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About this book
Broke City, the final book in Wendy McGrath's Santa Rosa trilogy, follows young Christine as she edges into self-awareness in the now-vanished Edmonton neighbourhood of Santa Rosa. Budding with creativity that her working-class parents do not understand, Christine questions her parents' fraught relationship, with alcoholism and implicit violence bubbling just under the surface of their marriage. Her insight turns beyond her family to her neighbourhood, nicknamed Packingtown, a community built on meat-packing plants and abattoirs, on death. Written with tight lyricism, Broke City is a brimming working-class gothic novel that reveals Christine's deepening knowledge of the adult world around her and of her own complicated place in that world.
EXCERPT FROM BROKE CITY:
The house smelled the way it did when the Christmas tree was in the living room. When it was in the corner and still. Frozen with no decorations or lights. It was as if Christmastime had made a mistake and come to the house in the afternoon, in summer when it was hotter inside the house than it was outside. That summer morning, when the house was still cool, Christine’s mother had poured the pine-tree-smelling liquid into a silver bucket half-full of hot water. Christine had seen the bottle under the sink and now she could read the label: Pine-Sol.
Pine-Sol was gold and beautiful and when her mother had raised the bottle to screw the cap back on the sun shone through the glass and cast a golden beam of light from the window to the kitchen floor she was about to wash. This must be what heaven looks like, Christine thought. The smell of pine trees, gold shining on the green and grey tiles in the kitchen and the music playing. That song about golden silence was playing on the radio and Christine thought she might already be in heaven, but maybe no one had told her yet. It was as if pine trees were all around her: the smell of the trees at Elk Island Park on that day she had learned to swim and even her father had come along, and the pine tree in the backyard where she ran to bury the putty discs she had made. She had knelt under its branches then, and the ground was so cool. Christine remembered how it felt, how the needles poked through the thin cotton of her nightdress and stuck to the smooth skin on the tops of her feet and pricked her fingers as she dug in the earth. There was a pine tree in the neighbour’s yard too, only the fence separated the two trees. Remembering that moment, it was as if her whole life of seven years had become a life of a hundred years and she felt old and young, and alone and part of her family, as if she were looking at her mother washing the floors through a window. Of course, she thought, this must be what heaven is like. She saw that between the two big yellow words Pine-Sol was a tiny pine tree. Pine-Sol. Pine trees were all around her it seemed, but she wasn’t afraid and didn’t want to get away. The bottle of Pine-Sol. Heaven could be this simple thing, Christine thought, the scent of the water her mother used to wash floors.
Then the news came on the radio.
The small community of Shell Lake, Saskatchewan is in shock this morning . . .
Christine’s mother rushed to the radio and turned up the volume.
— What’s wrong Mom?
. . . as RCMP investigate the deaths of nine people. The victims, all members of the same family, were discovered at their home this morning by a neighbour. RCMP are treating these deaths as homicides. Shell Lake is 50 miles west of Prince Albert. We will bring you more details about this tragedy as they become available.
Christine’s mother ran to the phone.
— What’s wrong, Mom?
— I’m phoning Gramma.
— Long distance? Christine was shocked. Her mother didn’t call long distance, especially during the day when she said it was so expensive. Christine’s mother dialed quickly, receiver to her ear, cigarette sticking up like an antenna. Christine watched their own phone number in the circle at the centre of the dial.
Her mother had written the numbers in blue ink and each one was a character. The fours were like sails on boats and the twos were like swans on the water. Her mother’s finger would pierce the small metal circle inside the bigger metal circle, go half-way round the dial and return. Again. Again.
— What’s wrong, Mom? Do you know those people, Mom? Who are those people, Mom? Does Gramma know them? Christine thought about what they’d said on the news: “. . . the victims, all members of the same family . . .”
— Is it Gramma?
— No. No, I don’t know who it is.
— I’m scared, Mom.
— There’s nothing to be scared about.
Christine didn’t believe her.
"McGrath's poetic prose shimmers with the all-seeing light of the prairie sun, as she traces the journey of a young girl bravely fighting for her own identity."
"Like Carson McCullers' A Member of the Wedding, Wendy McGrath evokes the wise, tender, poignant observations of childhood. Compelling and oh so true, Broke City is a ghost story of the heart."
"With her now-complete portrait of the artist as a young girl, McGrath proves why she’s a writer to pay attention to." full review
"[Broke City], the finale in McGrath’s portrait of the artist as a young girl growing up in working-class Edmonton, the Santa Rosa trilogy captures a young creative mind and a now-lost neighbourhood of the city." The best reading of the independent presses of the year.
"What's clear is McGrath's facility with language, for describing perfectly the sensation when understanding is within one's grasp, close enough to taste on the tongue but somehow not close enough to feel between one's teeth."