A Good House

A Good House

by Bonnie Burnard

Paperback(First Edition)

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A Good House begins in 1949 in Stonebrook, Ontario, home to the Chambers family. The postwar boom and hope for the future color every facet of life: the possibilities seem limitless for Bill, his wife Sylvia, and their three children.

In the fifty years that follow, the possibilities narrow. Sylvia's untimely death marks her family indelibly but in ways only time will reveal. Paul's perfect marriage yields an imperfect child. Daphne unabashedly follows an unconventional path, while Patrick discovers that his happiness requires a series of compromises. Bill confronts the onset of old age less gracefully than anticipated, and throughout, his second wife, Margaret, remains, surprisingly, the family anchor.

This extraordinarily moving and beautifully crafted first novel was a number one bestseller in Canada where it won one of the country's most prestigious literary awards, the Giller Prize, in 1999.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312420321
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 10/05/2001
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

BONNIE BURNARD is the author of two novels and two short story collections. Her first story collection, Women of Influence, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. Casino & Other Stories was shortlisted for the inaugural Giller Prize and won the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award. Her first novel, A Good House, won the Giller Prize and the CBA People’s Choice Award and was published around the world in many languages. Her second novel, Suddenly, was a Globe and Mail Book of the Year, praised by critics as “a smart, consuming read” (Toronto Star) and “an unassuming masterpiece” (The Globe and Mail). A recipient of the Marian Engel Award, Bonnie Burnard lives in London, Ontario.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


* * *

FED BY THE rolling fields and the running miles of shallow country ditches to the east of town, Stonebrook Creek approached the town aslant, cutting down through Livingston's gully, then flowing past the burning mounds of garbage at the dump, a ripe, evolving depth of trash that came alive at night with the industrious plunder of raccoons, an afternoon home-away-from-home for the town's mostly good-natured dogs. Beyond the dump, the creek narrowed and angled sharply west to hug the bottom of Bald Hill.

    Then it twisted its way through the recently rehabilitated nine-hole golf course. The course had been closed during the war years but when the men returned, crews of volunteers had worked long hours to bring it back to its pre-war self, the greens shaved close and graded to fool the eye and framed by sand traps, the creek a recurrent water hazard crossed by pretty wooden bridges.

    Nettles and cattails and goldenrod and Scotch thistle grew on the banks down close to the water and in high summer there were orange lilies and buttercups and thick, hovering clouds of dragonflies, and butterflies. And you didn't have to follow the current far to see suckers or catfish or carp. There were snakes, of course, and musk- rats, and the slight fear of drowning. But at the very worst the water was deemed only a mild hazard, just something natural, something that could safely be ignored.

     As it left the golf course the creek passed under the narrow, hand- somely arched highway bridge thatmarked the town's southern out- skirts and finally it entered the town proper, flowing behind the canning factory down near the double row of tracks and then past the Vinegar Works and the foundry and the last remaining barns.

     Dominion Canners was still in business in the forties and a can- ning factory was a significant thing for a town to have because it meant jobs for men and women both, dirty, respectable, seasonal jobs processing fruit and vegetables. The work was well paid, but because it was entirely dependent on markets and the yields of particular crops, production ebbed and flowed. Jobs had been steady only during the war years, when tons of fruit and vegetables were trucked in to be dehydrated and shipped to the men fighting overseas.

     In the winter months, at Turnball's barn, kids who had bundled themselves in bulky, wet-smelling wool rested their lit flashlights in the crotches of the willows that lined the frozen creek to shovel the snow up onto the sloping banks, diligently chipping at the hardest ridges of ice to make the surface smooth enough for skating under the winter sky, which was never black but always the darkest possible navy blue. Brothers and sisters fought for their turns with the family skates and bright red mitts got dropped in a December thaw and then forgotten until they could be seen again through the cloudy ice, trapped, waiting for spring under the barren, overhanging branches of the trees. Some nights, when the illumination sent by the faraway moon and stars bounced off their high-banked snow like thrown bolts of wedding dress satin, the kids switched their flashlights off, proud to be out in the night alone, made safe by the natural light.

   But soon there would be no need to shovel Stonebrook Creek clean because people were starting to talk about a Memorial Arena, to honour the war dead.

     Sixteen of the town's sons had been killed overseas this last time and another thirty had been wounded, many of them seriously. Amputees were a common sight now, as were torn, badly healed, once-handsome faces and eyes gone hesitant or vacant and, in the heat of summer, out at the lake, backs and chests and limbs defiled by pulpy ridges of flesh which had been pulled shut over wounds by mili- tary doctors working without the luxury of time, without the care that time allowed. Many families were slowly and quietly learning how to make their way around small, unanticipated explosions fired by edgy nerves and some of the wounded had been sent home carry- ing in their toughened bodies the extra weight of shrapnel, which doc- tors at the big vets' hospital in London were still busy excavating four years after the fighting was done, often, by necessity, one shard at a time.

      Stonebrook Creek did not have in it the force of industry. Stonebrook had never been a mill town. The creek did offer good dependable drainage, which mattered a great deal now that so many new houses were going up, and it did provide a bit of work for the town's men, whose many responsibilities included occasional atten- tion to the creek's banks, to hip-high weeds in the summer, and some- times to discarded, rusted chunks of sharp-edged machinery parts and, once in a while, deep in the current but stopped by stones, a tightly tied burlap sack filled with carcasses, the lazy disposal of an unwanted litter, lazy because the lake was such a short drive away and rowboats so easily rented.

     The creek touched a few properties. Before it finally left town to make its way over to Lake Huron to empty itself, it turned sharply north to run behind one long street of houses, to move across the bot- tom of their sprawling backyards. But the houses built on that street were as good as any.

    Stonebrook held perhaps five hundred houses in 1949, brick or painted frame and mixed together, big with small, new with old, good with bad. Normally they sat well back on very big lots, sheltered from the weather by five or six fully matured trees, planted maples, sometimes elms or walnuts, the occasional hickory or chestnut. Forty or fifty of the houses were new since the war, and although these had been built on more modest, modern lots, most of them had fancy up-to-date kitchens and laundry chutes and high, dry basements and wall-to-wall broadloom carpet for the living rooms. Almost all the residential streets had been resurfaced and graced with brand new poured-cement sidewalks, and the tall poles that carried the heavy telephone and hydro wires, slung between them and from them to the corner of each roof, were interspersed now with streetlights.

    Down near the Vinegar Works, five or six places had been let go too long to be brought back and these could be picked up for next to nothing by a man who had to settle, who had to have some kind of shelter for his family, even if the linoleum floors did slope in many puzzling directions, even if the rooms did hold the stench of all their previous inhabitants.

    The magnificent houses, the three old-money brick houses, each with a small turret and a wraparound porch, had been built uptown near the churches when the town was younger and smaller, before the Great War. The wraparound porches were there to hold rainy-day children and morning tea carts and quiet late-evening conversation, cosy, discreet conversation which could not easily take place in front rooms or kitchens or bedrooms, certainly not on the street.

    Sitting on one of these porches, hidden in covered darkness, you could feel the weight of the wet summer air on your skin, you could smell it, the soft scent of toilet water and mown grass and lilacs and honeysuckle in that air. You could listen to the endless ringing of a million crickets, hear birdsong flying from nest to nest in the highest branches of the trees, and sometimes you could hear the low mumble of a car or a door slamming or people shouting, streets away. If you sat there long enough, if you were a patient person, you could see through the dark. You just had to start with the most prominent, most easily recognized shapes, the shapes anyone would know, and then concentrate, hard.

THE CHAMBERS HOUSE, a storey-and-a-half white frame with a grey shingled roof, was halfway down the street that backed on Stonebrook Creek. Like almost everyone else in town, the Chamberses had two big maples out close to the new sidewalk and a few decorative evergreen shrubs planted under the big front window to soften the line of the foundation. In the backyard, which stretched in a gentle slope down to the creek, there were two more maples, one horse chestnut, one pussy willow, three very old hickories, and, on the shallow creek bank, two majestic willows overhanging the water.

    A narrow gravel driveway led along the side of the lot back to a too-small garage, which was really just an oversized shed. But this was common. Not many garages had caught up to the bulk of the new postwar sedans. If there were extra people around, and there often were extra people around, they just pulled their cars over onto the grass. The grass had to be tough enough to survive this, to thrive without pampering, because no one paid any attention to it. It was there primarily to keep the weeds down and to reduce the likelihood of mud.

    Across the front of the house there was a large living room with three small, leaded windows on the side yard and a big, recently installed picture window facing the street. Since the war, lots of perfectly adequate living-room windows had been replaced with these picture windows, which were said to both nicely frame the view to the street and open the rooms to sunlight.

    In the long living room there was a marble fireplace that didn't draw very well, with delicate tulip sconces on either side, and a wide archway leading to the front hall and to the vestibule, which had a mullioned, bevelled-glass door and then a heavy front door that was permanently locked and never answered, except maybe at Christmas, or to a stranger.

    The staircase, which turned halfway up at another pretty leaded window, this one translucent with patterned glass stained green and deep rose, and the glowing hardwood steps fanned to make the turn, led from the vestibule up to a small central hall and off the hall to a bathroom and three bedrooms with extra-large closets cut into the sloping roof. This was the quiet part of the house, where voices were muted, where privacy was sometimes sought and found.

    At the back of the house, behind the living room, there was a dining room with a slippery hardwood floor, a swinging door into the kitchen, and a wide window which overlooked the sprawling backyard. In the winter when the trees were bare, if you lifted the new, silky sheers, you could see Stonebrook Creek from this window, at least you could see where the smooth blanket of snow became the frozen surface of the current.

    Sylvia Chambers' kitchen had most of the modern conveniences: an adequate stove, a brand new porcelain sink, an almost new, half-price Frigidaire which Bill had brought home from the hardware store, half price because of the small, harmless dent in the side. The kitchen was big enough to hold the oversized pine table where the family ate most of their everyday meals and anyone who came over was expected to use the never-locked kitchen door.

    All the walls were painted plaster, smooth as silk. The staircase and the trim were oak, the baseboards eight inches high. You could run in a circle on the main floor, from room to room to room, around and around. Small children liked to do this, and visiting dogs.

    It was a good house. Bill and Sylvia Chambers had bought it in 1941 when Patrick was four, Daphne one, and Paul just born. The bank loan had looked manageable, and although the war in Europe was well under way and not threatening to wind up any time soon, Bill and Sylvia had both felt a guarded optimism about their lives when they signed the papers that fall.

    Neither of them had ever lived anywhere else. Their distant ancestry, an unexamined mix of quiet, hard-working Irish and sanctimonious Scots with the occasional black sheep thrown in, either boisterous, bothersome, speech-making Irish or Scots turned soft, was seldom actively present in anyone's thoughts. Bill's paternal grandparents had farmed eight miles north of town but because there wasn't land enough for all the sons, his father had slowly bought into the hardware store, where Bill now worked. That was before the misery of the thirties.

    After the thirties, with the hardware let go for a song, Bill's father had started to sell cars and trucks up at the Chev Olds and he'd loved it, the wheeling and dealing, the good cigars, the flask of celebratory rye in the top drawer of his otherwise empty desk. He was now, in late middle age, a minor partner, with no serious thought of retirement.

    Sylvia's Ferguson grandparents had moved up from the Chatham area when they were just young to take over the grocery store, which her father had recently sold to the Clarkes, although he'd reluctantly agreed to continue on for a couple of years as their butcher.

    Bill and Sylvia had married in 1936, the year King George died, because Sylvia was pregnant with Patrick, a situation which was not especially desired but certainly not unusual. Sylvia's father adjusted himself to the circumstances quickly, he didn't see any reason to go too deeply into these matters, but her mother thought Sylvia, because she was so very pretty, could have done better and like a fool she said so.

    Sylvia had to pull her mother down on the front porch steps to try to convince her once and for all that Bill Chambers was a very decent man, a kind man, that while he was obviously neither traditionally handsome nor brilliant he was everything else a woman could want, and then some. Saying these last words she had smiled and raised her eyebrows in an impudent gesture which was both rare and immediately understood for what it was, and which settled the question for good.

    Bill Chambers signed up to go overseas in 1942, very soon after they'd bought the house, just when Sylvia was starting to find ways to believe in the life they were making. He wasn't any kid, he was almost thirty. To explain himself, he told Sylvia he simply couldn't stand not going. He left by train, was sent first out to Halifax to be too hurriedly educated by his country, too quickly taught about ships and depth charges and German U-boats, and then he was shipped over with all the others like him to try to apply what he had too quickly learned.

    When it was finished, finished for him, he came back to Sylvia and the kids left-handed. In the organized chaos of an attack from the air, in the bitterly cold, loud, black, bloody mess that was a battle in the North Atlantic, the caution Bill had taught himself, the deliberate, sober, rational maturity he'd thought he would need was wasted. He watched the three most useful fingers of his right hand leave his hand, watched two of them land on the deck at his feet, and just before the guy beside him kicked them overboard he had snapped a mental picture that would make itself available to him for the rest of his life: the bloody fingers roiling slightly with the heave of the ship, the pulpy, mangled flesh that was no longer his own split open like burst sausage, the nails, blue-white and still almost real, holding firm.

    But none of this made Bill Chambers extraordinary. He had come home alive, to his family, to his job, to his comfortable house on Stonebrook Creek. And in 1949, with the war mercifully over and won, the only cost to Bill those three fingers and the time it took to train his left hand, with the country ready to enter an unprecedented boom and Sylvia confident that she could get her children safely through their childhood, comfortable was what the Chamberses were hoping against hope to be.

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