this is not a review: ‘brighten the corner where you are’, by carol bruneau


Based on loving my (limited) experiences of limited spaces, I have this idea that I would love a tiny house. Also I’m drawn to stories about living in small spaces or trailers so it was wonderful, a few years ago, to visit the site of the one room house Maud Lewis shared with her husband Everett in rural Nova Scotia (as well as seeing the actual house which is now permanently installed at the Art Gallery of Halifax after a citizen’s group fought to save it). To imagine her painting by the window, arthritic fingers, little money, a miserly and odd/rather cold husband… going nowhere, speaking to few people, zero luxuries or conveniences, and yet… all those happy cows and cats and sleds and flowers, not to mention the house itself, the stairs, the walls, door, stove, everything in sight essentially, painted… brightly.

I’m only sorry that at the time I visited the house I hadn’t yet read Carol Bruneau’s Brighten the Corner Where You Are.

A novel narrated by Maud herself, dead and in heaven and from which vantage point, in case you’re interested, one can still covet Salsibury steak and where one is no wiser as to understanding humans. “You can’t know the heart or mind of someone else, not even from here.”

In a voice that so drew me in I had to keep reminding myself it was fiction, Bruneau spins an utterly charming (and eye-opening) imagination of what Lewis’s life might have been like in that tiny space with that crotchety, mean, and downright weird husband, and what she herself might have been like, what she thought of her strangely isolated life.

It’s also based on a sizeable amount of research judging by the bibliography.

In Bruneau’s version, Maud doesn’t complain much, she accepts the choices she’s made, the safety of marriage being something she’s grateful for after being spurned by a man with whom she had a child (a child she never knew). There is a beautiful through line involving a ring that Everett gives her, which she sees as a symbol of belonging and legitimacy. Somehow, as a couple, they work. She can’t cook but she ends up being the one to bring home the bacon, $5 at a time through her paintings, which are sold at the side of the road or by word of mouth.

Paintings now worth tens of thousands.

But it was never money that inspired her.

“When the wind blowing in through the cracks finally lulled me to sleep, I dreamt of an orange. It was fresh from the hold of a sailing ship from the south seas, round and bright as the sun. As I sucked its juice its seeds stuck in my teeth. And in the dream Ev yelled at me for not saving him some. For he expected me to share it: what’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine. That orange was the colour I would’ve painted the entire house if I could have.”

Lewis is nobody’s ninny, nor is she a Polyanna. The fact that, despite her circumstances, she chooses to paint only joy, is what makes her so interesting and becomes the angle at which Bruneau excavates: what kind of a person can live like this and still see the world as she does?

“It’s colours that keep the world turning, that keep a person going.”

It would have been easy to sentimentalize the story or play on the reader’s empathy for Lewis but Bruneau does neither. There are scenes where I wanted to scream get out, or they’re only trying to help you, or you don’t need him. But I’m glad no one was listening. Bruneau finds a beautiful balance in Maud, showing us one possibility of Why She Stays, an account that could be entirely true for all we know, certainly an example of the times when women like Maud, especially, rural and poor, physically disabled, with ‘a child out of wedlock’, were happy to have any kind of place in society. A husband and a shack by the road would do nicely.

Even so, you can’t help believe Maud Lewis had something special, a quality that helped her almost thrive.

“What these folks don’t see is that these cages made me the bird I was and the bird I am, made me sing in the way I did, the way that brought me happiness and joy and a starry life I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”

What surprises me most is how joyful the story feels, despite the not so joyful reality. In whatever way Maud managed to turn difficulty into a tolerable happiness, so has Bruneau turned a difficult story into one of ultimate brightness, capturing the essence of Maud’s pragmatic outlook. Whenever I put the book down I could hardly wait to get back to it in that way where you hope the characters haven’t got up to anything while you’ve been having your lunch. The reading felt like hanging out with Maud, hearing a sometimes painful story told with heart and sprinkled throughout with laughter, wry observation, and Maud’s maybe unintentional sense of humour.

“…Mama had a strict arrangement with Mae, who did my hair in exchange for cards. Dis-for-dat: the barber system, Mae called it.”

All that and…. it has one of the most beautiful endings I’ve read in a long time.


Image courtesy WikiCommons.

how to spend three days in niagara

Oh Niagara. How I do love thee. Let me count the bottles of wine and bushels of fruit.

—If you can, begin your Niagara love-in on a Thursday. Less traffic but close enough to the weekend to feel celebratory.

Begin with lunch en route, in Ancaster, at the Mill. Don’t worry if it’s raining, the room is all windows and made for watching rain fall while you eat. Have the pickerel and chips and Soiled Reputation salad greens with shaved black radish, carrot, fennel and Dijon dressing. Just have it. Order a glass of Tawes Echo chardonnay. And don’t forget the rain.

On the way to Hamilton—where you will spend a few happy hours strolling through the Art Gallery—stop at a roadside nursery and buy seeds: arugula, mesclun, radishes, beets, carrots, chicory. And one asparagus plant for the cats to eat until the goldenrod in the garden is big enough to pick for them. [Cat grass just sticks in their throat and makes them gag.]

If you’ve missed the William Kurelek exhibit poor you.

Later, stop at Bryan Prince Books. Listen as the amazing and cheerful staff chat with customers by phone, in person, with each other, with the elderly man who toddles in, a paperback in his hand, and says it turns out he already read this book, can he return it and choose something else, and the amazing and cheerful staff say of course you can, Henry, and within two minutes Henry has chosen a hardcover, the title of which I can’t see, and happily pays the difference, and then toddles back outside, smiling, all flat cap and walking stick.

Consider stopping  for something just because a place looks like fun and you can see cupcakes through the window not to mention that you’re anxious to read what you bought at Bryan Prince. But, really, you have to admit you’re still full from the pickerel. Press on instead.

Take a picture of a fountain made for both mid-range and ground level thirsts, and smile at the woman who shakes her head as she passes and tells you that’s a silly thing to take a picture of…

Drive to your hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is one of your favourite places in all of the world and is privately owned and run by family that seems to enjoy what they do—and it shows. Go off season for good rates and fewer tourists. No one likes tourists… blech blech. You of course are not one.

Change and go for a swim.


Have a late dinner in the sports bar. Have a sublime thin crust pizza. Or quinoa salad.

And then… at last… climb into a most comfy bed and read that book you bought at Bryan Prince.

In the morning, swim. You will have the pool to yourself if you go at the right time. I’d like to tell you precisely what that time is, but I don’t know. Try to work it so you’re done your swim just before the aerobics class comes in, although, according to one of the women, you’re welcome to join them.

Have breakfast at Liv. Complimentary smoothies start things off. Might even be chocolate banana…

Have the eggs benny.

Begin the wine tour with Niagara College Winery, a teaching facility as well as winery and where they’ve built a whole new beautiful building—one of the loveliest features being a wall of wines, a bottle from each of the wineries in the area.

Visit the College greenhouses where you would love to be a student, and buy a small pot of oregano and a large potted snake plant. One to eat with eggs, the other because it’s happy minding its own business in the shade and has no appeal for cats.

Visit Staff Winery and be met by Brix, the happy giant puppy. Buy some Toute Sweet chocolate to go with the Baco Noir.

Visit Tawse Winery because they are bio and love talking about life without pesticides. And so do you. Buy some Riesling.

Drive to Beamsville via the back roads and pull over to walk or stretch or breathe fresh air whenever the mood strikes. Do not be tempted by the chocolate in the back seat.

Stop for lunch at August Restaurant, where even though the last customers are leaving because it’s twenty to three and they close at three for a couple of hours, the staff says don’t be silly, come on in. And the music is wonderful and no one will rush you and the waitress—who is charming and pleasant in exactly the right way—will tell you she started off as a customer and she loved the food so much she begged them to let her work there for free. Or meals. Or something. I think she gets paid now. She is a gem. And she’s not kidding about the food.

Think to yourself: at this moment I am completely and utterly happy.

Say it out loud if you’re with someone.

Drive slowly back to the outskirts of NOTL, where your comfy bed awaits for a short nap.



Walk from your hotel through the gardens of Niagara College, to the College’s beautiful restaurant, Benchmarkwhere you will be surrounded by windows and wonderful views, culinary students eager to ply their newly learned skills, and food that has never failed to satisfy. Afterwards, you will be grateful you’re walking back to the hotel, but sorry it’s only less than ten minutes.

The final day [which may well be Saturday] wake and swim and have breakfast at Liv and walk through the grounds, then say your goodbyes to this delightful home away from home and promise to come back soon.

Discover a new winery. Make it a small one, off the beaten path–one that looks like nothing much from the outside, yet on the inside awaits a brilliant chat with owners and some excellent Riesling to add to your ever-growing Riesling cache.

Drive to St. Catharines and go directly to the Farmers’ Market. Buy arugula and blue iris, freshly caught trout, and whatever else demands to go home in your carrier bag. Then walk over to Hannelore’s Book Shop where, if you know the place well, you can navigate through the stacks and find just what you’re looking for. If you’re a newbie, give yourself time and enjoy the adventure. [Note: Hannelore has no website. She’s too cool for that. But anyone will be able to tell you where to find her.]

You could of course have lunch at the market or at any number of places downtown, but on this day you have a hankering for a lakeside table, so take yourself off to Port Dalhousie [where only the locals know how to pronounce it] and treat yourself to the joy at Treadwell, where the food is local and, I swear—it doesn’t matter what you have—out of this world delicious, where the staff is welcoming and smart and so happy to see you and you wonder if the house across the road might come up for sale so you can eat here every day.

Eat slowly. Sip your wine. Make this last. You won’t want to leave.

In fact what you’ll want to do is order the appetizer again for dessert. [And don’t think you haven’t done this before…]

If you’re so inclined, walk over to the beach, take a ride on the carousel if you dare. Be careful. Some of those critters move.

Eventually the QEW will beckon and it’ll be time to head home but not without first stopping at Foreign Affair to sample their unusual amarone wines and walk about the grounds of Vineland Research Centre, which used to be the Experimental Farm your parents took you to on Sundays when outings on Sundays meant suits and ties, hats, gloves, patent leather shoes and that horrible pink plaid pleated skirt that made climbing trees very difficult.

Have I mentioned it’s still raining?

Have I mentioned it matters not at all?
Greenhouse at Vineland Research Centre


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