first place. There are holes in their minds." Although she visits her unresponsive mother, Aunt Edith and cousins George and Elizabeth keep Gwen grounded.

     After Gewn endures more than six weeks of treatment at the san, the doctor breaks the news that one of her lung lesions still has not shrunk and she must transfer to the Royal Alexander hospital for surgery to cut out the damaged tissue. During a hiatus at home between institutions, Gwen learns Aunt Edith is actually her grandmother who bore an illegitimate son raised as her brother, Gwen's father. Gwen angrily berates her father insisting, "he stole everything," even though she knows about his troubled life, shell-shocked after the war and deeply depressed with his life. Throughout the first-person narrative, Hull scatters bits of information about the family tragedy, forcing the reader to pay careful attention in order to construct what occurred. Only after her mother succumbs to pneumonia does Gwen find some closure when she learns her father shot the rolled quilt she left in her bed while she sneaked out of the house. "I thought he didn't love me enough to take me with them. I thought he left me behind because he didn't give a damn what happened to me." She still cannot "forgive him," but she does "believe he loved [her]."

     The Royal Alexander presents new challenges and a new set of characters, among them Denise who becomes Gwen's co-conspirator as they try to find some pleasure in their misfortunes. By some miracle, the hospital doctor decides Gwen's lungs are healing well enough and she doesn't need surgery. "Somehow I have escaped," Gwen rejoices, freeing her to concentrate on catching up with her studies and getting well with no "sword of Damocles" over her head. Throughout the novel, Gwen provides graphic and detailed information about treatments and procedures she undergoes - gastric lavage, repeated and complicated x-rays and blood work, bronchiograms, bronchoscopes - and about the characteristic institutional food and the living conditions. Nevertheless, she manages to experiment with romance, smoke cigarettes and drink booze, join in mischief like sneaking off to attend a dance with Denise, and even participate in a fellow patient's wedding that serves to "reminds us that there is a world beyond the sanatorium grounds, that someday in the not-too-distant future it will be ours again."

     Born and raised in Cape Breton, Hull now lives on Pictou Island and has published fiction and poetry in magazines and newspapers, a short story collection, Righteous Living, which was short-listed for the 1999 Danuta Gleed Award, and children's picture books, Wild Cameron Women (2000) and Rainy Days with Bear (2004). In The View From a Kite, she presents a compelling portrait of life for tuberculosis patients undergoing treatment and creates a likeable and plucky protagonist who refuses to allow misfortunes to quench her spirit or her zest for life. The varied and interesting cast of secondary characters in and out of the institutions further adds to the authenticity of the setting. Running throughout the narrative, the kite motif, with its obvious symbolism, mirrors Gwen's developing maturity and acceptance. Hull incorporates Gwen's fixation on tuberculosis research in the form of a dozen segments arranged in Printhouse font (resembling handwriting) about the history and treatment of tuberculosis, and includes chapters about literary figures who suffered and succumbed to tuberculosis.
     The divergent elements of the plot, Gwen's fight to beat tuberculosis, her attempts to come to terms with the family tragedy, the family secrets, and her growing self-awareness combine in this challenging novel. Hull admits in an interview with the New Glasgow Evening News that she "wrote it as an adult novel" although hoped it would appeal to older teenage readers. Older teens not intimidated by the length and complexity of the narrative will find Gwen an appealing and admirable character dealing with enormous challenges, yet never losing her sense of humour or her determination to overcome the difficulties and make her life matter.


Darleen Golke writes from Abbotsford, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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