Archive for the ‘Maureen Hull’ Category

The View from a Kite by Maureen Hull ~ 2006. This edition: Vagrant Press (Nimbus Publishing, 2006. Softcover. ISBN: 1-55109-591-2. 338 pages.

My rating: Majority of the book: 9/10. Last few chapters: 7/10-ish. I found this book to be a compelling and sharply presented read, and, for a book about a tragically-backstoried teenager in a tuberculosis ward, unexpectedly funny. Occasionally the TB references felt a bit “teachable moment”-ish, but in general this aspect was handled well. (I had a bit of a chuckle when I later learned that the author had homeschooled her two daughters for seven years; I could definitely tell she was very familiar with the art of including information in a narrative in an interesting and almost flawlessly “natural” way – the mark of the very best historical fiction writers we homeschoolers love so much.)

I did feel the momentum dropped towards the end, as the author brought the strands of the story together. The ending felt a little too neat and predictable, not necessarily a bad thing, especially given the “young adult” nature of the novel, but I personally felt a rather vague disappointment, as if I had expected just a little bit more creativity from such an obviously capable author.

Overall recommendation: very well done. Well worth reading.

*****

I am a Dangerous Woman in a Dangerous Dress.

The gym is foggy with chiffon: rose, peach, aqua and mint, with dyed-to-match pumps spiked to the bottom, strings of pearls looped around the top – a pastel smear of background for the scarlet shout that is me.  Gwen. My dress is a lick of silk, the molten edge of a suicidal sun. I move through the crowd like a reckless kiss, a flash of crystal at my stiletto heels, nails enamelled in heart’s blood.

His hair is too long, dark curls thrown into confusion by the knife edge of his collar. He draws frowns but no direct criticism because he just doesn’t give a damn and can’t be made to. He pulls me into his arms, the band blasts me up off the bed, trumpets and trombones in a frenzy, some crazed person hammering the bells off her tambourine. I cling to the edge of the metal frame, tangled in the sheets, hyperventilating, what is that tune? Sweet Jesus, it is not, yes it is. “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

I see them through the half-open door, the Salvation Army Band, all dressed up in black wool, red collars, and shiny brass instruments. The leader winks at me as he whips the ensemble into a straight and narrow line, aims them at the crashing, metallic finale. Then, with the barest pause for breath, they fling themselves “Into the Garden Alone.”

I fall back onto the bed and stare at the ceiling. Check my pulse. One hundred and thirty, roaring and frothing through my veins and arteries. Check my watch – 9:30, still the same damn Sunday morning. I have napped for less than half an hour.

Meet 17-year-old Gwen MacIntyre, temporary resident of the Cape Breton County Sanatorium. It is the mid-1970s, and though tuberculosis is fast becoming an obsolete disease, there are still a few specialized treatment facilities dedicated to mopping up the final cases, and providing a home for the incurable “chronics.” Gwen’s TB is being dealt with, but the disease is only one of her pressing issues. Her family, once happy and united, is irretrievably broken, and with Gwen’s growing maturity comes the need to find a way to move forward into a more hopeful future.

The novel is written in the form of chapter-long diary entries. Gwen’s private voice is articulate and keenly humorous, with occasional lapses into poignant regret for what has gone before, and fear for the future.

Understandable, as Gwen is the survivor of a partially successful family murder-suicide episode…

A diverting and, dare I say it, “educational” – in the very best way – read which I enjoyed. The protagonist’s spirited voice kept the dire subjects addressed from being too pathetically sad, and there was a sharpness to the wit which felt very real and refreshing. Sex, friendship and religion, among numerous other compelling topics, are frankly discussed by Gwen in her conversations with herself.

Marketed as a Young Adult read, this is definitely cross-genre enough to find a home on the Adult bookshelves as well. Shades of Betty MacDonald’s autobiographical “The Plague and I” (1948), about another clever observer’s time in a post WW-II TB sanatorium. I found it interesting to compare the two accounts; they are ultimately very different but also quite similar in that sophisticated, self-aware humour is used to deal with the frightening and personally humiliating experience of battling the “dread disease.”

I found this review after I had written the rough draft of my own; I include it here because the reviewer’s take on this story was very similar to my own. By reviewer Marnie Parsons, Quill & Quire, November 2006:

Ambitious and well-written, Maureen Hull’s first novel tells the story of Gwen, a 17-year-old in a TB sanatorium, and later a TB hospital, on Cape Breton Island during the 1970s. Gwen’s natural curiosity and her talent for writing combine in the narrative, as she observes the characters in the sanatorium with thoughtful, often wry insight, and simultaneously acquaints herself with the history of TB, its treatment, and its more famous victims. Typical teen pressures of boyfriends and burgeoning sexuality are interwoven with Gwen’s stories of life in the San, of late-night escapes by patients, her own sometimes horrific treatments, pranks played on nurses, and lists of preposterous historical cures for her disease. Her dreams of an exotic writing life in Paris are that much more poignant because, as the reader discovers, her life outside the San is far from happy. As she recovers from her TB, Gwen must also come to terms with an almost unspeakable family tragedy.
Gwen is an engaging character; her voice is strong and compelling. However, there’s too much happening in this novel: Gwen’s illness and life in the sanatorium would have been quite enough without the added complexity of her grandmother’s long-ago illegitimate pregnancy and developing senility (not overlapping), her father’s shellshock, and her parents’ murder-suicide. Hull works hard to blend the divergent strands of narrative, and there’s much to recommend this novel, which is an admirable and enjoyable effort. But in the end it lacks a sense of proportion. Less would definitely have been more.

Maureen Hull is a life-long native of Nova Scotia, born on Cape Breton Island and currently living on Pictou Island. She seems to have had a diverse and experience-filled life, including studies at Dalhousie University and the Pictou Fisheries School, and stints in the costume department of the Neptune Theatre (Halifax), as well as twenty-two years in the lobster fishery. This is the author’s first novel, though she has been actively writing since 1992. Her other published work includes several children’s books, short story collections, poetry, and creative non-fiction.

A contemporary Canadian writer to keep an eye out for, if The View from a Kite is any indication, and worthy of further acquaintance. I will be looking for more of her work.

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