Thursday, July 28, 2011

Angela's Ashes Meets Lullabies for Little Criminals

Swinging on a Star: Growing Up in Montreal's East End
By Patricia Bissonnette

This is the story of a time when Montreal existed in black and white: The Catholic Church reigned supreme in Quebec, low income housing consisted of cold-water flats despite the harsh Canadian winters, poverty forced families to place their children in orphanages, horses plied the streets of Montreal, and grandfather made a comfortable living as a blacksmith.

The book is populated with extraordinary characters: The strict paternal grandfather who took in his daughter-in-law and her children repeatedly when his son failed to support his family. Aunt Martha, a devout and judgemental Catholic, a stingy housekeeper yet one who was free with the money of others and loved fine things, and who despite her apparently traditional morals, carried on with men in a way that was very liberated and even scandalous for the time. Duke, the deadbeat Dad, a man "not cut out to work" or be responsible for the children he fathered. Monica, the mother, whose love for her children was what kept the family together, despite repeated separations. Monica's siblings who, except for Aunt Rita, turned their backs on their sister, "expecting the boys to be no good, just like their father."

Above all this is a story of hardship, love and survival. A nod to all of those who helped the family through hard times --and sometimes that help came from unexpected corners-- and a snub for those who turned their backs. Monica, despite repeated hospitalizations for gout (hypothyroidism) is the pillar who holds the family together. Interspersed with the stories about the past, Bissonnette includes reflections written as a dialogue with her mother who is no longer with them. Throughout, the writing is vivid and poignant. Bissonnette captures the moments as they were lived by her younger self.

This book is a self-published biography and I read it as a work in progress. The book contains a wealth of remarkable details that need to be fleshed out, complementing the family story with additional historical information. Brief mention was is made about how her father made a living for a while as a Canadian rum runner during US prohibition, while simultaneously losing all the assets her mother had brought to the marriage, and somehow getting shot in New York under very unclear circumstances. There's a story dying to be told! Other details also beg for further elaboration. Who paid for Patricia's and her mother's hospitalizations for illness? Why did she become disillusioned with her Catholic faith? Why was the father's imprisonment seen as a positive thing?

I would love to see this book picked up by a major publisher to flesh out the stories and include more historical detail. As it stands, the book is not perfect but nonetheless it is a very good read. My criticism of it is that "it leaves you wanting more," which at the same time is the highest praise possible. This is an author who deserves a publisher and widespread distribution.

The Swinging on a Star website is:
and Patricia Bissonnette may be contacted at:

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