CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 38. . . . June 1, 2018
Bright Shining Moment, set in Ottawa in 1942, is narrated by 12-year-old Aline Sauriol. Second eldest of four children, she enjoys her family life, friends, and, for the most part, school, where she does well academically.
Living in the working class neighbourhood of Hintonburg, she is aware of class differences. The poorest neighbourhood is Mechanicsville, across the tracks from Hintonburg, and the wealthiest neighbourhood nearby is the Parkdale area where rich people with "important jobs" live. The Sauriols own their own home, though they're in debt to the bank; they have decent clothes (though sometimes second hand), and they can afford to buy the two girls felt hats (regarded as superior to home-knit touques). They have a stable for the two horses that Papa uses in his haulage business, and they keep chickens. Aline feels self-conscious because Maman can't afford to give her money for the charity box in her classroom.
Aline looks down on her schoolmate, Jeanine Bonenfant, who has failed a couple of grades and who is quick to take offence at disparaging comments. Unwashed and shabby, Jeanine swears when she makes a mistake in class. Sister Madeleine, the teacher, enjoys humiliating her and gives her the strap every day. Aline's scorn for Jeanine stems in part from the teacher's example, but it also comes from her fear that her family's fortunes will sink and that she will end up like Jeanine.
Although the wartime expansion of Canada's economy lifted it out of the Great Depression, there were still many pockets of poverty, as in Aline's community. A sudden expenditure, like young Yvette's tonsillectomy, shakes the Sauriol family's finances. Reluctantly but resignedly, they vacate their upstairs and rent it to a family from England. The new tenants, the Colemans, are in Ottawa because of Mr. Coleman's wartime assignment with the government. Being anglophones, Protestant and prosperous, the Colemans aren't a good fit with the Sauriols. The only child, Carolyn, is slightly younger than Aline, condescending, and no companion at all for much of the novel.
Author Deb Loughead achieves authenticity by having the characters say some words in French, then providing the English translation immediately afterwards in the context. She has selected period details which will interest young readers. Bread and milk are delivered door to door. Pennies are still part of the currency and worth having. Some children are growing up in a strict religious atmosphere with a pervasive sense of sin. There is no public health care system so people must pay out of pocket for medical care. There are still five Dionne quintuplets, and they are often in the news, fascinating Aline and her friends who envy their pretty clothes and wonder about their lives apart from their family. One of Aline's friends has a quint doll, and Aline enjoys holding it when she visits their comfortable home with many amenities. She is shocked to learn that they were only renting their house. When her friend's father loses his job, the family breaks up and the mother takes the two children to her relatives in Montreal.
In her haste to get a penny for the poor box from her mother's purse, Aline steals a dime instead, a significant amount of money at the time. At school, however, she finds that the box is gone; it has been collected. Her cousin Lucille confirms her awareness that she has committed a sin and should confess it. Afraid that her parents will get angry with her, she spends the dime on candy. Ten cents buys a large assortment of delicious sweets, but the cousins soon eat their fill and wonder what to do with the rest.
Aline is troubled not only because of the pilfering, but also because of Yvette's illness, an impossible school assignment, and the longstanding estrangement between her papa and Lucille's father. When Mme Bonenfant dies, Maman can't leave Yvette to go to the wake and sends Aline instead. After summoning up the courage for this ordeal, Aline embraces some other challenges and finds several adults who are understanding. Mrs. Coleman, for instance, employs her limited French to communicate with Aline and make friendly overtures to the family. The principal, Sister Marie, helps Aline with the assignment. Finally, wanting to be "sin-free for Christmas", she confesses the theft of the dime to Father Louis. To her surprise, he doesn't "get mad or lecture" her, but he tells her to talk about it to her mother and do something nice with the rest of the candy. Several more "bright shining moments" bring this novel to an upbeat ending.
Deb Loughead, author of over forty children's and young adults' books, is an expert at showing rather than telling. Aline's first-person, present-tense account makes the reader feel like her friend sharing her concerns. Bright Shining Moment is both a character-driven novel and a glimpse into some social history. While the author does not say directly that the novel is based on a true story, she dedicates the book to her mother, Laurette Saumur, "whose evocative Ottawa stories, shared over a lifetime, continue to enrich [her] imagination."
Ottawa writer Ruth Latta recently published Grace in Love: A Novel about Grace Woodsworth, (email@example.com) Hintonburg and Mechanicsville are becoming gentrified, but, in other Ottawa neighbourhoods, people are struggling.