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'Queen of Hearts'

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[December 21, 2011]  "Queen of Hearts," by Martha Brooks, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, 211 pages, young adult

Review by
Louella Moreland

Young people of the 21st century may have little personal contact with relatives who lived during World War II or the Great Depression, and may be unfamiliar with how life was then. Yes, today's economy is not good, but rationing of gasoline and food due to the war added to the severity of the problem in the 1930s. Also absent from the lives of our young people are many diseases that plagued the world's populations at a time before many medicines, especially penicillin and other antibiotics, became tools in the medical profession's arsenals.

One of those diseases was tuberculosis -- TB for short -- that attacked the body's respiratory system, claiming the lives of numerous people. Most at risk were the young and old. Often young adults with lifestyles of hard work and inadequate diets or rest were claimed by the disease in the prime of their lives. The poor were especially hard-hit.

To write a novel of this time period that would resonate with young adults could not have been easy. Martha Brooks, in her novel "Queen of Hearts," has accomplished the task with compassion and insight.


Most of the story takes place between the Christmases of 1941 and 1942 in a sanatorium called Pembina Hills. The story is Marie-Claire's, just shy of 16 years old when she and her younger brother and sister are diagnosed with the disease and sent to the sanatorium to "chase the cure." They are from a poor farm family who struggled to make a living in the harsh winters of Canada. An uncle had unknowingly brought the TB germs to their home, dying at the sanitarium before the children took sick.

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Brooks captivates readers with her depictions of the day-to-day, week-to-week struggle against the disease. Progress was painfully slow, sometimes taking years; treatment was often severe; and sometimes death came no matter what was tried. Brooks, through Marie-Claire, makes readers understand the monotony of having to rest and sleep for hours a day. We experience the numbing cold of the winter wind as she is bundled up and taken to sleep on porches where the air was pure and good for the lungs. Marie-Claire brings alive the feelings of boredom and depression as time brings good news to some and heartbreak to others, all the while never losing the hope that one day a cure will come.

Marie-Claire is a feisty character who loves her family, even through the bitterness of realizing her father can never care for a daughter as much as a son. As she struggles to get well, she discovers a great deal about the person she will become. Due to the suffering of a fellow patient, she comes to understand what true friendship is. As a reader, we want desperately to see her make a better life for herself because even with her flaws, her heart is good.

Most of all, we will come away from Marie-Claire's story with an understanding of the time period in a personal, human way that a history textbook cannot give us. Why? I like to think it is because Marie-Claire is a character we would like to meet. Through her story we also "chase the cure" to a healthier being inside our own hearts.

[Text from file received from Louella Moreland, Lincoln Public Library District]

(Ms. Lou's blog:


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