Twenty-One Cardinals by Jocelyne Saucier

Back in January, my heart was stolen by And the Birds Rained DownSo I was very happy to get my hands on Twenty-One Cardinals, also translated from French by Rhonda Mullins.


There are 21 kids in the Cardinal family.

The two dozen eggs in the morning, the hundred pounds of potatoes in the cellar, the morning battles to find our boots, the evening battles for a place in front of the TV, the constant battles for nothing, for fun, out of habit. The good ol’ days.

We were the kings. The real deal. We wanted so much from ourselves and from life that everything around us seemed pathetic.

They are growing up in a mining community in Northern Quebec. Their father, the prospector that discovered the zinc mine the town was built around is being recognized for his achievements, and the family is coming together for the first time in 30 years. All but one. One of their sisters went missing long ago, and no one has been able to confront it. The siblings who know what happened aren’t even sure who knows about it and who doesn’t. Their aim was to protect the others, but secrets have a way of getting under your skin and festering.

The synopsis given on the back of the book is a bit misleading. It makes the book sound like more of a mystery than it really is. It’s more of a family secret. And, the book is about how this secret has become bigger than it needs to be, and how it has played an important role in determining the course of the siblings’ lives and the relationships they have with each other. The older siblings have taken on a lot of guilt and responsibility, while the youngest is happily in the dark, always itching to hear the stories of the good old days, most of which he was too young to remember.

Could we have forged a bit of peace and happiness for ourselves if we had agreed to live out our tragedy in the light of day?

Although I didn’t like this one as much as And the Birds rained Down (hard to top that one!), it still had the same lovely writing that just pulls you along. I did notice, though, as the story went on, that sometimes I felt like the language was too dramatic for the situation. I don’t know if it was in the translation, or if I just didn’t find the secret as shocking and horrifying as I was supposed to. Sometimes the intensity of feelings and the deep meaning of things seemed a little too much.

When you’re a Cardinal, you can’t just give in to the beauty of rustling palm trees in the setting sun. You need a harsh, austere environment you can chafe against, one you can use to condemn those who have it easier.

25742480What I liked best was the alternating views we get from 6 of the siblings. This gives us a look at the family and the tragedy from different perspectives; as they are now and as they were as kids. Reading about them as kids is fascinating; the dreamy father, the busy mother in the kitchen or popping out babies, the oldest daughter rocking the babies, the oldest sons vying for their father’s attention and wreaking havoc on the neighbours, the youngest children wanting to be in on everything.

Truth is not where we think it is.

I would love to have heard from the mother. Can you imagine being the mother of 21 kids? Making sure they’re all fed, clothed, and safe? From the sounds of it that’s all she really had time for; she spent most of her time in the kitchen while her children had the run of the place. I wanted to know what she thought of everything. Did she really know each of her children as well she would have liked? Was she happy? Did she wish she could take a more active role in her children’s lives, rather than just count them at the dinner table and kiss them in their beds? What was she thinking through it all?? Her side of the story could be a whole other book.

Our mother didn’t have time. She would prepare a birthday meal, and we barely saw her behind her enormous table, the fatigue of an entire life making her invisible.

She was driven by urgency: the urgency of meals, the urgency of children, the urgency of the days going by, the urgency of thoughts that she chased off with confused mumbling… She went back and forth in great strides as if she had kilometres to travel between the sink and the stove. Terrorized by time, sighing, labouring like a madwoman, muttering like a kook.

For another good review, visit Buried In Print. Has anyone else read or reviewed this book?



30 thoughts on “Twenty-One Cardinals by Jocelyne Saucier

  1. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    It would be so interesting to find out if the slight over-dramatization of the language was due to the original or the translation. Since it’s the same translator has worked on other works by Saucier, my gut feeling is that it would be the original.
    I CANNOT imagine having 21 kids; I don’t even want to imagine it. That mother was pregnant for almost 16 years of her life! A friend of mine comes from a family of 13; just immediate family (siblings and their kids) means a group of 79. She admitted that sometimes she has trouble remembering the names of all of her nieces or nephews. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      79 – wow! It really is hard to imagine – which is what makes it so fascinating to read about. Saucier does a good job describing what it might be like.
      It probably is from the original, but also, it’s just something I noticed after a while. I only mentioned it in case someone else who had read the book had the same experience. It wouldn’t stop me from recommending it.

  2. The Paperback Princess says:

    Shallow thought to start: I love that red cover!
    I find 21 kids so hard to believe. But of course, it was a different time if they are all getting together as adults now.
    I’m glad you warned me on the mystery aspect! I hate when I think the secret is going to be massive and it turns out to be this little thing. But if I know that going in, I can get behind it.
    How does Canada Reads work – can featured authors return with new books?

    • Naomi says:

      Not shallow at all – the cover is beautiful! And, the dark flaky section is like rocks crumbling in a mine (or metal, or coal, or something…). Very appropriate for the story.
      I’m pretty sure any author can return at any time, depending on which books are nominated and voted on. Then, the panel of 5 gets the last choice of which book they want based on the list made up from (mostly) the public. I haven’t heard a word about it so far this year, though. Maybe it’s going to be different. Who knows? (That’s half the fun!)

  3. Naomi Baltuck says:

    Wow! This sounds like a book I need to read. I grew up in an atmosphere of chaos, and there were only seven of us–although four in diapers at one time was a lot for my poor mother. But I see interesting parallels, including the dark secrets that we children were left to discover on our own. Your question about the mother’s perspective intrigues me most of all. I think it is one reason that my husband and I had only two children–so that we could give them the time and attention that every child needs. Thank you for sharing this, Naomi. I really want to read this book now.

    • Naomi says:

      It sounds like you have some insight into what the mother must have been feeling. The author did a very good job of describing the chaos of the household, from the dirty laundry to the musical beds.
      Four in diapers would be enough, I think. 🙂

  4. Don Royster says:

    Maybe you should contact the author or her publisher and ask if she has plans for a book from the mother. If she doesn’t, let her know that it would be great if she did.

  5. Carole Besharah says:

    This one is on my list, but I want to read it in French. It’s got a LONG waiting list at my library. I get lucky receiving the English titles way more quickly in ma petite bibliothèque québécoise.

    Thanks for the review!

    • Naomi says:

      I’ll be interested in hearing what you think of it once you get it read!
      This is a case where I do wish I could read it in French and see how it compares, but my French just isn’t good enough for that.

  6. ebookclassics says:

    I actually thought I first heard about this book from you, but it must have been Buried In Print. The premise sounds really good, but I did see reviews that it doesn’t quite live up to the synopsis.

    • Naomi says:

      As long as you aren’t going in expecting the mystery that the synopsis implies, then I think you’ll like it. It’s about family secrets and loyalties, mostly – and the writing is so nice.

    • Naomi says:

      I love reading about big families, too. But I tend to agree that I wouldn’t want that many kids. I would never get to read!! 3 is enough. 🙂

  7. buriedinprint says:

    I share your feelings about this in many ways (and, thanks for the shout-out too). Even though I admire this novel, my love for Birds overshadowed it a little.

    My sense of the secret-seeming-bigger is that the language was a reflection of the children’s experience of it; because they couldn’t talk to ANYbody about this (certainly not their long-suffering mother and at-a-distance father) and not even those of the others who knew what had transpired, that it actually became bigger and bigger as time passed.

    I’m right with you on desperately wanting the mother to have a voice, too, but I don’t think the children’s story would have existed to be told in the same way, if the mother could speak in the narrative; I think it’s their agreement to remain silent with each other and their parents which results in our hearing these little segments of perspective as readers of the story. And, yet, I still want to know!

    Are you planning to read another of hers, or just reread Birds? *grin*

    • Naomi says:

      I would definitely read another of her books! Are there any more that have been translated? I think I share your feeling about my love for Birds overshadowing it. I did really enjoy it, though.
      If the mother had her own book, then maybe it wouldn’t take away from the other? 😉

  8. Lynn @ Smoke & Mirrors says:

    Wow. I concur with everyone else. Twenty-one children? Yikes! Though I’m pretty sure there’s no way I could have carried and birthed 21 children. (I was on bedrest for months getting my last 2 of 3 here!) But having been responsible for feeding 12-15 people for a week I can remember how all I felt I did was cook and clean the kitchen, cook and clean the kitchen, plan meals, shop for groceries, cook and clean the kitchen…well, you get the idea! All I can say is this would require A TON of peanut butter and bread!! LOL I agree with Don, I think you should inform the author of you desire to hear from the mother. I added this one. The use of language is always fascinating to me and this sounds like a good study for that! Plus I want to know the compelling secret! (That’s always the way, isn’t it?!? :))

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