Summer Reading

The early burst of summer weather this COVID season also meant a jump start on my summer reading, thanks to the kindness of a couple of reader friends who offered two bags of books, including only one I had already read — Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín — which I would also recommend to anyone who hasn’t yet read it.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín One of the first reads of this summer was another of Toibin’s, Nora Webster, the story of a recently-widowed young Irish woman with two young boys and an uncertain future. She quickly tires of calls and visits from well-meaning friends and neighbors offering sympathy as she attempts to plot a very different course for herself and her boys without the husband whose sudden death has changed all aspects of their lives. Tóibín has been cited for his ability to write about women and Nora Webster is a fine example of it.

It’s always nice to discover a prolific author whose books you watch for, a description that (for me) applies to Donna Leon, whose novels, set in Venice, feature Commissario Guido Brunetti. Over the years, I have read many of her 29 books, written between 1992 and 2020, that providing an interesting look at Venetian policing but also reveal her views on the Italian government, the Catholic Church and the cultural differences among Italians from various districts in the country.

If you haven’t read Leon before, you might, like myself, enjoy her style of hero who has to work around rather than with his boss but has the assistance of the boss’s computer-savvy secretary who provides him with inside information on both the policing and criminal worlds. When it comes to her Brunetti novels, Leon sees herself as a “peddler of light entertainment rather than a purveyor of deathless prose,” but her “light entertainment” won her the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 2000 and the Corine Literature Prize in 2003.

Leon’s The Golden Egg involves Brunetti’s wife Paola’s sympathy for the mentally handicapped young man at their local dry cleaners who dies suddenly, leaving no evidence had ever existed. At Paola’s insistence, Brunetti finally pieces together his said story. (By the way, Leon’s books don’t have to be read in sequence and the book covers, in my estimation, are actually a form of art!)


With the “Black Lives Matter” mantra reverberating around the world, Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys is a must read. The novel is based on the true story of a reform school in Florida that operated for 111 years and claimed to change delinquent boys into “honorable and honest men” through “physical, intellectual and moral training.” In reality, Nickle Academy was a hellhole where sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, including Elwood Curtis, who grew up absorbing the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who preached that no matter what Blacks suffered at the hands of their persecutors, they should “love them.” “Be assured,” said King, that “we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will be free.”

The Nickel Boys by Colson WhiteheadElwood suffers plenty at Nickel Academy, where his “physical training” involves being beaten so badly he ends up in the hospital. Other boys don’t survive the beatings and are disappeared “out back.” Such beatings were commonplace and part of life in the reform school that “warped the lives of thousands of children,” according to Whitehead. Elwood begins to doubt King’s admonition to “love them” and eventually, with the help of a fellow “resident,” decides to take a stand. This book made a lasting impression on me, reminding me how Black people, especially, Black teens, have been treated in the United States, but in our own country and own province as well.

For contrast, I would suggest We Were Rich and We Didn’t Know It, by Tom Phelan,who grew up poor in Ireland but, in various stories from his childhood, reveals the family, the teachers, the clergy and the everyday people who influenced him and gave him a sense of belonging to a community of people who lived pretty much hand-to-mouth, but had many good laughs as they managed to survive. The Catholic Church, of course, exercised tremendous power over its adherents, and unfortunately for Phelan, having an aunt who happened to be a nun made him the subject of high expectations, including that he would likely become a priest. That’s a part of the story you’ll have to read about, along with those concerning his father’s demanding work ethic and his mother’s uncompromising Catholicism, but also their tremendous sense of family and belonging.

We Were Rich and We Didn't Know It, by Tom PhelanPhelan’s experience as a child with the Penny Catechism, brought back memories of our Baltimore edition whose questions and answers had to be memorized each night before our regular morning religion class. Phelan’s list of the many ways in which he and his classmates could break the Church’s interpretation of the Ten Commandments eventually led to his sense of guilt about “lying to my parents, lying to my teacher to avoid being whacked with a hazel stick and wishing Paddy Connors would drop dead.”

Often, his mother would get him up early in the morning to make sure he knew the answers to the various Penny Catechism questions. She might even send him out to the barn where his father, while milking the cows, would question him, squirting him in the face if he lost patience with his lack of answers. His father, however, managed to change his mind when, following a visit to the school from a Christian Brother looking for recruits, Phelan had been moved to sign up, imagining himself “going on African missions,” telling little pagan children how Christ died to save them from hell fire and brimstone and “teaching them the times tables as well.” A good read!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, a wonderfully readable story of family and much of what makes families survive or not depending on the circumstances in which they find themselves. A man buys a beautiful house for his wife, who hates it, although their two children are happy with their lives and the staff hired to look after their every need. Written from the son’s perspective, the story is largely about his close relationship with his sister — especially after their mother leaves and their father introduces a much younger bride with two small children into the mix. This is a very touching story, the kind that you will read quickly and with great interest in its characters’ fates. It will also have you checking out other books by Patchett.


The late Silver Donald Cameron’s final book, Blood In The Water, set in Isle Madame in Cape Breton, is a horrible story of revenge – revenge against a long-time resident, Phillip Boudreau, who had spent the best part of his life terrorizing his neighbors, friend and foe alike. Boudreau’s police record ran to 28 pages, including convictions dating back to 1987 for offences such as “mischief, possession of narcotics, break and enter, motor vehicle theft.” Cutting trap lines and stealing lobsters were his favorite pastimes and part of his enjoyment of the act was telling the injured parties what he had done.

Blood in the Water by Silver Donald CameronThe Dutch House by Ann PatchettRCMP and Fisheries officers seemed powerless to stop Boudreau, but he met his Waterloo in 2013 at the hands of three fishermen — James Landry, Craig Landry and Dwayne Samson — who had had enough of his “mischief.”

This is a very well-written account of the trial of one of the accused by a first-class writer who called Isle Madame home from 1971 until his death this past June. Recognizing the names of the lawyers, prosecutors and judges involved will an extra degree of interest for Cape Breton readers, but Cameron’s account of the investigations and interrogations that led, ultimately, to the mens’ convictions will engage readers well beyond the island.

Included in Blood in the Water are what Cameron refers to as “Village Voices,” in which various residents of Isle Madame express their opinions of Boudreau and the effect both his renegade activities and his murder at the hands of fellow residents have had on the entire community. Some decry his murder while others firmly believe that he got “what was coming to him.”

It’s something that had to be done. It’s just a pity that it was those guys who had to do it.

(Boudreau had been accused of rape but, because the victim had a communication disability that made it impossible for her to tell her story in court, he was instead charged and convicted for break and entry, for which he was sentenced to two years in prison. I was dismayed that this episode, which included Boudreau threatening the daughters of others involved in the case, including police officers, wasn’t mentioned until quite late in the book.)

Cameron suggests Boudreau may have been killed for any number of crimes more serious than stealing lobster and that “murder for lobster,” the “glib phrase” that has stuck to the case like “a burr to a sheepskin” only “gained currency” because “poaching was the only motivation that the courts would allow themselves to hear about.” As an RCMP officer explained to Cameron, “we can’t convict a dead man of crimes he was never charged with.”

Boudreau’s death divided the community of Isle Madame, and his story will no doubt be told and retold. In the absence of a body (Boudreau’s was never found) I imagine there are those who still expect to see him some time, somewhere…

Featured image: Winslow Homer (1836-1910), Girl in a Hammock, 1873.


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.