The Shining Fragments

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A heartbreaking arrival in a new country. Thrust too early into adulthood. Will he survive Canada’s turbulent streets?

Toronto, 1882. Joseph Conlon has never felt more alone. Parentless after his mother dies on the voyage from Ireland, the frightened eight-year-old witnesses his sister’s abduction and is abandoned at the train station. But once he’s placed in a Catholic orphanage, Joseph discovers a gift for drawing and friends that begin to fill the hole in his heart.

Falling for a mercurial girl acrobat, his desire to win her affection drives him to find her after she runs off for a life on the stage. And as he leaves the institution and grows to manhood, the young immigrant endures dangerous work, anti-Irish bigotry, and lying about his faith to survive… only to have his longing for family lead to tragedy.

Will Joseph ever reach the place where he belongs?

In this poignant and lyrical story, author Robin Blackburn McBride follows one boy’s emotional and colourful journey. Deftly depicting a compelling era while exploring the intensely personal challenges of the human experience, McBride’s inspirational tale of hope and courage will touch you deeply.

The Shining Fragments is a meticulously researched and rendered historical family saga. If you like complex characters, richly authentic settings, and stories of resilience, then you’ll love Robin Blackburn McBride’s immersive novel.

Buy The Shining Fragments to witness the strength of the human spirit today!

“Tales about orphans left to find their way in the New World are many, but few are as engaging as this story.” —Historical Novels Review, Editors’ Choice

Find out more about The Shining Fragments:

Book Trailer

Credit: Marry Waterson

Interviews on The Shining Fragments

Teacher’s Resource Package

Senior high school educators, please find a comprehensive Teacher’s Resource package FREE for download.

Classroom orders of The Shining Fragments can be made directly from Guernica Editions.

From the curriculum package:

“An extremely well researched publication of historical fiction, this book effectively articulates the composite experiences of numerous Irish immigrants coming to Canada toward the end of the 19th century. Comparing the experiences of these immigrants to the experiences of more recent or contemporary immigrants allows for a critical assessment of changing attitudes towards immigrants and their treatment by Canadian society.”

—Angelo Bolotta, M. Ed., Educational Consultant

Praise for The Shining Fragments

“Here is a convincing drama of an Irish boy who, after being abandoned in Union Station, seeks to make himself a life. What appealed to me is that the story is uniquely set in a well-researched, turn-of-the-century Toronto. The struggling characters come from all classes and, most important, their dramatic interactions are told with a gripping, compassionate power.”
—Wayson Choy, Novelist, Memoirist, and Member of the Order of Canada

“The focus on Toronto of Old in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion meets the resilience and sense of wonder in children portrayed in the Dickensian bildungsroman. Woven with Irish mythology, and imbued with pathos and humour, the book also brings to mind memoirist Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.”
All Lit Up

“An engrossing read not to be missed… The Shining Fragments is a story about memory, loneliness, survival, transformation, and self-knowledge, told in a style both sensual and sensuous. Blackburn McBride holds back some shocking revelations until the final pages.”
—Sharon Kirsch, Award-winning Author of The Smallest Objective

“Blackburn McBride has a truly remarkable gift for storytelling and The Shining Fragments, rich in Irish lore and Toronto history, is a captivating tale. Long after the last page has been turned, Tim and Deary linger on, as do Myrtle, William and the Ramseys who we meet as Conlon battles his childhood demons and makes his way in the world. His hardscrabble journey, daubed with both beauty and grit, will stay with you – as will the 19th century Toronto you meet along the way. So clear is Blackburn McBride’s rendering of the past that the reader is left with the sense that these experiences are their own, the bygone city a place they now remember too.”
—Katherine Taylor, Author of Toronto: City of Commerce

“Sad… uplifting and sharp in its detail.”
NB Magazine, UK

“Riveting family saga. The scope of this story is impressive. An abandoned Irish boy learns to navigate his way from a bleak life in Ulster to finding his creative passion. A powerful look at an Irish immigrant’s hard scrabble life. Highly recommend this wonderful author!”
—Donna Swajeski, Emmy-winning Television Writer

“A deeply moving historical saga filled with beauty and mysticism. This book was everything I love.”
—Kristin Clark, Amazon Reader

“The historical settings of the time are portrayed beautifully and the story rich with colourful characters that highlighted how experiences of the past often influence behaviours and life patterns, relationships with others, hopes and fears—a poignant reminder of the human experience across time. I particularly loved the subtlety of Joseph’s spiritual connection to Annie, and its relation to the mystery and wonder of life itself.”
—Kirsten, Goodreads Reader

The Shining Fragments is a beautifully written story. Its meticulously researched, historical details of turn-of-the-century Toronto made me feel like I’d been transported back in time. I loved the protagonist, Irish immigrant and orphan, Joseph Conlon. His coming of age story is poignant and gripping.”
—CFitton, Goodreads Reader

Read an Excerpt from The Shining Fragments

Chapter 1

Mam died on the third day of the crossing. After that, Joseph stayed in the dark, not on the day-lit deck where Old Ciara took Colleen. Even when he tried to make sense of Mam’s death, he knew his pictures of events had shattered and he couldn’t manage all the pieces.

          Steerage was dank, and there Joseph found Gerry, who walked with a limp, drawing smoke from a cigarette that fit neatly through a gap beside a gold incisor. Gerry said each card’s a force. The queen of diamonds was his lady, but the ace of hearts was worth more. Watch out for the ace of diamonds. Gerry’s knack for winning at maw had paid for the steamer and several bodily repairs. Diamonds were the strongest of all earthly gems. “You can cut through glass with a diamond, boy—slice a mirror into pieces and see your face in every one.” Gerry’s face was a tapestry of scars that Joseph committed to memory. Other images and events he worked hard not to think about.

             “Look at me,” Gerry said. “We’re the same, you and me. I lost my mam, so I did—as a lad, just like you.” When Gerry smiled, his scars smiled too, revealing grey teeth. His gold tooth was a mark of distinction, obtained with a five of trumps. “Fear not, boy. Friends are friends. We help each other, do we not? The Lord God Himself speaks through a fresh-cut deck.”

             Gerry’s hands and forearms were mottled by foundry acid burns, but his fingers shuffled cards in perfect arcs, and sprayed secrets around the table where Joseph sat, privy to the men’s spreads. Gerry carried a stone with a hole in it that he let Joseph touch, “For luck.” He wore a bracelet of hammered metal, and on it, a woman’s name had been melted over. His boots were shiny. An oilcloth coat hung loosely across his shoulders.

             From Gerry, Joseph learned hand signals for revealing the other men’s cards. “No one’ll know,” Gerry said, “if you’re careful. Why would a poor lad such as you, Joe, give a fig what they were dealt?” They’d all seen what had happened to Mam. Even though Joseph refused to remember the details exactly, other passengers’ memories made him an object of pity, not suspicion. In exchange for Joseph mastering the signs, Gerry took him on, just as old Ciara took on Colleen—only she did it for nothing. She had tried to hug Joseph, but he’d screamed at her touch and bitten her. Later, when no one was looking, he’d bitten his own arm very hard, to make things even. Both bites bled. Ciara kept hers wrapped with a strip of cloth and didn’t touch Joseph again.

             Gerry’s presence was a comfort; as the men played cards, the boy’s hands were active. Gerry won round after round until he took a break from winning. “We have to lose sometimes—or the real game’s over.”

             Under Gerry’s tutelage, Joseph also learned to smoke. The smoke burned its own language into Joseph’s lungs before he let it loose in clouds that made the men’s faces vague. The haze also obscured Joseph’s memory of his father’s face. The last time he’d seen him, the man placed coins into Joseph’s open hand, saying, “You’re a strong lad, Joe.” Joseph often called upon the smoke-haze to interfere with his gift for memorizing detail.

             “What’s that you’ve got in your hand, then, lad?” Gerry asked on the fourth day, long after the last game had finished and Joseph paused from practising his shuffles.

             He stared at the card he’d forgotten he was holding. The ace of spades.

On the night of Mam’s death, Joseph must have slept because he had no memories. The next night, when the lights went off, Joseph wished that he could sleep again, like Colleen, but he lay awake with his arm around his tiny sister, relieved that she was quiet, but tormented by pictures that came, unbidden, to take over his mind. When grief and horror arrived to crush him, Joseph crept through a passage to find Gerry, sitting up with the card players. Gerry let him sip from a whiskey bottle so that sleep would come. Whiskey drinking was warm and liminal, a place between waking and darkness where Joseph could remember the things he wanted to, instead of the things he didn’t.

             He remembered Annie.

             Joseph was grateful for her presence, even when she was merely a recollection in a crowded, groaning, fetid ship. Joseph recalled his mother’s faraway words: “The baby’s name will be Annie or George.”

             “She’s Annie, Mam,” Joseph had confidently declared. Mam had laughed and ruffled his hair. She’d held him close.

             Now Joseph’s gratitude for his first memory of Annie knotted his stomach, as he realized that he could not fully hear the way Mam had said those words to him. Still, he remembered the reedy smell of her dress when she squeezed him, and her black hair straying from the pins after her shift at Darkley Mill. Joseph’s hair was dark and wavy like Mam’s. “Like your Uncle Seamus’,” she had told him many times, smiling. When she smiled, if Joseph was lucky, she would tell him a story—of the Red Branch Knights, the queens and kings of Ulster, enchanted animals, and sorceresses. He could almost feel the skin on Mam’s fingers, rubbed smooth with salve, and how she’d stroked his cheek. “Annie or George.” Closing his eyes more tightly helped Joseph to hear her voice clearly, as did another gulp of Gerry’s whiskey.

             Months ago, Joseph had already seen Annie spinning a secret beam of light, little bigger than a spider, in Mam’s womb. Would Annie look like Colleen? After that, Annie’s spirit had visited him at night when Mam was sleeping. “I am here,” she’d whispered in the darkness.

Joseph could not organize Mam’s death into a coherent story. A spell had killed Mam. That much he knew, because he had watched it happen. Her medicine should have helped, but—


             His cries had brought a crowd of people, who stood gasping and whispering. Joseph hated his cries for bringing them. He hated the circle of onlookers.

             “Close her eyes.”

             “Get the Captain. Something needs to be done with her.”

             And he hated Old Ciara, clutching Colleen to her hip.

             “I knew her. The boy and this wee girl are hers.”

             Joseph stared at his useless hands. Mam’s medicine bottles were tucked in his sack. They couldn’t save her.

             When the Captain came, Joseph shrank as the man placed a hand on his shoulder.

             He wanted them to go away, to leave him alone with Mam, though he couldn’t look at her face. Instead, he touched her soft, cold fingers.

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