CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 18 . . . . April 27, 2007
"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.
Darleen Golke writes from Abbotsford, BC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.