________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 9 . . . . December 22, 2006


This Side of the Sky.
Marie-Francine Hébert. Translated by Susan Ouriou.
Calgary, AB: Red Deer Press, 2006.
125 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 0-88995-369-4.

Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.
Review by Ruth Latta.
**** /4 



My mother hangs out her blues to dry    

My father grabs a beer from the fridge  

Then turns himself on to TV.    

I'm bored with nothing to do.    

I stare at myself in the mirror    

See blackheads on my brain.        

My mother says, “Look after your sister."      

My father next, "You deaf, girl? Beat it.”    

I go out looking for my sister    

Find her sitting at the top of a tree       

Say, Get down here right away    

Or I'll catch what-for again.        

Down she comes saying, I want to be the bird.       

I slap her once. You can't     

You're Angelique.     

You can't be a bird. Get that through your head     

I slap her again. She doesn't bother to cry.     

What's the point anyway? 


Mona, who is around 12-years-old and is doing badly in school, gets a zero for her homework - the poem. "Aren't you ashamed?" writes the teacher, beside the reference to Angelique. Mona interprets the comment as meaning that her sister's mental handicap is something about which to be ashamed. 

     The poem sums up Mona's life. She lives with her construction worker father, her pregnant mother and her sister Angelique (eight-years-old with a mental age of five) on a country road near a lake succumbing to algae. Deeper in the woods, however, there is a hidden lake with a waterfall and a beaver pond.  

     The natural setting is realistic and symbolic. Quebec author Marie-Francine Hébert has created a lyrical impressionistic novel set in a remote location that is probably in Quebec but could also be in northeastern Ontario where I grew up, or in many other Canadian hinterland locales where logging trucks roar down the roads. Two other families live nearby, each with a potential companion for Mona.  

     Mona, however, dislikes Suson [sic], the daughter of the mayor and police chief, because she is well-dressed, excels in school and is aloof, except when inviting Mona to ride home with her. Mona prefers to walk among the mosquitoes, convinced that Suson just wants to show off her dad's big car. 

     Mona likes Jon, a newcomer to the community, who lives with his mother and goes away for weekends with his father. Beautiful music wafts from their windows. But, because he and his parents are black, Mona's father warns her to stay away from them. "I don't mean to sound racist, but better safe than sorry," he says.  

     Mona envies Jon the warmth of his family relationships. In a key scene, "Jon's mother envelops her son with her gaze the whole time he's climbing. How can I put it? A gaze so gentle and firm at once, tightly knit together. There's no way Jon could fall." 

     Her gaze is like a womb, an image that recurs with reference to the birth of Mona's baby brother, and the mental "bubble" into which Angelique enters for self-protection. 

      Minding Angelique is both a challenge and a blessing for Mona. Angelique senses things and makes uncannily acute observations. Like Lenny in Of Mice and Men, Joon in Benny and Joon, and Forrest Gump, Angelique is the profound simpleton whose goodness educates so-called "normal" people.

     The girls roam their surroundings freely as their mother doesn't feel like bothering with them. Wandering around the neighbours' property, they see Suson performing oral sex on her father behind a shed. Angelique says she has seen them before, but Mona says they can do nothing, as Suson's father IS the police. 

     To summarize the plot as above is to misrepresent the novel's narrative style. Hébert obeys the axiom, "Show, don't tell," and uses the first person and the present tense in a stream-of-consciousness approach which allows Mona to take the reader by the hand and share her thoughts and feelings moment to moment.  

     The reader moves with Mona from shame to validation. After reading the teacher's note, "Aren't you ashamed?" Mona thinks: "Maybe I'd be better off not having kids at all when I grow up. What with the shame and all the other stuff you don't choose."  

     Through her friendship with Jon, she rises out of shame. He says that Mona's poem is beautiful: "Maman read it too. She knows about poetry." Later, in the woods, Mona finds a poetry book left behind by Jon and discovers a different perspective on children from Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables): 

    "You see, of our children we have such need

    Oh Lord, to witness in the morning light

    'midst this life of suffering and blows we lead

    And the shadow of fate against which we fight.  

    To see the holy head of a child appear

    A small joyous creature 

    With whose entrance we glimpse so near 

    A door to heaven left ajar." 


     Meanwhile, Suson is in hell. She runs away from home and is found, hysterical, in a ravine. "Someone has touched Suson," Mona's father reports, and predictably, Jon is blamed. 

     The crisis comes when Angelique, who dreams of flying like a bird, climbs a tree and won't, or can't, come down. To the gathered crowd she says, "It isn't Jon." Then Mona and the teacher speak out against Suson's father, and he is taken away. 

     The adults are the source of pain and suffering in this Eden-like setting. There are several scenes of innocence in nature, such as the one where Jon stands naked under a waterfall, and another where he and the girls watch a mother beaver swimming with a baby on her back

     Hébert lets the reader figure out certain things without spelling them out. The teacher's, 'Aren't you ashamed?' may have referred to Mona's admission in the poem that she slapped Angelique. When the teacher abandons her dependent elderly father and skips town, the locals may wonder why, but the astute reader realizes that Suson's plight has brought back a suppressed memory, and that the teacher's past experiences may explain why she was such a tense and unimaginative instructress. 

     Also, after their baby is born, the parents' happiness makes it clear that they were angry and neglectful from worry about having another developmentally delayed child. Mona's father, gratified by the birth of a healthy son, becomes pleasanter, and, while he is never exactly likeable, his negative impact fades.  

     Translator Susan Ouriou achieves a colloquial English that suits the setting and captures Mona's poetic flair. For instance, we read: "The light's shining louder than usual in all four houses, a blaring light that can be heard from a long way away." Author Marie-Francine Hébert makes use o f high-level narrative skills to show the creative and moral potential of people in humble circumstances. I feel elevated for having read it and wish my French was good enough to appreciate the original novel. 

Highly Recommended.

Ruth Latta's second novel, The Secret of White Birch Road, (Ottawa, Baico, 2005) is set in Northeastern Ontario and centres on teenage characters.

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

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