Anne of Green Gables she's not. Neither does she conjure up images of Rita MacNeil devotedly singing the praises of her beloved Nova Scotia.

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This article was published 28/2/2015 (2684 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Anne of Green Gables she's not. Neither does she conjure up images of Rita MacNeil devotedly singing the praises of her beloved Nova Scotia.

Tabby Saint, the tough young protagonist of When the Saints, is more of an Addie Loggins of Paper Moon meets True Grit's Mattie Ross type of gal. Then throw in some cussing -- a lot of cussing.

Submitted photo
Sarah Mian is able to bring dark humour to serious subject matter.

Submitted photo Sarah Mian is able to bring dark humour to serious subject matter.

Sarah Mian, the Nova Scotia-based author of this novel, is a poet and short-story writer whose work has appeared in a variety of Canadian journals. This is her debut novel, and it is a humdinger -- simultaneously bold, funny, dark, sad, zany and entertaining.

Tabby hasn't seen anyone in her family for 11 years. Sent off at age 14 to live with a woman she did not know, she was soon abruptly deposited in a juvenile home for girls that Tabby says was nothing more than a "career criminal factory." To say she is foul-mouthed, vulgar, angry and irreverent is an understatement. But she is also gutsy, funny, smart and, beneath her hard-as-nails exterior, someone who is able to care.

After barely surviving childhood, "juvie," and other far more dangerous characters and situations, a bitter Tabby heads to Solace River to search for what is left of her family.

The dilapidated fictional towns in an economically depressed Nova Scotia, where lobster is scarce and most of her characters are struggling to survive, have humorously incongruous names. There's little solace to be had in Solace River, and the same can be said for Jubilant, whose downtown "makes Solace River look like Shangri-La." Similarly, not much happens in Paradise, "unless you count glow-in-the-dark karaoke in a church basement."

Tabby learns that her father, a dangerous con man who has been nothing but abusive to his wife and children, is dying in the hospital. It is because of him that the whole family is despised, and their notorious reputation precedes them everywhere they go.

She learns her sister Poppy, now a drug-addicted stripper and a mother of two small children, has been missing for weeks. Her brother Bird has been viciously beaten and crippled, and another brother, Jackie, has found himself a girlfriend and is about to become a father. (He already has three children with three other women.)

Tabby then discovers her aging, ailing mother, who has been trying to look after everyone. "I remember her being so pretty," Tabby thinks, "but now she's all slumped and puffy-faced. Her hair looks she cut it with a pocket knife."

For the first time in her life, Tabby then meets a decent and caring guy. And just when you think nothing could get worse, it does.

Mian's ability to mix humour in with such extremely un-funny topics as death, abandonment and grief is a testament to her obvious talent. She even pokes ironic fun at the family name in the book's title -- you don't want to be in that number when these Saints go marching in.

There is hope, for these Saints don't want to be like their father -- they want to turn their lives around. In fact, it is the family members' ability to genuinely care for each other that provides the tale with a much-needed beacon of hope.

Tabby soon finds herself attached to Poppy's children. Five-year-old Janis is an especially endearing, wise-cracking, comical know-it-all who tells the grown-ups how to behave.

Mian's sentences are short, precise, punchy and in-your-face, much like her characters. She peppers the pages with witty one-liners and sardonic humour. There are some graphic descriptions, and most of the characters swear like drunken sailors -- some may find this off-putting.

But beyond Mian's gritty delivery is a sassy, well-written, original story that, despite its apparent bleakness, is ultimately hopeful and has something to say about the resilience of the human spirit.

Sometimes even the most damaged and broken of souls, Mian seems to be saying, can be saved when someone actually cares.


Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.

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Cheryl Girard

Cheryl Girard
West Kildonan community correspondent

Cheryl Girard is a community correspondent for West Kildonan.