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Children of the Day
by Sandra Birdsell
Random House Canada
416 pages, $35.95

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Posted October 12, 2005

In Children of the Day, Saskatchewan writer Sandra Birdsell follows up on the promise of her excellent 2001 novel, The Russländer, which garnered high praise and a nomination for the Giller Prize. Her new book is an equally great success; it is an ode to her own unique Métis-Mennonite family heritage that showcases the quintessential Canadian multicultural experience.

Children of the Day takes place in the fictional town of Union Plains, Manitoba over the course of one day—June 14, 1953—during which Sara Vandal (née Vogt), mother of ten, refuses to get out of bed following a night-long argument with Oliver, her husband of nearly twenty years. Of course, much more is told here than just that single day’s events; various flashbacks highlight important moments from the family’s history. The story, told alternately from the perspectives of Sara, Oliver and three of their daughters, is a detailed portrait of this familial collision of cultures that comes to vivid life in the eyes of the reader.

The Vandal daughters are strong creations: Alvina, the eldest and thus burdened with responsibility in the household, who longs to escape by way of a typing and shorthand exam at school that will lead to a junior secretary position in Winnipeg; thin, pale Emilie, always in trouble with her mother and always feeling guilty for something; and little five-year-old Ruby, whose efforts to fill in while her sisters are at school and her mother is bedridden are both heartwarming and harrowing.

Readers of The Russländer will recognize Sara and her sisters Annie and Katy. They were the only survivors of a horrible massacre in which the rest of their family was murdered in Russia during the anarchy following the Bolshevik Revolution. In the years since then, the three have come to Canada along with Katy’s husband Kornelius and settled on a Manitoba farm, land given to them for free or close to it. What they don’t know is that the natives and Métis that lived there before them were hustled off the land to make way for the European settlers preferred by the politicians.

Sara, while still a teenager, is sent to work as a maid in Winnipeg. She is expected to attend weekly meetings of the Home Away from Home Club with other unmarried Mennonite women working in the city, but Sara “longed to enter the huge beating heart of the city.” One day, after stealing a scarf and pair of earrings from her wealthy employer to wear on the bus on the way to the Club, she follows her instincts and does just that.

“Before she had time to argue with herself, she rose from the seat and stepped into the street. Into a cacophony of people jabbering, calling to one another overtop the sound of music, a brassy jolting tune coming from a gramophone on a table beside a shop door. She swerved to avoid a black dog threading its way among the legs. The day was the colour of a ripe apricot, the light diffused, softened by moisture-filled air that smelled of overripe fruit.”

Sarah becomes lost, and after witnessing a scene of violence on the sidewalk, darts out into the street where she is nearly run over by a taxi. The driver turns out to be Oliver. Sparks fly between them, but circumstances separate them until they encounter each other a year later back home in Union Plains where Oliver has become the manager of the town’s run-down flophouse hotel. Their passion for each other is ferocious, and before long Sara is sneaking out of Kornelius and Katy’s house to join Oliver in his little room under the stairs at the hotel. Pregnancy and marriage follow quickly.

June 14, 1953 turns out to be a day of upheaval for the Vandals, one which fundamentally changes each of the family members in different ways. Birdsell moves effortlessly between the distinct voices of the various characters, weaving a complex tapestry from these individual threads. The examination of the way Métis, French and Mennonite cultures intersected in rural Manitoba is original, and the voices of these characters are fresh and compelling.

There is much to praise about Children of the Day and little, if anything, to disparage. I am surprised it was left off the recently announced Giller Prize shortlist, but hopefully that omission will be corrected when the finalists for the Governor-General Literary awards are announced on October 17.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer of Mennonite heritage, currently working on his first novel.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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