Bonnie's Reviews > This Side of the Sky

This Side of the Sky by Marie-Francine Hébert
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Oct 07, 09

bookshelves: canadian-author, recommended, reviewed-books, fiction, novel
Recommended for: all teens and adults around the world
Read in October, 2009

What a find! Marie-Francine Hebert is not afraid to tackle – appropriately, in this young-adult novel – difficult subjects such as prejudice, racism and sexual abuse. While these topics could be disturbing, Hebert tempers such themes with her unique, poetic prose; and by offering her characters the opportunity to develop self-esteem, self-reliance – and hope.

You know those book sales that happen in a mall or outside your local library? Well, just recently, I came across one in the process of being set up. I had two cloth bags – my intention was to fill them with the books waiting for me on “my section” of the book-request shelf inside the library. The sale wasn’t to begin until the following morning, but the volunteers graciously allowed me to rummage through, as they unpacked box after box of books. After quickly filling one bag, I asked how much they were asking: 50 cents for paperbacks and a loonie ($1) for hardcover! The slim volume titled this side of the sky [no caps:] caught my eye: I loved the title and the cover, and Hebert was a new-to-me author from Quebec. I didn’t even realize it was a young-adult book until I read the first few pages, but by then I was hooked.

The novel opens with a poem written by teen narrator Mona, a homework assignment: address normal events that happen at home on a day off school. It’s a clever beginning, because right away we know that Mom expects Mona to look after her younger sister Angelique – who insists upon being called Bird, because she prefers to spend her time at the top of trees – and that Dad isn’t a particularly nurturing parent either: he sits in front of the TV drinking beer, and says to Mona, You deaf, girl? Beat it! We soon learn that Mom is pregnant and we guess that she’s worried she will bear another child like Bird, the baby who didn’t receive enough oxygen at birth, and who, according to Dad, was born with a sparrow's brain. To others, she is more like a five-year-old in an eight-year-old body. But Bird senses things, and she possesses keen observation skills.

Two classmates live nearby. Mona doesn’t like Suson, the daughter of the mayor and police chief, but she does like newcomer Jon, an African-American boy. One day Bird shows Mona a scene Bird has seen before: the police chief sexually abusing his daughter. Mona insists they can’t tell the police, because Suson’s father is the police. When Suson is found after running away, it is Jon, predictably, who ends up getting accused. But this is a simplified synopsis of the plot, and it would be a discredit to Hebert’s talent to dismiss it as just another story dealing with the same old themes.

I love it when chapters are titled. In the first: “the hidden lake”, Bird says that the lake is one of earth’s eyes. Because the lake is rotting, Mona says, “With an eye that full of slime, the earth can’t recognize many people.” In the chapter called “parents and other animals”, Mona and Bird secretly watch Jon leave for a weekend visit with his father. His mother’s heart is full of him. The girls kneel behind the bush in pieces. Mona can’t imagine her mother’s heart being full of her. She knows Bird can’t either: We stay on our knees for two days behind that same bush. Not in the flesh, of course. In our minds. We don’t dare look at each other, Angelique and me. It’s like when you’re hurt, as soon as you see your hurt reflected in someone else’s eyes, there’s no longer any room for doubt and your pain explodes. In “the lake’s arms”, Mona goes through the woods to the hidden lake, making sure to avoid Jon’s house. There’s too much joy down his way. Later, they’re at his house and a whisper of music makes its way through the open doorway... A whisper of music the trees hereabouts have never heard before. The leaves stand still on their branches… “I’m flowing inside,” murmurs Bird, like the creek into the arms of the lake. The teacher had given Mona 0/10 for her poem, but Jon said it was beautiful. In “the story we didn’t choose”, they find Jon’s book, Les Contemplations by Victor Hugo, and Mona reads a poem aloud to Bird. It refers to a child as a small joyous creature. This is too much for the girls to take in, especially Bird, who falls into the huge puddle of nothingness at her center. Mona throws the book and everything it holds into the woods as far away as possible. “I told you, Bird, it’s got nothing to do with us." But in the end, it will.

One of my favourite passages is when Suson has run away, and Jon is in hiding after being beat up by the two "Sigouin blockheads": The light’s shining louder than usual in all three houses, a blaring light that can be heard from a long way away. At Jon’s house, no music is playing, just the shadow of his mother pushing light from one room to the next, wearing a hole in the window, shaking the phone to make it ring.

Key to the story is Bird recognizing that Suson, though otherwise pretty, has dead fish eyes. And when Bird climbs a tree so high no one can get her down, insisting it wasn’t Jon who “did it”, the teacher tells Mona about being the first to discover her. She says she’d asked Bird what she was staring at: ‘At your dead fish eyes’, and then, ‘I want to see you cry.’ And the teacher did cry; and that’s when Bird told her about Suson and her father. Later, with everyone assembled below the tree, Mona and the teacher tell the truth, Suson says it wasn’t Jon, and Suson’s father is taken away. And Jon is the one to get Bird down from the tree.

I won’t disclose anything further – and there is more to this story – but I will say this: in the final chapter called, “an unconditional present”, I laughed out loud, and by the time I read the final line, I thought it was the perfect ending to this extremely moving, beautifully written story.

Marie-Francine Hebert’s books have been translated into eleven languages. Our library has fifteen copies of this book. Chances are, you will find a copy in yours. I highly recommend this side of the sky for teens and adults around the world.



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