Queen of Heartsby Martha Brooks
On the prairies of Canada during World War II, a girl and her two young siblings begin a war of their own. Stricken with tuberculosis, they are admitted to a nearby sanatorium. Teenager Marie Claire is headstrong, angry, and full of stubborn pride. In a new strange land of TB exiles she must "chase the cure," seek privacy where there is none, and witness the slow… See more details below
On the prairies of Canada during World War II, a girl and her two young siblings begin a war of their own. Stricken with tuberculosis, they are admitted to a nearby sanatorium. Teenager Marie Claire is headstrong, angry, and full of stubborn pride. In a new strange land of TB exiles she must "chase the cure," seek privacy where there is none, and witness the slow wasting decline of others. But in this moving novel about fighting a way back to normal life, it is the thing that sets back Marie Claire the most—the demise of her little brother—that also connects her with the person who will be instrumental in helping her recover.
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Queen of Hearts
By Martha Brooks
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2010 Martha Brooks
All rights reserved.
On a cold evening in late spring, with the rain coming down hard around him, there's Oncle Gérard standing outside our farmhouse just like he's never been away.
Twenty-five years old and a pile of bones, Papa's younger brother has been riding the rails since he was nineteen. Last we heard, with a war starting in Europe and Canada getting involved, he tried to enlist in the army. They wouldn't take him, so we thought he was still hopping boxcars to heaven knows where, living the hobo life.
But here's Maman opening the door to him as he pulls a dripping, battered hat from his head. Dark damp curls fall onto his forehead just like on that little movie clown, Charlie Chaplin.
"Hello, Sylvie," are the first words out of his mouth. Then, with a magnificent sweep, he hands our mother some red tulips he's been hiding behind his back — flowers I recognize from our own garden.
I laugh. Maman, too.
"Always so thoughtful," she says, ushering him in out of the rain.
She plunges the flowers into a pitcher of water before setting them in the middle of the table.
"Come and sit. Eat with us, Gérard. There's plenty. Henri and the hired man are down at the barn, and Luc's there with them. They'll be coming up soon. Luc's grown — he was ten last February — you won't recognize him. Marie-Claire, set another place for your uncle."
Oncle Gérard winks playfully at me. He's unshaven and missing a few more teeth since the last time I saw him — two years ago, when I was twelve — but I'd know him anywhere.
"You've grown, too, Marie-Claire. Last time I saw you, you were — this high."
He gently teases his hand lower, lower, and lower still, until it's only inches from the floor.
I laugh at this, too. It's fun to see him again.
He turns and smiles at little Josée getting up on her own chair beside him. She looks into his face. "How big was I?"
He chuckles and shows her his thumb and forefinger, making the smallest gap between them.
"Really? Did I fit in your pocket?"
"Oh yes, yes, of course," he says, happily.
"She's six," I explain.
Just then Papa and Luc and our elderly hired man, Ambroise LaGare, appear, kicking off their rubber boots at the door.
Oncle Gérard lifts his eyes from Josée. His smile freezes on his face.
"Hello, Henri. Long time no see."
"What are you doing here?" Papa frowns, puts his hand on Luc's shoulder.
"I'd like to visit for a while, if I might. Things, lately, have not been so good for me."
Luc looks over at Oncle Gérard, then up at Papa. "Who's he?"
"Don't be rude, Luc," says Maman. "Don't you remember Papa's brother, your uncle Gérard?"
Oncle Gérard throws back his head and laughs.
"Ah me," he says at last. "I like this one already. He's honest."
After supper, our uncle's hands shake as he carefully rolls three cigarettes. He seems to shrug his shoulders a great amount, as if apologizing. He also has a bad cough, which sends tobacco flying everywhere. Finally he gives a cigarette each to Papa and Ambroise, hangs the other from the side of his own mouth, strikes a match with his thumb and forefinger, and lights all three cigarettes. Then, like a tired yet still jaunty old man, he shakes out the flame.
He stays with us one week, then two, then more as the weeks stretch through the summer. Sometimes we sit together on the hill after supper — all us kids with Gérard, the biggest kid of all.
He shows us how to make bird sounds with our hands while we wait for an imaginary monster to come through the gully below our farm.
"The Shadow Man!" Oncle Gérard finally announces like a circus ringmaster. He rises up on his skinny legs. "See the giant with arms as big as tree branches! See his head of hair that holds a hundred birds! See his long loooong shadow ..."
"But doesn't he eat children? He does, doesn't he?" Josée yanks at his pant leg.
"Ah Josée" — our uncle nods wisely — "of course he eats children. Especially little girls who won't close their eyes at night."
He sits down again.
Josée closes her eyes tight.
"I sleep," she says. "I'm sleeping now."
Luc puts an arm around her shoulders and whispers, "You can still see him!"
Josée's brown eyes fly wide open as Luc and I fall over laughing.
Josée scrambles up against Oncle Gérard, who gathers her into his arms and says, "The Shadow Man, he's half human and half ghost, Josée. He can be anywhere, anytime. He can even change shape when he wants to fly."
All at once a hawk circles far above us in the golden light of late day and makes its eerie cry.
"Ohhh!" says Josée. "How does he do that?"
"It's magic," says Luc with a sly look at me.
"That's right." Oncle Gérard musses up Luc's hair and gets to his feet.
"Where are you going?" I ask.
"And what are you going to do when you get there?"
"None of your beeswax." He grins.
"Ha, ha," I say. "I'm going to follow you."
"Are you now, my little queen of hearts. I wouldn't advise it, not today."
"It's boring without you, you know," I say, snapping my once-white ankle socks so that gray dust flies everywhere in a satisfying manner.
Oncle Gérard stands smiling down at me, not answering, weaving a little as if his body still remembers the whiskey he consumed last week, when he staggered home at five in the morning and passed out on the bed he shares with Luc.
"You're hopping the train to St. Felix?" I ask.
He nods and casts his restless eyes to the distance.
Twice a day an actual monster, a big long steam train, comes chugging through the gully, slowing down at the steep curve. If you happen to be right there, you can pull yourself up onto one of those boxcars and get a free ride to town. Luc and I are not supposed to do this, but of course we do anyway.
Today neither of us follows Oncle Gérard. He has serious drinking on his mind. He isn't planning to come back within a few hours, smiling and smelling of alcohol. He's probably going to disappear into next week and then return to us reeking of it.
Papa, as usual, will yell at him and threaten to kick him out. But it won't happen, because, as Maman says, "That Gérard, he's a charmer."CHAPTER 2
Our farm is a few miles northwest of the village of St. Felix, Manitoba. On the other side of the valley — a short haul by car or several minutes longer if you hop the train — is the Pembina Hills Tuberculosis Sanatorium. The buildings, built into the hills that hug Pembina Lake, glow at night with all their electric lights. It's then that the whole place looks like a great ship on the prairies. This would be a cheerful sight if it weren't for the fact that so many people, sick with TB, have gone to the San to die.
TB sneaks up to your back door and howls like a hungry wolf that nobody saw coming. That's why people in the community are scared of it. Papa's sister, Tante Angeline, is so scared, in fact, that she drives past the San and instructs her children to cover their noses! I swear to God, this is true.
I'm in the back seat, keeping an eye on my little cousin Laurent. We're at the side of the valley, where the road starts winding down past Pembina Hills San.
Laurent pulls his shirt up over his nose and tells me to do the same.
I say, "Don't be stupid," reach over, and roll down the window.
Quick as anything, Tante Angeline turns in the driver's seat and snaps, "Marie-Claire, you crazy girl, you roll up that window now!"
I want to stick my head out and wave my arms around just to annoy her. Except she jams on the brakes. She's not going any farther, not until I've rolled it back up.
After that my cousin shifts in the seat beside me.
"You're gonna get it." His taunt is muffled by his shirt. "You're gonna get TB, ha, ha."
But by fall, to our terrible surprise, the wolf has slipped past our door and gone straight to Oncle Gérard.
Yet even after his TB is diagnosed, he stays on with us, because where else can he go? Pembina Hills San puts him on a waiting list, saying that there are no available beds and they are already overcrowded.
So Luc, who has always been prone to chest complaints, is banished from his old room as Maman fusses and clucks around. In a sulk he bunks in with Josée and me.
My brother and sister are no longer allowed to see Oncle Gérard. Once in a while, though, when Maman is too exhausted to continue, I'm sent upstairs with a tray of food for him, always with the caution that I'm not to take any more time than necessary. He's been getting sicker — even having to be helped by Maman with his bathroom activities, which embarrasses them both — yet, especially lately, it's always a fresh shock to see him. He looks like a skeleton resting against the pillows.
The morning that word comes of an empty bed at the San, a windy October day that rattles the windows, I'm sent up with a breakfast of toast, fried egg, and a cup of Maman's bitter dark coffee.
The bedroom door is slightly ajar. I use my hip to bump it wider. I enter the room, and he manages to sit up as I go to him and set the tray on the bed across his knees.
His breathing is an effort. Yet he manages to ask playfully, "Will you sit, my queen of hearts?"
At this, he relaxes.
Truth be told, I sneak in a visit whenever I can. He's family, after all, and I'm going to miss him. He's always been something of a daredevil, like me. Although it must be said that TB has knocked the daredevil right out of him.
I pull up the single wooden chair that has been left in the otherwise bare room. Everything else has been taken out and furiously cleaned by Maman.
I sit near him and smile into his face. "Eat your toast, at least, mon oncle."
"Aren't you afraid to be here with me?" he whispers, serious now. "Aren't you scared of TB?"
"I'm not going to get it," I say, not once taking my eyes from his. "Besides, it only hits old men like yourself!"
His sunken eyes crinkle at the corners and he picks up the toast. He bites into one corner, quickly sets it down again, and bows his head.
I think, at first, that he's praying. Then I realize his shoulders are shaking. He's crying.
"I'm sorry," he says between broken sobs.
I pull a clean handkerchief from my pocket and give it to him.
He takes it, slowly wipes his eyes, and lets his hands fall onto his bony knees, which stick up like stumps under the covers.
The wind continues to lash against Maman's gleaming windows.
He says at last, "I'm done for ... and ... I'm scared."
So frank and so bleak, just like that.
I excuse myself and go into my bedroom. I pull a cigar box out from the bottom of the dresser drawer. Inside I keep a beautiful hawk feather and a small roll of red satin ribbon in perfect condition that I'm saving for a special occasion. And, because of its mystery, the thing I love most of all: a silver chain with a St. Christopher's medal and a heart dangling alongside it that I found when I was walking in the field one day, brought home and put away, and told nobody about. I take it out every so often and polish it in secret so that it glows, all the while wondering who it once belonged to, how the person lost it, making up stories about it to amuse myself.
I take this chain to Oncle Gérard. I place it, warm from my hand, into his.
"What's this?" he asks, startled.
"It's to give you courage. But you have to say that you'll wear it. Promise me, Oncle."
He nods, looking first at me with red eyes, then at what he now holds in his hand.
Two hours later he leaves us, leaning his shoulder against the passenger window of the car, his battered gray hat slapped in place. He turns his head and fingers the chain with the heart at his chest. His eyes hold me in a long, hard last look as the car slowly pulls out of the yard.
Later, when Papa returns, we hang around him in the kitchen, waiting for him to say something. But he just looks up at us from his place at the end of the kitchen table.
"He's gone. That's it. There's nothing more to say about it."
After that, he goes out to the yard. We hear him into the night, long after we've all gone to bed, furiously chopping logs, adding to a pile of wood that's halfway up the side of the house by morning.
Tante Angeline drops by for a visit. She sits with Maman at the kitchen table, her back to the woodstove — the warmest place in the whole house. She shivers as Maman pours strong hot tea into a rose-patterned cup with a chipped handle.
"Poor Gérard," Tante Angeline says, turning away from her tea to blow her nose. "I suppose they'll make him sleep outside at night with all the others on those balconies. Even in thirty below zero weather."
"He has his own room," Maman tells her. "They don't put him onto the balcony. He's too sick to take the air."
"Oh well," Tante Angeline continues. "And I suppose he drinks a lot of milk now. Aren't they supposed to drink it for their cure? Does he drink milk, Sylvie?"
"Angeline," says Maman with a fierce look, "your brother is, quite possibly, dying. There's not much hope for him in milk."
Like Papa, Tante Angeline never visits Oncle Gérard. Only Maman does, and Papa never wants her to go. Gas is precious these days, what with the war rationing, and why waste her time on trips to visit Gérard anyway, he reasons — unreasonably.
"He made his bed, now let him lie in it."
"Henri," Maman replies, "you don't have to go. Nobody's asking you to go. Only I am going."
At this, she pulls off her apron and throws it at him. He catches it about mid-chest. She stretches out her hand and, as always, he sheepishly gives over the keys. She lifts her coat from the hook by the door and leaves.
"Well?" I say, each time she returns.
"He's a little better, today," she says. Or, "He's a little worse." Never offering more information.
One time I ask, "Why can't I go with you when you visit? Why can't I go and see him for myself?"
"They have rules, Marie-Claire. No children can come to the wards."
"I'm not a child! I'll be fifteen in three weeks. Isn't fifteen old enough?"
She gives me a look. "I only want to keep you safe. And in answer to your question, no."
So on a Saturday morning in early December, I put on her old fur coat, which she wears only on Sundays. I think it will make me look older. I sneak out of the house, run across the yard, then wade through the deep snow in the gully. I reach the railway tracks just as I hear the train coming.
I also hear Luc shouting after me. "Marie-Claire! Wait! Where are you going?"
I turn to him. He's come away from the house wearing only a shivery thin jacket, but he's managed, somehow, to lace up his moccasins.
The train squeals along the tracks and slows, making its way down through the gully. For the next three minutes or so, we'll be able to walk faster than it can roll.
"I'm going to see Oncle Gérard," I tell Luc over the noise of the train as he catches up.
"I'm coming with you."
"Suit yourself." I shrug. "But they're not going to let you on the wards."
"I don't care. I'm coming."
There's a step on the corner of each boxcar and above that an iron grab bar. You stand still and wait for the train to start sliding by, then you grab hold of the bar, letting the momentum of the train swing you onto the step.
A man passing through last summer wasn't so lucky. He lost his balance and the train dragged him under.
Luc and I have made it onto the train dozens of times. Today I confidently swing on first. Around the corner of the step is a ladder. I climb to the top of the boxcar, with my brother right behind me.
Once safely on top, we sink down together. But as the train slowly picks up speed, an icy wind begins to whip by, and I realize we've never done this before in the winter.
It's bitterly cold and I open up Maman's fur coat for Luc to get inside with me. He shakes his head. Acting like a tough boy.
The train chugs along through the snow, up and down hills, past frozen fields, our breath steaming up around us, smoke from the black steam engine curling by. Skinny Luc has at least worn a scarf, but soon it's crusted with ice, and he shivers violently in his stupidly thin jacket.
When we arrive at St. Felix, there's a twenty-minute stop. We lie down flat so we won't be seen, as all the boxcars shunt and squeal and rock, and the workers at the little station house below cry out to one another, unloading freight, loading up more.
We finally get going again. The ride from St. Felix to the Pembina Hills San is going to be another twenty minutes. By now Luc's whimpering with the cold.
"Get over here now!" I order between chattering teeth.
He finally joins me inside Maman's fur coat, a coat that has been passed down to her from our magnificently fat grand-mère. Still, the cold grips us. By the time the train pulls up to the crossing at Pembina Hills San, I can no longer feel my fingers, my toes, or my face.
We scramble off at the little station. As soon as our feet hit the ground I begin to walk up the road as fast as I can go, with Luc marching right along beside me.
The main building blasts heat onto our faces the minute we open the doors. I get us both safely inside, almost fainting from relief.
"Sit over there," I say to my brother.
He sinks, shivering, into a big brown couch in the foyer, and I go to find somebody to talk to about seeing Oncle Gérard.
Excerpted from Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks. Copyright © 2010 Martha Brooks. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
MARTHA BROOKS was raised in southwestern Manitoba, near the U.S. border, in a medical family on the grounds of a tuberculosis sanatorium. She lives in Winnepeg, Canada.
My sister and I were raised in southwestern Manitoba, near the U.S. border. Mom was a nurse and Dad a thoracic surgeon. We lived on the lyrically beautiful grounds of a tuberculosis sanatorium in a sprawling many-roomed house with sleeping porches and a wraparound veranda that overlooked Pelican Lake. The surrounding hilly countryside and the feeling that a living spirit moved within this landscape was my earliest artistic influence and I still write from and in that landscape. In fact, our summer home across the lake from where I grew up is the perfect place to grow a novel! The other influence was my own chronic illness as a child, forging my vision and opening me to an early understanding that suffering and miracles often exist side by side. I still write from these influences.
Other personal details include: the surgery when I was eighteen that gave me health and my two voices as an artist; a husband of forty years who is my soul mate and best friend; a grown daughter who is an anthropologist–poet, a three decade career in writing and public speaking, eight books (the first is out of print), four plays, and—at sixty-three years of age—a joyful parallel career as a jazz singer and lyricist where I get to play with some of the best jazz musicians that Canada has to offer.
Martha Brooks resides in Winnipeg, Canada, with her husband, Brian.
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This is a amazing book!! I love it so much becuase of its touch of romance! Its a quick read, has some depressing moments, and a great story plot!!! I recommend this book to people who like bad beginning, happy ending books!! Read it!! Its really good!!
Can i bee the medicen nat
I bless your kits and will watch over them in starclan.