Welcome to the #ABSKnovel blog series, where I share tidbits and trivia about the stories that make up the forthcoming novel Always Brave, Sometimes Kind. This is the second post and explores the book’s prologue chapter, All the Children We Do Not Know.
Read the first post in the series, That Car.
An aura brightens the dark staff room and wakes Rhanji. The doctor gasps upon his rush to consciousness. He had dreamt of skin: skin as blue and translucent as water in Nanni’s dyeing vat: cadaverous, pallid, with indigo residue. In the last moments of the dream, the flesh had melted into a liquid in which Rhanji began to drown. In that blurred place between slumber and reality, he’d thought the fluorescent light was the sun as seen from under the sea; the girl in the centre of the glow, an angel.
Set in the midst of the Hospital Worker’s Strike of 1995, “All the Children We Do Not Know,” the first story in the upcoming novel Always Brave, Sometimes Kind, introduces the reader to Rhanji, a doctor struggling to manage a skeleton staff in frozen Edmonton, Alberta, following deep healthcare cuts. Despite the understaffed chaos of the emergency room, the hospital is an escape for Dr. Rhanji as he struggles to face the personal trauma hanging over his home. The adopted son of Rhanji’s daughter is missing – the baby abducted from Yasmin’s running vehicle weeks earlier.
The Hospital Laundry Worker’s Strike
The laundry workers went on strike that morning. A year ago, all non-essential hospital staff had accepted pay cuts with the promise of continued job security, but now the Alberta government had announced plans to annihilate laundry-worker positions in favour of a hiring a private contracting facility. Scoffing at the idea of helping those who betrayed them make a clean transition, the workers walked off the job and were soon joined by cafeteria workers, janitors, and administrative staff. Clean linens were quickly becoming as rare and valuable as available hospital beds.
Rhanji is greeted at the main doors by protestors arriving with food-bank donations and placards:
Jobs with Justice!
Tell Us Where It Hurts!
Food-service workers and housekeeping staff from other facilities have joined the laundry workers’ ranks, as well as work-to-rule nurses, out-of-work social workers, overworked teachers. Senior citizens and a variety of union reps add to their masses. In another life, these women could have been Nanni and her contemporaries, the female labour force used and abused, underpaid and unseen.
By morning, protesters have multiplied. Local 18 machinists have joined the noisy ranks, as well as top union dogs. Children have been dragged from school A woman flanked by two boys in ratty snowsuits smiles through her tears. “They see us now,” she sobs to a news camera as Rhanji walks past. “They finally see us!”
Although the incredibly effective, illegal, female-led Hospital Laundry Worker’s Strike of 1995 largely took place in Calgary, creative license was employed in placing the story in Edmonton, Alberta. Read more about the real-life experience here, here, and here.
The Sixties Scoop
When Rhanji began practicing in Canada in the early seventies, he was appalled by the number of Indigenous children removed from their homes, and entirely bewildered to find the majority of his young patients in fine health and without any obvious signs of neglect or disclosed history of abuse. He scanned intake forms for details explaining their removal and found reasons so petty they’d make more sense justifying a school detention: truancy, poor grades, pilfering candy bars. The younger ones were often taken upon birth for such common things as a family’s poor economic standing, or the marital status of the mother, or even whether delivery staff deemed a labouring woman uncooperative during her child’s birth.
Rhanji was taken aback. Silently, he stopped his work and sat in his office chair, hiding his eyes by massaging his temples, pretending to make notes in the boy’s file. He thought of his elderly Nanni bent over the dyeing vat in the years that followed his own parents’ deaths as he, then a small child, played nearby. He thought of tiny, beloved Yasmin and the life Rhanji carved out for her in a new country after they lost Sunita. If misfortune were reason enough to steal children, both Rhanji and his daughter might have been prime candidates.
The Sixties Scoop refers to the mass removal of Indigenous children in Canada from their families during the years between 1960 – 1985. Read more here.
Other Historic References
Grey Nuns Hospital is downgraded to a clinic.
History in the news: Rhanji returns home to find Yasmin looking like a corpse before the pyre, skin ashen in the television’s glow. “Alberta’s hospital crisis reaches critical condition with 2,700 workers on the picket line and another 3,000 poised to walk,” Peter Mansbridge reports on CBC. “Alarming new details emerge on André Dallaire’s attempt on the prime minister’s life. The Princess of Wales admits to adultery. A woman with the tattoo of a bird vanishes from the streets of Edmonton.”
“All electives and non-emergency care have been cancelled,” Carrie reports from behind the desk as Rhanji returns, her hand over the telephone receiver. Hold music hums from the earpiece, a top-forty song, Alanis Morissette.
Rhanji raises his brows. So the minister of health has acknowledged frontline’s problems. Will he fix them?
“All the Children We Do Not Know” prologues Always Brave, Sometimes Kind, but it wasn’t always the first story in the book. Originally, this story appeared three chapters into the manuscript, but its rightful place at the start was predicted long before the novel was even conceived. Years earlier, Athabasca University writer in residence, Tim Bowling, had critiqued the story and mentioned that it read more like the first chapter of a book than a short story. I didn’t know what to do with that information until much later, when the editor Claire Philipson and the team at Touchwood Editions asked how I’d feel about moving the chapter to start the book off as a prologue.
I slip in a reference to my former college, Northern Lakes College, Slave Lake Campus (then known as Alberta Vocational College), in this chapter.
This story, like many, was inspired by a dream. Like Rhanji, I woke from a dream about “blue skin” while napping, and when I opened my eyes I realized the world outside was the same colour as the image in the vision. Three lines appeared so loud in my mind they were almost audible:
The world is awash in a drowning dream. Four o’clock on an Albertan November afternoon is the most desolate time of day.
Yearn, your hands yearn.
Gods spy through pinholes in the sky, laughing or crying or disinterested in the lives of those living on a frozen prairie, so far from home.
I wrote the lines down and eventually set a whole story around those three sentences, inspired by the colour Indigo.
To Tim Bowling, for his insights as first reader, and to my mom, Angela Mulholland, Registered Nurse, for working during (and fighting against) the Klein government’s 1990’s healthcare cuts.
Set in the cities, reserves, and rural reaches of Alberta, Katie Bickell’s debut novel is told in a series of stories that span the years from 1990 to 2016, through cycles of boom and bust in the oil fields, government budget cuts and workers rights policies, the rising opioid crisis, and the intersecting lives of people whose communities sometimes stretch farther than they know.
We meet a teenage runaway who goes into labour at West Edmonton Mall, a doctor managing hospital overflow in a time of healthcare cutbacks, a broke dad making extra pay through a phone sex line, a young musician who dreams of fame beyond the reserve, and a dedicated hockey mom grappling with sense of self when she’s no longer needed―or welcome―at the rink.
Always Brave, Sometimes Kind captures a network of friends, caregivers, in-laws, and near misses, with each character’s life coming into greater focus as we learn more about the people around them. Tracing alliances and betrayals from different perspectives over decades, Bickell writes an ode to home and community that is both warm and gritty, well-defined and utterly complicated.