Queen of Hearts by Martha Brooks

Lynn: I really shouldn’t reveal how clay-like my reviewer’s feet are but I seem to confess my failings in this blog all the time.   This clearly has to stop but before I talk about Martha Brook’s new book, Queen of Hearts (Farrar 2011), I need to say that I usually dislike books about people with awful diseases.  They are right there in the same category as books that make me cry but worse since I instantly acquire all the symptoms described!  However, this is Martha Brooks, one of my favorite authors so I grimly started the story and of course discovered I shouldn’t have worried.  It is about a disease but there was much more to take my mind off that strange little cough I just developed.  Set in Manitoba in 1941, this unusual story chronicles a young girl’s battle with tuberculosis, a disease that is tragically making an antibiotic-resistant comeback.  Fifteen-year-old Marie-Claire Cote’ works hard on her family’s farm, is a good student and has just received her first kiss from a young soldier when she and her younger brother and sister are diagnosed with tuberculosis.  Suddenly the siblings are installed at the Pembina Hills Tuberculosis Sanatorium, “chasing the cure.”  Marie-Claire has always been strong and healthy but this insidious disease makes her too weak to even get out of bed.  In a time before antibiotics, the only treatment was rest, good food, and therapies like sleeping in the cold and surgically deflating a lung to rest it.  Survival was difficult and uncertain and Marie-Claire experiences  feelings of guilt, anger, grief and surprisingly joy and growth.  It is this depiction of her fierce and authentic coming of age that made this story work so well for me.

So much of this story will be eye-opening for young American readers from the disease itself and its treatment to the very welcome view of Canadian WWII experience.  Brooks gives readers a ready entry point to this historical fiction with the acutely identifiable character of Marie-Claire whose emotions easily cross the years.  The family issues and a sweet love story as well as the Marie-Claire’s reactions to her illness make her feel like someone we could know.  Booktalk this one and watch readers hand it off to each other from then on.

Cindy: Let’s look at the cover, shall we? If I had seen this earlier, it would have made our Top Ten Book Covers post.  The playing card attracts attention, but the beauty is in the details. The Queen of Hearts is a nickname that Marie-Claire is given by her beloved Oncle Gérard…the man who returns home and unwittingly infects the children with TB before he is moved to the sanatorium first. The other half of the playing card shows Jack, her brother’s sanatorium roommate and later the object of her budding desire. The kite and trumpet in their respective hands are included in the plot. And then, looking closely at the details in the outfits there are great details. A collar of hypodermics, stethoscopes, pills, Marie-Claire’s rosary and Jack’s St. Christopher medal. And then the teaser, “Coming of age…in a hospital bed.” The whole package is marvelous. Nice job, Greg Call and FS&G.

True Confessions of a Heartless Girl will probably always remain my favorite Martha Brooks book, but I am delighted to have a Brooks story to share with a younger audience. When I think of how much of this book, by necessity, takes place in a hospital bed during the years of treatment, it is a testament to Brooks’ genius that she keeps readers engaged and turning the pages. This book is more than a tonic for those girls who “just love disease books,” it has much going for it for a broad audience of romance and historical fiction readers as well. Take 200 pages and call me in the morning.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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