________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 22 . . . . June 27, 2008


Mostly Happy.

Pam Bustin.
Saskatoon, SK: Thistledown Press, 2008.
272 pp., pbk., $18.95.
ISBN 978-1-897235-39-3.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Ruth Latta.

**** /4


Prissy pulled up in a cab just as they were putting Dee in the ambulance.I went mental. I started screaming at her that Dee had almost died... I kept screaming. 'I'm ten, for fuck's sake! She's sick. She coulda died.' I'd never screamed at Prissy before. I never said that I was afraid to watch Dee when she was sick. I wasn't afraid. I just did it, like I did everything else..."


Mostly Happy is a gritty, realistic work of fiction set in western Canada in the last decades of the twentieth century. It traces the life of Bean E. Falwell from birth to a major epiphany in her early twenties. Author Pam Bustin, a Saskatoon-based playwright and novelist, says in her bio note that she was raised in a host of small prairie towns. In her "Acknowledgements," she thanks an editor who helped her "tell the story clean."

     Bean's name was chosen by her dad, Ritter, because at birth she reminded him of a red kidney bean. Prissy, Bean's 16- year-old mother, added the 'E', which stood for nothing. 'Ritter found out before the wedding that his other girlfriend was pregnant, too," Bean writes. "'Too late, Sweetheart,' he said. 'I'm already on the hook.'"

     Neither parent had the maturity or the education that might have prepared them for parenthood and the fluctuations of the labour market. As early as age three, Bean sits up late with her parents to monitor and defuse their fights which intensify when they are drinking. She distracts them from violence using comedy routines learned from TV. When Ritter stabs himself (not fatally) with a kitchen knife, Bean and her mother go to live with Grandpa Tom. There, Bean meets "Goose" (short for "Gustav"), a neighbour boy who becomes her lifelong friend. Although the children are separated by the twists and turns of Prissy's life, Bean writes to Goose from wherever she is. She buys a single postage stamp whenever Prissy sends her to a convenience store. Because the cost of one stamp is never missed, she is able to maintain a supply.

     After moving out of Grandpa Tom's house, Prissy and Bean live on Prissy's waitressing income or on welfare, supplemented by contributions from Prissy's boyfriends. "Prissy dated a lot of truckers," writes Bean. "They were all right. They took us out to eat, they didn't stick around long, and they always thought they might be back through, so they never got mean with Prissy or up to anything with me." Eventually Prissy teams up with Jack Vara, an acquaintance from her early teens, and has another child, Dee. Jack had a "horrific" violent streak, Bean remembers, "but it was like we had some kind of amnesia...There were long long periods of fun and laughter, and we forgot."

     Jack, in quest of work, moves the family from town to town. Wherever she lives, Bean excels in school. She embraces the good and decent things that come her way, seeking enlightenment and friendship wherever they appear - from small town churches, a New Age group, a Mennonite family, and books. When young, she accepts her home life as normal. Later, seeing its flaws, she takes care never to let any authority figure know how dysfunctional her family is because of her fear of Jack, her loyalty to Prissy and her concern for Dee.

     After presenting Bean's formative years, Bustin shows her heroine's attempts to find her own path in life. In Grade Eleven, Bean moves out to live on her own. The last part of the novel shows Bean attempting to process and synthesize all the influences upon her and dealing with survivor guilt. A career as an actor is a natural choice for Bean, because she has played roles all her life, because she already has experience with a hand-to-mouth life, and because the acting profession transcends social class. Yet repeatedly, she drops everything, leaves Toronto, and travels west in response to a cry for help from her suicidal younger sister. Gradually, Bean realizes that Dee has been sexually abused, and, in time, she faces the shadowy memories suggesting that the same thing happened to her.

     Whatever our life circumstances, people from our pasts almost always yank the chains forged in childhood. Bean's ongoing internal debate about what she owes them and what she owes herself, will strike a universal chord in many readers. Mostly Happy is a coming-of-age story akin to Tobias Wolff's memoir, This Boy's Life, and Janet Fitch's White Oleander. Yet Bean E. Falwell is a unique character whose survival will give hope to readers in comparable situations.

     At the end, Bean phones her mother to say that she is coming home again to discuss some "old stuff." When Prissy asks, "Are you happy in your life?" Bean replies, "Mostly."

Highly Recommended.

Ruth Latta's most recent novel, An Amethyst Remembrance (Ottawa, Baico, 2008, $18.95, ISBN 978-1-897449-29-5), is for grown-ups.

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

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