Children of the Day
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Children of the Day opens on a June morning in 1953, when Sara Vandal, convinced that her husband has been having a decades-long affair, decides that she is too sick to get out of bed. With ten children in the house (and a possible eleventh on the way), this decision sets off a day of chaos, reflection and near disaster for the Vandal family.
Sara’s husband, Oliver, heads to the town hotel and bar in Union Plains, Manitoba, where he has been the manager for the past twenty years–a position he suspects he’ll no longer have by the end of the day. In an attempt to avoid the unavoidable, Oliver decides instead to pay a visit to Alice Bouchard, his childhood sweetheart across the river.
Throughout the day, both Oliver and Sara reflect on how their lives collided – a car accident that brought them together and tore them from the futures their families expected of them. Sara (from Sandra Birdsell’s previous novel, The Russländer) recalls her life in the big city of Winnipeg in the 1930s – a young Russian Mennonite woman lucky enough to escape the shackles of her overbearing culture. Oliver remembers his wedding day photograph–his the only Métis face in a crowd of Mennonites–and the precise moment when he suddenly grasped the enormity of his decision to “do the right thing.”
The Vandal children, too, must deal with this unusual disruption of their daily routine. Alvina, the oldest, secretly handles the stress of her family, her plan to escape them all, and her discovery of the world’s evil in the only way she knows how. Emilie worries about losing her happy-go-lucky father while facing the town’s heretofore hidden racism head-on. The boys live up to their family name by recklessly taking chances and literally playing with fire. And since her mother won’t come out of her bedroom, Ruby, just a little girl herself, must take charge of the babies with danger lurking in every corner.
By nightfall the extended Vandal family will be thrown together to work out the problems of the past and exorcise the ghosts that haunt them, which have all, in their own way, set this June day’s events in motion.
Charlie, someone so intensely pleased just to be breathing, so pleased with himself. Should I take you to school? Charlie asked. He jabbed the bridge of his brown-rimmed glasses with a finger, the movement releasing another wave of wet-dog odour. The school bell began to ring, a brittle clang that echoed. I’ll walk to school, Emilie said, and watched as Charlie rode away. He stood on the pedals and leaned over the handlebars, raising a smoke of dust that lingered along the road. And that was
helped him up from the chair, and with much manoeuvring and effort they assisted him into the house, while Oliver looked on, shaking his head. Remembering how this man had intimidated him through-out his young life, how the creak of his heavy steps in the house had been enough to make Oliver stumble through a song he played for Alice and her sisters, his fingers gone cold on the piano. He lit a cigarette and drew on it, the spark of light accentuating the hook of his strong nose. He exhaled a
school. Katy was her usual bustling self. Although she was prematurely grey-haired, she hadn’t turned sour, unlike many of the women they knew who had come from the same town as they had, who had passed through similar circumstances and fled Russia in the same manner. Rather, Katy remained young-looking, much more so than Kornelius. Come, let’s you and I have a good visit at last, Katy said, leading the way into the dining room. Sara joined her at the table. A bowl of rye wheat, grown tall, was
occurring. She couldn’t ever go back to the country of her birth. But there were places she could go in order to find the past. To the manger where Jesus was born, to the hill far away where he was crucified, as described in an Easter hymn. She would visit Bethlehem, Golgotha, and find out if such places actually existed. How’re them kids of yours doing? she imagined Coral asking. Fine. How’s Emilie? I love all my children. That’s not what I asked. Yes, I know. But that was what came to her
doorway looking on. Having arrived silently and unnoticed, and leaving the same way. Sara worried that Oliver used these periods of freedom to see Alice whenever he liked. In the nights Sara had never been able to get as far as the hotel. But if she had, and had then discovered the squat, demoralized building in darkness, she would not have been able to find the narrow trail that went along the highway and down through bush to the ferry. Or crossed the frozen river to determine whether or not