A Good House by Bonnie Bernard


On the surface this is a quiet, simple story of a family living in small town Ontario. Quiet but not exempt from the influence of world events and beneath the surface the drama; comic and tragic, of caring for and raising children. The story begins in 1949; a wounded Bill Chambers has returned from World War II missing enough of his right hand to forcefully compel his left hand to become dominant. He finds a job working in a hardware store in the town of his birth and  buys a small house on a quiet street where he and his wife Sylvia settle down to raise their three children. The author enriches the lives of each character with the ordinary events that ripple down the years. Some occurrences happen in the blink of an eye and are devastating, such as a child’s face being damaged and scarred irreparably during a neighbourhood mock circus. As well, events occur over time leaving  lasting effects such as the long illness and death of the children’s mother or later, the migration of family members away from their small town to pursue their ambitions and livelihoods in other places.

I read this book quite a while back in February month. I have not been faithful to this blog because a member of my personal good house is making the difficult  journey toward wellness in a  struggle with cancer. This delay has coloured my reflections on this book and I have changed my mind several times as to what some of its nuances signify.  The Good House, of the title is of course not just a building although the Chambers’s childhood house provides solid shelter during both the joyous and the difficult times. However, a house can also mean a family unit as in the House of Tudor or the House of Borgia (in this case without the poison)  or even something more substantial such as the House of Parliament.  A house is a collection of individuals small or large, who stand together in solidarity supporting each other as a sort of bedrock institution.

I liked the structure of this novel. The author has divided the book into nine chapters each one based on a year taken from the Chambers’s family life. The first chapter begins in 1949, the last in 1997. The years chart the progress of the family over three generations. The post war nuclear family grows and reconfigures over the decades. Its members experience widowhood, remarriage, divorce, conventional marriages, unconventional unions, children who are orphaned but regroup and are gathered together in love and other children who have secret parents but always there is the bond of caring and human decency.

The writing is achieved with a delicate touch, sometimes humourous and often close to nature and the strength that can be drawn from lakes and trees and the very grass that surrounds the ‘good’ house. Life that is everywhere nourishes the family as does the strength drawn from love and of friendship.

Bonnie Bernard died in the spring of this year leaving a slight but significant body of work . She was the recipient of many awards including the Giller prize for A Good House.



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