A Good House by Bonnie Burnard is my first ever Book Club book. Book Club doesn’t meet for another month, yet I can’t keep quiet after having read this novel. I have too many ideas swirling around that might actually annoy my Book Club friends because of the seeming triviality of my ideas so I’ll save my big questions for the group and explore my smaller questions for my blog post. Burnard’s novel is about generations of a family living in small-town Ontario from the 1950s up to 1997. As I read, I couldn’t help but relate to a lot of what Burnard wrote about because I also come from a large, generational family from a small town (although my family lives in Alberta, not Ontario).
Right from first few pages, page 9 to be exact, I was curious. Page 9 describes how the Town Hall bell in Stonebrook rings every day at noon. Growing up in a small town, I can distinctly remember the Fire Hall using its siren or whistle at noon into the 1990s (or at least it sounded when I was in town at school or church). Although the memories are vague, I thought it strange that the siren rang everyday at noon only after I moved away from the small town to the city where people had to use clocks to see that it was noon. So where does the tradition of the noon siren come from? A reminder to take a lunch break before wrist watches and now cellphones?
In the same chapter it makes mention of the town’s water tower. The word “STONE” is on one side and the word “BROOK” is on the other side. Although I didn’t have a water tower growing up (we had a few wells and my Grandpa built a windmill for his log barn), my parents moved to a small town a few years ago where the water tower was a major town issue. The town decided that the water tower was no longer needed and that the tower should come down. Some people in the town started a “Save the Water Tower” campaign because they couldn’t imagine their town without the tower. Apparently some people see the destruction of water towers in small Alberta towns like the destruction of the grain elevators. I’m not quite sure I see the importance of the water towers, but some do (especially in this article).
My walk down nostalgia lane did not end at the noon siren or the water tower. Because this book is set in Ontario there is of course mention of hockey. Growing up in the West I had no idea how important hockey was to rural communities and the central provinces in general until I moved to Ontario. One year my High School hockey team made it to the City Championships and we got the afternoon off to go to the rink to cheer on our Delta Raiders. We won and the celebration was amazing. Then we all piled back into the yellow school buses and headed back to school. In the novel, Burnard describes how several hockey arenas were built and dedicated as memorials for men who fought in the war. Although all Canadians love their hockey and I don’t want to argue who loves hockey more, I think that for a longer period of time (maybe because of population and having established communities), people in Ontario (and Quebec) feel their hockey differently than other provinces. Burnard’s novel reminded me of this ingrained sense of hockey pride felt in Ontario.
These are fun stories and connections (as I mentioned, not something Book Club would be interested in, most likely), but the hardest part of the novel for me to read was the dying of one of the characters. Sylvia is a daughter, wife, and mother. She has three great children (who are followed in the novel) and a pretty amazing husband. In the description of Sylvia dying from cancer I couldn’t help but think of my own Grandmother. My Grandmother died too young from breast cancer. The story of how Sylvia is supported by her husband, her last words with her children, and the gap she leaves in her family and community helped me to better understand the devastation the death of my Grandmother left within her own family of three and her community. It is rare that a book can make me cry actual tears to the point where I have to put down the book, yet Burnard’s honest, painful, open, and tender telling of Sylvia’s illness and death truly touched me. I am grateful to Burnard for the honour and dignity she gives to a woman who seems to have lost all dignity and courage.
Overall, this was not my favourite book (perhaps because some of it’s criticisms of large families hit a little too close to home?), yet I am grateful for the personal journey I relived as I read about the lives of the Chambers family.
I’m not sure what the Book Club reaction to the book will be, but I’m interested to see how people from the city with a small family related to this novel!
“The new siren was installed on Stonebrook’s Town Hall tower on the first good Tuesday in April . . . The old cast-iron bell , the original, was not to be replaced but augmented with this new technology.” (A Good House, “1952,” pg. 9, Bonnie Burnard)
“Every house has a builder, but the Builder behind them all is God.” (Hebrews 3:4)