The Shining Fragments

Written by Robin Blackburn McBride
Review by G. J. Berger

Eight-year-old Joe Conlon’s dear Mam dies on their ship’s passage from Ireland to Canada in 1882. A grandmotherly passenger takes Joe and his baby sister by train from Montreal to Toronto, where their uncle is supposed to meet them. No uncle appears. The grandma absconds with the little girl for her childless daughter and leaves Joe, starved and scared, on a train station bench.

Joe is placed in an orphanage. He graduates to peddling newspapers and shining shoes, then labors at a flour mill. He learns to gamble and drink (both well), learns about women and heartache, emptiness, regret. Joe’s special talent for sketching, drawing, and painting becomes his anchor, eventually leading him to design stained-glass windows.

At the orphanage, Joe befriends a wispy girl, called Deary by the nuns. She walks on her hands for minutes at a time, cartwheels like a gymnast, and swims underwater. A wealthy couple takes Deary away to become their household servant. Joe’s yearning to find her again never eases, not through a marriage to a lovely seamstress, not through whiskey binges and round-the-clock deadlines to finish glorious windows.

McBride deftly takes us into Toronto of that rapidly-changing time (1882-1904), to the way people talked and moved and how they lived. The prose is spare but interesting (“Mrs. Roach, while not a cornerstone, was certainly a sizeable brick.”) and fits the emotions of each moment (“Joseph’s words blew loose with the snow, and he couldn’t take them back.”). The plot lines, some with jaw-dropping surprises, all work. Tales about orphans left to find their way in the New World are many, but few are as engaging as this story. Recommended.