Although this book is described as a novel in the press release, I think of it as a book of short stories, as each chapter can easily stand on its own. Taken together, the chapters are not cohesive enough to create one story, but I don’t believe that is a negative thing, each section is a wonderfully detailed look into the Bouchard family, whom I enjoyed getting to know.
Maitland grew up on a variety of army bases, which acted as part of the inspiration to write this book. Riel Street centers on a small military street in Kingston with a cast of characters all eager to gossip about and with each other. Many of the chapters are told from the perspective of one of the four Bouchard children, some are from their mother Shirley’s voice as well.
Shirley is featured prominently throughout the book, and she was by far, my favourite character. Her no-nonsese parenting provided quite a bit of comic relief throughout the story, which I also admired about her. I hope that I when I have children, I can trot out a fraction of the sass that this woman exhibits each and every day. I suspect that her personality is not something that she was born with however, it has come from a lifetime of taking care of others, and is a general product of being over-worked. For instance, her husband was sent overseas for the majority of one of her pregnancies and subsequent birth, all while she was still expected to take care of their other children and living on a meager budget. How did women do it back then? Although probably not the main intention of authors like Maitland, whenever I read a period piece like this, it always makes me thankful for our modern-day technologies and conveniences.
Some tragedies do occur throughout the stories, but these are all treated with a light hand, never getting bogged down by too much emotion and drama. Some may see this as too cursory a treatment for these kinds of situations in a book, but I simply see this as a realistic depiction of that time period (1960’s). When you have little money and time, there is no room for drama, and this is reflected in Maitland’s stories. Yes, horrible things happen and they affect everyone differently, but for people like Shirley who are just struggling to keep her children healthy, there is no time to dwell on difficulties of others, or even difficulties of your own. You pick yourself back up and move on-just like the military teaches you.
One last observation-men are generally described as lazy and philandering in this book. They drink too much, don’t trust their wives with their cars (if they even allow them to drive them) and could care less about helping out around the house. Is this an accurate description of men on army bases at that time? Who knows? I’m not sure whether this was intentional by Maitland or not. If she doesn’t want to focus in on male characters in her book, she doesn’t have to, and creating a balanced depiction of all people at that time is not the sole responsibility of one fiction writer. So what if she doesn’t focus on any men in her book? Male characters have always been a dime a dozen in literature, lord knows we could do with a small break from them every once in a while (how am I doing with that sass?).