Welcome to the third in a series of blog posts about the novel Always Brave, Sometimes Kind. In this post, you’ll find information on Chapter Two: Angels in the Snow (1998 / 1978)
“The baseboards are still scuffed, blackened by little shoes, and the window trim is still chipped where the baby gnawed, but the marks are just memories now, only ghosts. The space is painful in its emptiness.”
Dolly Quinten’s family is struggling to care for the aging mother’s early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Her college-age daughter, Carrie, cares for her in the morning but puts her to bed with sleeping pills so she can attend afternoon classes. Dolly’s family doesn’t know that Dolly has stopped taken her medicine. Now, the afternoon’s belong to her… and the young children she discovered, still playing upstairs.
Loss and Redemption
Struggling under the loss of freedom and health, Dolly must come to terms with both the loss of her children, and her role in the loss of another woman’s child.
History Lessons: The Sixties Scoop
Alone in the dark, Dolly thought of the first photograph she’d ever seen of her son. The child had been listed for adoption in a Keep Sweet magazine her visiting sister had brought up from Utah. There were three children pictured: wee little Jack with the sparkly eyes, a girl about the same age as Susan, and an older boy listed as Wilf, but Dolly always thought Wolf because of his sharp eyes and the protective stance he took over his younger brother and sister. The ad suggested Wilf as a good fit for rural families in need of free labour, but that the little ones were sweet and playful and all three were in excellent health. The children’s mother had been recently widowed. In the section listing the reason why the Albertan government had apprehended the children it simply read: Impoverished.
Susan was already in kindergarten by the time Dolly’s sister showed her the ad. Doctors had said Dolly wouldn’t have another child after the difficult birth of her eldest. How could they have known Carrie would someday surprise them? A Child Is Waiting, Jack’s caption read. The Quentin family could have him for as little as four thousand dollars. Dolly so wanted another, and the boy obviously needed a home.
“It isn’t right,” Earl said at first, adopting a child like ordering a Chatty Cathy from Sears Roebuck. But Earl had always wanted a son, Dolly argued, and little Jack was from Alberta. That meant he was already one of their own—they couldn’t let him go to America or Europe or Timbuktu!
It wasn’t until more than a decade later that Dolly heard the term “Sixties Scoop,” and even then, she hadn’t realized Jack was involved. Susan was the one to point out the connection during a tense Sunday dinner, when she was home from college and arguing poltics with Earl over a roast chicken she refused to eat, claiming newfound vegetarianism. Voices from a news broadcast droned in from the family room.
“But Jack wasn’t adopted in the sixities,” Dolly argued. “We got him in 1975.”
Susan shook her head. “Mom, the government adoption programs started in the fifties, but they didn’t stop until after I was in high school. Besides, just think about it: you first saw him in an ad, right? In an American magazine? He and all his siblings were split up just because his mom was ‘too poor?’ In a country as rich as Canada? That’s not right. This is exactly what they’re talking about.” She waved her hand in the general direction of the television set. “Private adoption agencies made a killing.”
The Sixties Scoop refers to the mass removal of Indigenous children in Canada from their families during the years between 1960 – 1985. Read more about the epidemic of child apprehension in this article from the First Nations and Indigenous Studies department of the University of British Columbia, or about the A.I.M (Adopt Indian Metis) Program.
This seed for chapter was inspired by two things: a beloved childhood tale, and a strange vision.
The tale that inspired this chapter is Peter Pan. No retelling of this story exists that doesn’t make me weep at the scene of Mrs. Darling sleeping night after night in the abandoned nursery, only to wake to see that finally – against hope! – her children have returned. However, she doesn’t greet them, but turns to leave the nursery, because she “dreamt about them so often she thought it was a dream hanging around her, still.”
The vision was one I had as a young teen that has always stayed with me. In this dream or image or what-have-you, I’m laying on my back looking at a blue wall, directly in front of me, and white walls are running up along side me. I realize after a moment that the white walls building on either side is snow, and that I am looking up at a blue sky. Such a simple image, but it was accompanied by such a sense of both dread and resignation that it made its way into a novel, over twenty years after its first imagining.
I based Dolly’s character on two literary figures: Mrs. Darling from Peter Pan, and Hagar from The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence (my favourite writer!).
An earlier version of chapter earned the Writer’s Guild of Alberta’s Emerging Writer Award, 2017.
I took opportunity in this story to reference classic “old person” Canadian television programming: The Littlest Hobo:
Television trays, these wobbly tables used to be called. The children would eat dinner off them as a treat. Sundays, yes, when they watched that program about a dog. The Littlest Hobo—that’s it. Back when Dolly and Earl and the children were a nest of a family, cuddled under home-stitched quilts, needing only each other.
To Margaret Macpherson, who was this story’s first reader, and to WGA Emerging Writer Award Sponsor, Nicole Duley.
Set in the urban 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.