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Fiction Literary

Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack

by (author) Heidi von Palleske

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Feb 2021
Literary, Coming of Age, Gothic
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Feb 2021
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2021
    List Price

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“How the characters in this story are interconnected is a marvel of storytelling.” — JOHN IRVING
Fate, circumstance, and the symbolism of sight collide in this modern gothic novel.

On a hot June day in 1965, two six-year-old boys, Gareth and Jack, compete to see who can climb higher up a tree. When Jack falls and loses his eye on a thorn bush, the accident sets off a series of events that will bind the boys together for the rest of their lives.

When the best friends meet albino twins Clara and Blanca, a shared fate unfolds. With Gareth and Jack’s help, the twins are able to reclaim their lives and leave their nightmarish past behind them.

From the shores of Lake Ontario to the hustle of Berlin, from the art of oculary to punk opera, this is a story of dark secrets, suppressed desires, forgiveness, and love.

About the author

Heidi von Palleske is a writer, actor, and activist. She has written poetry, articles, and fiction, and won the H.R. Percy Novel Prize for her novel They Don’t Run Red Trains Anymore. Heidi spends time on both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, but calls Toronto home.


Heidi von Palleske's profile page


  • Short-listed, Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award
  • Commended, Loan Stars Jan/Feb 2021 Top 10 List

Excerpt: Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack (by (author) Heidi von Palleske)


He was there when Johnny fell from the tree. The crack of the branch, that double sound, a cra-crack warning before the final, disappointing snap. Then the slow-motion tumble through the air as the wood gave way. It was impossible to get to him. A slow-motion pantomime where the force of a turbo engine wouldn’t be quick enough. He twisted and spiralled, taking leaves and twigs along with him. Those were the only sounds: the snaps, the cracks, and the rustles. Then, finally, the thud of his body touching down.

Hadn’t they been warned about climbing? That smothering, mothering voice, “Well, don’t come crying to me if you break your necks!” But that hadn’t discouraged them. After Gareth emerged the climbing victor, up to the tippy-top and down again, it was Johnny’s turn.

“Higher! Higher!” Gareth called out.

Johnny, being light and adept, was only too happy to comply. Until the top branches could not bear his weight. Surely it was not high enough to break his neck. It was only a few feet over their heads. An oversized bush, really. A hawthorn, Gareth thinks, but perhaps that’s just because of the word thorn following “haw, haw, haw.” But no one was laughing. No one ever laughed. And no one ever mentioned how Gareth had called Johnny a “scaredy-cat” that hot afternoon.

The scream sent Gareth running. After an initial pause of frozen realization, his legs moved on their own until he was nothing but pounding heart and pounding feet, faster and faster across the field, over the fence, past the barn to the driveway and up the newly painted steps.

“Gareth, I told you! I just painted those!” Johnny’s mother, Hilda, shrieked, but one look at Gareth’s face and she began running in the direction from which he had just come. Finally, Gareth just stood there, catching his breath, squeezing his eyes, willing it all to go away.

He didn’t go back to the tree that day. Didn’t want to see the blood or his screaming friend clutching his eye. He turned his face toward home. To the understanding embrace of his mother.

“Good thing it was his bad eye,” his older brother, Tristan, declared when Gareth delivered the awful news.

“What do you mean, Trist?” their mother asked.

Tristan regarded his mother with the weak disdain that only first-borns possess. He tossed back his mass of blond curls and planted his feet squarely, hands on his hips. His knowing look to his younger brother, then his inhalation followed by a slow exhaled sigh, all pointed to the fact that he had been alive an entire year and a half longer than Gareth. He knew things. He knew all sorts of things.

“Well, if he can still see then he only hurt the lazy eye. It’s not the eye that does all the work.” Then Tristan took his hand and covered one eye and then the other to make his point. “You know. Try it! See … can’t see … see … can’t see.”

And so on one hot day at the start of June, Gareth’s best friend lost his eye to a thorn bush and it was discovered that Gareth’s older brother was blind in one of his.

It was far easier dealing with his brother’s blind eye than his friend’s. Nothing had really changed for Gareth’s brother, after all. Tristan didn’t think twice about it. He was used to being monocular, having had single-eye vision since birth. Sure, their parents fretted over it but deep down Gareth knew that nothing had changed for Tristan that day. He was blind in his left eye when he woke up and still blind in his left eye when he went to bed. Besides, the dud eye functioned as though it were a seeing eye. It moved as the good eye moved, following the stronger twin. Never letting on that it was in any way less.

But Johnny was another story. His new eye was, for the most part, unmoving. It was freaky how it sometimes stayed, staring blindly ahead, while the other did as it pleased with no regard for the replacement eye. Gareth assumed that his friend’s old eye hated the new one. It must have missed its matching eye and begrudged the new eye’s placement in his friend’s head.

Johnny underwent surgeries and procedures throughout that entire summer. An enucleation to remove the eye happened just days after the accident and Johnny was required to wear a patch to cover where the eye had been. Gareth didn’t understand why the eye had to come out, why they didn’t just let it get better. His eye always got better when he accidentally poked it! Sure, this was worse, but why not give it a chance?

“Well, Gareth, his eye had too much damage. They had to take the eye out because if they didn’t then he could go blind in the other eye,” Johnny’s mom explained to him carefully with her deep, strange voice.

“Why? He didn’t hurt the other eye.”

“It’s a strange thing that happens. When one eye goes blind, sometimes the brain gets all mixed up and then the other eye goes blind, too. Especially with kids,” Hilda explained, although she, too, didn’t quite believe it. She had wanted to wait and see. Perhaps his eye would be fine. But the surgeon had been insistent. So she sat outside the surgery door. She waited. Even when her husband suggested they go have a coffee, that they should take a break, Hilda stayed behind, feeling those first pains of separation. How could she leave her son to those consoling strangers with their sharp scalpels?

“But my brother is blind in one eye and the other one didn’t go blind.”

“That is because he didn’t suffer a trauma. It’s different.” She wanted to let it drop, not wanting Gareth to feel responsible for the accident. Not wanting to remember.

Eventually, the patch came off and Johnny was allowed out to play. He had a pair of glasses on, for protection. Gareth stared at his friend in shock. It wasn’t the strangeness of sudden glasses that bothered him; it was that the bad eye had been replaced with something that seemed to have a drawing of an eye on it. Unmoving. Hard. And just a little bit creepy.

“Not catch, Gareth. What if that baseball hits Johnny in the eye? But you can look at comic books together. I got the new Spider-Man one for the both of you.”

Gareth didn’t know if Johnny’s mom was more worried about the fake eye or the seeing eye. If the ball hit the seeing eye, and Johnny got a shiner, then he wouldn’t be able to see at all, not till the swelling went down. But what if it hit the fake eye? Gareth imagined shards shooting out of his friend’s eye socket. Like the crystal vase that had slid from his hands when he was helping with the washing-up. Hundreds of sharp little splinters that cut into his hurrying fingers as he tried to pick it all up before anyone noticed.

“We want his eye to get better, don’t we Gareth?” Johnny’s mother asked, her w’s sounding more like v’s than the way other mothers said words starting with the letter w.

Gareth nodded. Of course, he wanted the eye to get better, but he knew deep in his belly that the eye wouldn’t get better. It would never see again. Gareth wondered why Johnny’s mother didn’t know that, as well.

Editorial Reviews

Without exaggeration I am in awe.

Steve DiMarco, director/writer

I don’t think it’s too much to say that Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack is one of the best novels I have read.

Thom Ernst, film critic

The research is so deep, the characters so beautifully drawn and so human. The structure, so much flow, so musical. This is a work of very substantial literature. It is nothing short of a staggering work of genius.

Matt Zimbel, writer, director, producer, musician (Manteca)

A brilliant novel with its conceptual expansiveness, its eclectic characters with their quirky attributes, and its erudition and keen observations about so many things. Heidi’s writing is a seamless fusion of poetry and prose.

Jeffrey Side, reviewer and editor, Argotist Magazine

High praise for Heidi von Palleske's Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack. It borders on the magical but remains earthly real, it is whimsical but heart-wrenching and it weaves the wonder of being able to awaken all your senses. It will be a novel you will want to read more than once.

Lynne Griffin, actress (Black Christmas, Strange Brew)

Captivating revelations, brisk candour, and irreverence… Heidi is a gifted writer.

Charles Pitts, writer and producer at Novalis Films

A life-changing childhood accident, one that is formative of the adult lives to follow, is a testimony to D.H. Lawrence's view of the novel as 'the highest complex of subtle interrelatedness.' How the characters in this story are interconnected is a marvel of storytelling. This is a novel about the calamitous changes in history, in both personal and national history.

John Irving, acclaimed novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter

A meticulously woven, life-affirming and heartbreaking story that took my breath away.

Craig Sheffer, actor, A River Runs Through It and One Tree Hill

Spanning the decades and crossing multiple countries, Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack is a character study that deals with love and forgiveness ... we see how lives can influence each other in time, and the influences weave in and out throughout their lifetimes

Girl Who Reads

Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack is an evocative, beautifully written novel that invites the reader to fall under its spell.

Literary Treats

Quirky and meticulous, Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack is a literary novel of substantial merit.

Foreword Reviews

Such a title promises an out-of-the-ordinary experience, and author Heidi von Palleske delivers ... This is a dense book with a large field of characters and multiple storylines that required Palleske's deft hand to knit it together.

The Miramichi Reader

I loved it. It captured me and I could not put it down. Great original storytelling!

Jeremy Irons, Academy Award-winning actor

A deeply engrossing story that keeps you turning the page in this richly cinematic novel. Von Palleske's well etched characters immediately capture your attention and never let it go.

Gwynyth Walsh, actress, Man in the High Tower and Star Trek

"And in the eye is the reflection of the entire world." To read Heidi von Palleske is to feel Milan Kundera walking along the shores of Lake Ontario. Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack is a magnificent story, beginning with the seed of a boyhood blinding and branching out in haunting and surprising directions, all rooted in that seed. Von Palleske has an honest eye, capturing the loss and renewal of human relationships with precision and compassion – much like the lonely ocularist who inhabits her painful yet redemptive world.

Rod Carley, author of Kinmount

Even when I finished the book, it seemed that the characters hung around me for days, breaking into my every moment.

Kati Preston, author of From Holocaust to Healing

Wow! What a symphony for the imagination! A massive accomplishment. Heidi writes the way Monet paints!

Elizabeth Lennie, acclaimed visual artist

This book takes us into the past, dealing with loss and shame and the impulse to forget. But it also looks into the future, with the hope these young people have of starting anew, reinventing themselves and finding new purpose.

Canadian Bookworm

A story so well told it literally takes your breath away. It's weird, wonderful, horrific, heartbreaking, poignant, and hilarious. Heidi von Palleske's brilliant novel takes a collection of entirely oddball, deeply damaged characters and chronicles their strange and intricate destinies with remarkable insight, endless compassion and razor sharp wit. She clearly loves these people and you will too. Read this book and be transported. I sure as hell was.

Jeffrey Hirschfield, writer/producer/director

This novel weaves worlds together. It is not only full of sensual imagery and pinpoint details, but it is brave, and bold, and necessary.


Lauren B. Davis, author of The Grimoire of Kensington Market and Even So

Exquisite writing ... a gorgeous book.

Daniel Baird, founder of The Brooklyn Rail

Heidi's writing weaves a magical tale, full of fascinating characters, and brimming with unforgettable images, tying together love, pain and mystery.

Martin Harbury, producer

Lush, raw, poetic and rich. The book uses language to paint a picture. The characters leap off the page. The dialogue is razor-sharp, with both humour and pathos... This book is original, unlike anything I have ever read and I am quite sure that I will return to it many times. A brilliant piece of writing!

Eve Crawford, author of I Paint Gophers