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Fiction Family Life

Children of the Day

by (author) Sandra Birdsell

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2006
Family Life, Small Town & Rural, Contemporary Women
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2006
    List Price

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Children of the Day opens on a June morning in 1953, when Sara Vandal, convinced that her husband has been having a decades-long affair, decides that she is too sick to get out of bed. With ten children in the house (and a possible eleventh on the way), this decision sets off a day of chaos, reflection and near disaster for the Vandal family.

Sara’s husband, Oliver, heads to the town hotel and bar in Union Plains, Manitoba, where he has been the manager for the past twenty years—a position he suspects he’ll no longer have by the end of the day. In an attempt to avoid the unavoidable, Oliver decides instead to pay a visit to Alice Bouchard, his childhood sweetheart across the river.

Throughout the day, both Oliver and Sara reflect on how their lives collided—a car accident that brought them together and tore them from the futures their families expected of them. Sara (from Sandra Birdsell’s previous novel, The Russländer) recalls her life in the big city of Winnipeg in the 1930s—a young Russian Mennonite woman lucky enough to escape the shackles of her overbearing culture. Oliver remembers his wedding day photograph—his the only Métis face in a crowd of Mennonites—and the precise moment when he suddenly grasped the enormity of his decision to “do the right thing.”

The Vandal children, too, must deal with this unusual disruption of their daily routine. Alvina, the oldest, secretly handles the stress of her family, her plan to escape them all, and her discovery of the world’s evil in the only way she knows how. Emilie worries about losing her happy-go-lucky father while facing the town’s heretofore hidden racism head-on. The boys live up to their family name by recklessly taking chances and literally playing with fire. And since her mother won’t come out of her bedroom, Ruby, just a little girl herself, must take charge of the babies with danger lurking in every corner.

By nightfall the extended Vandal family will be thrown together to work out the problems of the past and exorcise the ghosts that haunt them, which have all, in their own way, set this June day’s events in motion.

About the author

Sandra Birdsell is an award-winning writer, the author of The Two-Headed Calf (shortlisted for the 1997 Governor General's Award), Night Travellers, Ladies of the House, The Missing Child and The Chrome Suite.Among other awards, she has won the WH Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Gerald Lampert Award for New Fiction. The Town That Floated Away is her first children's book.She lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, but grew up in Morris, Manitoba -- a town that truly did, one day, float away.

Sandra Birdsell's profile page


  • Nominated, IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

Excerpt: Children of the Day (by (author) Sandra Birdsell)

Chapter One

In the morning, sunlight stretched like cellophane across the doorway of Sara and Oliver Vandal’s bedroom. The ticking of a clock beneath a heap of clothes on the bureau became louder as Oliver gathered them up and quickly dressed, his back turned to Sara in the bed. Throughout the night the clock’s muffled click, click had underscored the fist of worry in his ribs, and he had told himself, don’t jump to conclusions. But his worry hadn’t diminished or vanished, as it sometimes did when he awakened to the sight of the turquoise walls awash with daylight, the sound of his children’s voices in the kitchen below telling him that they were up and breakfast was on the go.

Sara moaned and turned her face to the wall, the memory of their quarrel a sickness pressing against one side of her ribs. The baby sleeping in the crib stirred, then poked her almost bald head up from a blanket to regard her mother hunkered in bed, her father across the room, his dark head crooked as though he was listening to himself slide the knot of his tie up under his shirt collar. She flopped back down, sensing that it was futile to try to gain their attention. The baby was Patsy Anne Vandal, the day June 14, 1953, in Union Plains, Manitoba.

Halfway across the room, Oliver was stopped by the sight of the shopping bag lying on the floor, shoes spilling from it, maroon ­calf-leather flats, navy slingback pumps, a pearlized bone-white sandal holding the imprint of a woman’s toes. The shoes conjured the image of Alice emerging through the darkness of her yard last night, bringing him the shopping bag, and Oliver relived the surprise of her breasts, as small and unyielding against his chest as they had been when they were kids. Her kiss, however, with its urgent appeal, was unlike any of her kisses that he’d chosen to remember.

In comparison to the tiny shoes, his feet were ungainly and used up. He regarded them. Spidery threads mottled the skin around his ankles, the pads of several corns were swollen and sore–they were the feet of a man much older than his forty-five years. It occurred to him that his father had been his age when the lung disease had overcome him.

Men and women can’t be just friends, Sara said, her tongue thick and coated and tasting like a peach seed. She took up where she had left off during the night, when Oliver had begun to snore, stranding her with her mind boiling for hours.

You don’t say. Well, in my opinion they can be. Oliver stepped round the shoes. He knew that eventually the footwear would wind up at the bottom of the closet, along with all the other shoes Alice had sent home with him over the years, shoes she dropped off at the hotel–a friendly call at his place of business, he’d told Sara, a white lie, knowing that she was apt to turn molehills into mountains.

Why shouldn’t I pay a friend a visit? he’d said last night, when there was no way around it other than to admit that he hadn’t stayed for the entire public meeting at the school, but had fled. Couldn’t sit there listening to all the down­in-the­mouth talk; and the next moment he found himself on the ferry and crossing the river. He hadn’t planned on going to see Alice, that was just the way it had turned out.

Dragging the girls along, Sara muttered into the wall.

I didn’t drag anyone. Oliver sighed heavily. I had me a walk, and they tagged along.

A walk to see that ­woman.

I don’t have time for talking in circles, Oliver replied, and stepped towards the ­door.

You can make your own breakfast, Sara said, her voice sounding as though it came from the bottom of a barrel.

Will do.

Sara’s presence in the kitchen wasn’t as crucial as she seemed to think it was, given her usual early-morning hustle to get downstairs first thing, hair rolled up in the style of Wallis Simpson, a freshly ironed housedress cinched at her still­narrow waist. She was charged and determined to conduct the business of her household, emanating a purposeful energy. An energy that sometimes had the effect of throwing a monkey wrench into a smooth and well­running machine. Her arrival in the kitchen had the power to induce quarrelling and tears.

This morning, however, she was worn out by her night-long fuming.

Some of us have to get to work, Oliver said, reminding her, as he often did, that his time was not his own. He couldn’t dally in the morning over a second cup of coffee, or the list she’d made of what needed fixing, or the remnants of a quarrel. This morning the word work was a raft being swept away on a fast current. His occupation; vocation, several long­time customers said, given that Oliver was a natural, the kind of man at ease with princes and paupers alike and therefore well suited to the hotel ­business.

Suddenly Sara was up, swinging her legs over the side of the bed, her eyes burning with rage. All these years, she said. Going to see that woman while I waited half the night. Going to see a woman who thinks she’s better than I am. Showing her off to the girls. She hissed the words, her fists raised and shaking. Then she gasped and clutched her ribs.

She’d been watching for him at the kitchen window last night when he returned home with the girls, staring into the darkness of the yard, her lit face betraying a raw fear. But once he entered the house, quick as a snake she lashed out, one hand on her hip, the other stirring the air to send the girls on upstairs to bed so she could have her say.

You went to see that woman.

Yes, I did.

The startling admission had left them both speechless for moments.

Sara broke the silence to accuse him once again. You went to see that woman, and took Ida and Emilie with you.

I already said so, he snapped. And I didn’t take the girls, they tagged along. But why not, eh? Why shouldn’t they meet my old school friend? Heat rose in his neck as he remembered Alice’s kiss, the searching flick of her tongue. The girls had stayed out on the veranda the whole time, he was certain they hadn’t seen.

Sara balled her nightgown in a fist beneath her ribs, her slate-grey eyes growing wide and watery, like blobs of melting glass. The sight made Oliver turn away. There’s no need to cry, he muttered, although in the almost twenty years he’d known Sara, he’d never seen her cry.

Editorial Reviews

-The Russländer; nominated for the 2001 Giller Prize
-The Two-Headed Calf; nominated for the 1997 Governor General’s Award for Fiction
-The Town That Floated Away (YA Fiction); nominated for the 2000 Red Cedar Award and 2000 Silver Birch Award
-1993 Marion Engel Award (Canada’s prestigious recognition for women writers in mid-career)
-The Chrome Suite; nominated for the 1992 Governor General’ s Award for Fiction
-The Missing Child; 1990 W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award

“Utterly gripping ... a historical novel that reminds us how the past, and especially the violent past, can never be repressed … Birdsell has been publishing fiction to national acclaim for some 25 years, and all her gifts are on display here.”
The Globe and Mail
“Birdsell’s skill at tapping the mindset of Sara and Oliver and the various Vandal children is masterful … The uncanny, precise detailing of daily life highlights the tight seal of tension that clings to every moment … Children of the Day contains a compelling, palpable loveliness. Birdsell’s strength as a storyteller is her ability to excavate hope from ruin.”
Toronto Star
“By zeroing in on one couple, one family, one day, Birdsell is able to deal with decades of history and loss in a haunting portrait both human and geographical. A stunning portrait … the characters are brilliantly drawn and achingly real.”
National Post
“An earthy, vivid portrait of a family coping with the messy business of life. It’s also a brilliant portrait of a country in the making.”

“There’s nary a false note in Children of the Day … of stories such as this was the history of the prairies woven, one family at a time. Skillful and satisfying.”
–Montreal Gazette

"Mennonites. Metis. Massacre. Marvellous"
Globe and Mail

“It’s an earthy, vivid portrait of a family coping with the messy business of life. It’s also a brilliant portrait of a country in the making.”
TIME Magazine

Praise for Sandra Birdsell:
"Birdsell is one of our best writers — no compromise, no hesitance, a full canvas."
—Michael Ondaatje

"In fiction what I long for is a sense of the stories being alive — all hot, rude, contrary, funny, unbearable. You don’t get that nearly often enough, but in Sandra Birdsell’ s work you do get it over and over again, and she has the energy, the faith, the skill to make her stories overwhelm us."
—Alice Munro

"With her formidable gift for psychological observation and her uncanny details of daily life a century ago, Birdsell weaves a place as important as any in our literature. By sharing how power is often foisted upon us from an outside world, The Russländer illuminates with an artistic glow of the first rank, the intimate certainty that evil will not dominate kindness, truth or love.”
—Giller Prize Jury Citation

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