1932 A ‘rollicking, heart-stopping, fraught, and hopeful’ debut

Once Upon an Effing Time
by Buffy Cram

Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2023
$24.95 / 9781771623605

Reviewed by Carellin Brooks


The title of Buffy Cram’s Once Upon an Effing Time hints at its contents: a child’s fairy tale, if not exactly by the book. This version is closer to the classical Brothers Grimm stories: an abandoned child in terrible peril, with nobody to save her but herself.

Salt Spring Island’s Cram (Radio Belly) tells the story in two parallel timelines: 1980, when the nineteen-year-old narrator must recover what’s left of her sanity after a crazy-making upbringing, and 1969, when she and her mother Margaret light out from Ontario for a life of apparent adventure in the States. Money becomes the big problem when our heroines find themselves with a broken-down bus in a parking lot in the middle of nowhere. Sure, a guy’s happy to help, but at what cost? 

The eight-year-old first-person narrator is precocious, feeling for herself and her mother too, a woman given to mercurial moods of lightness and dark. At times the daughter’s musings sound almost adult: “I knew I would have to do whatever I could, and become whatever she wanted me to be, to try and undo the damage.” 

Elizabeth’s eagerness to cooperate—anything to secure her unpredictable mother’s love—evolves into a fleeting scheme to advertise the child as an infant fortune-teller. But the Amazing MeMe quickly comes to grief: MeMe’s abbreviated career, built mostly on repeating song lyrics and a stock question—Is there someone you should call?—abruptly ends when they meet a member of an apocalyptic cult. The compound’s seekers coalesce around a charismatic woman leader known only as O. From the start Elizabeth doesn’t like the place, much less the people in it, but she doesn’t get a vote. Even worse, Elizabeth’s mother falls almost immediately under O’s spell. “She’s trying to quit a bad habit,” Elizabeth is told, when she demands her mother’s presence.

In their quest to transform the world, cult members produce pamphlets dotted with LSD, inviting anybody who reads one to discover a new understanding. In New York City, Elizabeth hands out the pamphlets with a pair of similarly untethered children, Rainbow and King. Almost entirely unsupervised, the children devise their own routines, never thinking to wash—other children call them “the stinkies” as they pass. They’re instructed to wear gloves to distribute the cult’s literature, but of course they don’t, so the trips take on a hallucinatory quality as the acid works its way into their systems. 

Author Buffy Cram (photo: Jackie Agostinis)

Elizabeth, like many an eight-year-old, already has imaginings that blur with reality: the felt presence of her dead brother, Michael, or personal messages from the psychic on the television screen. Someone at the compound mentions auras and soon Elizabeth can see everybody’s particular colour. She and Rainbow break into a more fortunate child’s house and discard their clothes for hers: soon Elizabeth imagines she can feel what it must be like to be this girl, wearing a plaid backpack dangling with charms and answering to the name Jennifer. 

Ten years on, Elizabeth’s stay at a Downtown Eastside halfway house is punctuated by well-meaning questions from staff who try to help her make sense of all this. “How would you describe you and Margaret’s love?” asks Bertha, who runs the halfway house, and “How did it feel to be abandoned so often, at such a young age?” Elizabeth resists the obvious answer, because Margaret, despite shortcomings, was all she had. 

But even Elizabeth begins to understand that the self-created fantasy world that sustained her through her harrowing childhood is not enough to support her first steps into adulthood. From leaving notes for her mother hidden around the neighbourhood and seeing her dead brother in every raving young man she meets, Elizabeth gradually begins weaning herself from her meds. As the novel nears its end, she must face the terrible crime she’s sure she committed at the tender age of eight, the perilous circumstances she ultimately survived, and the debt she is owed by those who let it happen.

Like its antecedents, the Canadian bestselling novel Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill and the memoir Red Star Tattoo by Sonja Larson, this novel explores what happens when childhood’s basic tenets—care, feeding, oversight—are contravened without a second thought. Children who drag themselves up in these circumstances learn early to fend for themselves. Those with intact families have the luxury of never discovering that anybody else will save them. These children absorb that lesson early. 

The challenge, as Cram ably represents in this split-timeline novel, is what comes after mere brute survival. How can such children, grown now, learn to trust those around them? How can they believe that they will not be used, misused, or tossed aside by every stranger they meet? “I know the past isn’t done with me,” barely-adult Elizabeth reflects. “It’s a hungry animal nipping at my heels.” 

In her last childhood meetings with her mother, now homeless and subsumed by the bad habit she can’t kick, Elizabeth finds supporting Margaret’s increasingly irrational delusions untenable. “You might think this would have been some sort of breaking point, that at this point I would have had enough of her, but you’d be wrong. Ours was not that kind of love.” 

How to outgrow the kind of love they did have, and begin to construct her own life rather than one constrained by her mother’s parameters, is the subject of this book. By turns rollicking, heart-stopping, fraught, and hopeful, Cram’s debut novel suggests that such maturity is not exactly guaranteed, but certainly ultimately possible. 


Carellin Brooks

Vancouver’s Carellin Brooks is the author of several books, including One Hundred Days of Rain, Fresh Hell, and Every Inch a Woman. [Editor’s note: Learned (Book*hug, 2022), a poetry collection about Brooks’ time at Oxford and in the fleshpots of London, was reviewed in BCR by Linda Rogers. Brooks recently reviewed Maryanna Gabriel for BCR.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster


3 comments on “1932 A ‘rollicking, heart-stopping, fraught, and hopeful’ debut

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This