Book review: Autobiography of Montreal writer made an impact during COVID-19

The Kid with Broken Glasses by Walter Manuel, 2020

COVID-19 has affected us all in different ways: some of us had to stop working, while some others had to work two jobs at once (home schooling on top of a regular job). For most people, leisure time was reduced to TV binging, quiet walks and reading books, whether paper or electronic.

While in semi confinement, I had the chance to read a book that will stay with me for a long time — the kind of book you immediately tell a friend to read: The Kid With Broken Glasses, the autobiography of Montreal writer Walter Manuel, aka Wawa. I was first introduced to Walter through Sun Youth because he had reached out to us wanting the proceeds of his memoirs to go to a children’s charity. He wanted to help other people who, like him, had been suffering in silence as a child.

I was curious about Walter’s book, described as “a memoir of dissolving innocence”, and when he sent me a copy, I started reading it eagerly. Charmed by the beginning of the story which takes place circa 1960s, I was once again amazed by the natural resilience of children. Wawa grew up in a family of seven, on a dirt road in the countryside of Laval-sur-le-Lac. Living in poverty, with an alcoholic father and a mother battling depression, the Manuel kids did what kids used to do back then; play outside, flatten pennies on railroad tracks, rip their clothes on wire fences trying to get in the neighbour’s cornfield and generally get into mischief.

As the story moved on to Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce area, I took my time reading through as I witnessed the smart, funny and generous Wawa slowly lose faith in adults and become the Kid With Broken Glasses. Having to redo first grade because of his blurry vision, Wawa sticks out in school. And even with social services involved, predators lurk in the neighborhood, ready to catch their vulnerable prey. Torn between abuse and neglect, Wawa grows up at times trying to make himself forgotten or acting out, depending on the situation, his broken glasses contrasting with the smile he wears on his face. The book ends with a cliffhanger leaving us wondering what will happen to 16-year-old Wawa.

Strange coincidence, Wawa’s life has taken him to Rosemère, a city where Sun Youth co-founder Earl De La Perralle lived most of his adult life, and later on to L’Annonciation, where Sun Youth had its summer camps for decades. Sun Youth was never far in my mind, reading the book.

With COVID-19 forcing Sun Youth to put on hold its sports and recreation activities, Walter Manuel’s book reaffirms the absolute necessity of starting them again as soon as possible because it’s crucial to allow kids to play and to be kids and to make sure young people have access to a sympathetic ear and protection if they need it.

It’s important to notice that sometimes, wearing broken glasses really means something is broken on the inside.

I cannot thank you enough, Walter, for the gift of your book: it is a story that will resonate in me for a long time.

Ann St. Arnaud is Director of Communication & Community Service at Sun Youth.
To donate, call 514-842-6822 or visit sunyouth.org

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