There is something to be said for a simple story, well told. Bitter, Sweet has no bells or whistles, no shocking plot twists, and certainly no gimmicks. It is a heartfelt and authentic slice of historical fiction.When the novel opens, the Burbidge children, Jesse, Pru, Flora and Davey, have been living alone in a ramshackle house on Dalhousie Road for some time now. Their father has abandoned them and their beloved mother Isadora recently died of a lingering illness. Isadora prepares her children for her death, teaching them everything they need to know to carry on in her absence. Their greatest fear is being split up and sent into the foster care system, a fear they believe will be realized if their secret is discovered. Although they have done their best not to attract attention, life is hard for the Burbidge children, and people are growing suspicious.
The story is told mostly from Pru’s perspective, although at times the narration switches to an omniscent observer. I wasn’t entirely clear on why the author made this choice, and while it distracted me, it didn’t negatively impact my overall reading experience . Pru is a resourceful girl who has inherited her mother’s and grandmother’s gift for plants and healing. Though she is used to defering to older brother Jesse, throughout the novel Pru’s confidence develops and she takes on more of a leadership position, one based on practicality and the family’s best interests.
At 144 pages, this is a slim little novel. Despite it’s relatively short length, author Laura Best manages to create a vivid portrait of a loving family in the midst of a crisis. There was something about the tone, style, and brevity of text that reminded me of another lovely little Canadian novel, Carried Away on Licorice Days, which I had the pleasure of reviewing here. The draw in both of these novels is emotion. While not overwhelming sad, Bitter, Sweet looks at grief, family drama, abandonment and disappointment. It’s a thoughtful read for 10-12 year olds who like meaningful stories.
It is an attestment to Best’s writing that while I didn’t like the character of the father, I found it difficult to hate him. Guilty of abandoning his family not once but twice, it would be easy to turn him into a monster. Instead I felt sorry for him. Here is a man with a temper and an enormous chip on his shoulder, one who wasn’t prepared for children and can’t seem to abide by the law. Best gives him enough moments of genuine remorse and empathy that I found him pitiable rather than reprehensible.
Bitter, Sweet is one of the five books nominated for the 2010 Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. There is stiff competition in this category, but Best’s tone and pure storytelling may set her apart from the crowd. She is a fine crafts-woman, one who pays great attention to detail but doesn’t bury her character or her story in description.
Bitter, Sweet is available now in paperback from Nimbus Publishing.