Historical Fiction from a Lawyer Who Saw It All

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What’s it About?

“I remember the summer my best friend Angela met Danny.”

The first sentence of My Best Friend is Angela Bennett (Inanna Publications) by Canadian author Suzanne Hillier might seem to hint this book is a light-hearted romance. It soon becomes clear it’s something much more: a historical fiction novel that chronicles one woman’s crusade for women’s rights and equality in a male-dominated society. It’s a vivid portrait of female friendship in an age and place where feminism was a far-off dream. 

In 1942 in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Angela and narrator Dorothy are enjoying the summer before their senior year in high school. Angela is blossoming into a beauty with thick curly chestnut hair, swelling breasts and shapely legs. Once extremely shy, she’s warming to all the compliments she’s getting for her looks and her singing voice. Dorothy, on the other hand, is too tall, too thin and too flat-chested, with straight dark hair — and the one headed for college.

On the brink of womanhood, they pretend to know all about sex, but all they know for certain is that it’s virginity or marriage, and if you weren’t married by age 20, you were an old maid.

Enter Danny. One day at the swimming pool, he notices Angela and never takes his eyes (or his mind off) her again. He’s a bit of a tough guy with dark hair, muscled arms and a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled in his t-shirt sleeve. 

Although she truly loves Danny, Angela hesitates to introduce him to her parents, especially her prim and proper Protestant, businesswoman mother. Danny’s an unemployed, Irish Catholic high school drop out. His father’s a drunk. Danny’s solution is to enlist in the navy. He buys a “serviceman’s special” engagement ring for Angela, and ships out for the war in Europe.

The plot soon pivots to Dorothy, who surprises everyone by deciding to follow in her lawyer father’s footsteps and becomes the first woman ever admitted to Dalhousie University’s school of law. Soon she’s Newfoundland’s first female lawyer, specializing in family law. Also unusual for the 1940s, she does it all while balancing marriage and motherhood. Even more surprising for the time, her husband is very supportive.

As she represents women in intolerable situations, Dorothy earns a reputation for being aggressive and outspoken. Judges despise her, and male lawyers call her the “Great White Shark.”

Angela, on the other hand, is in trouble, trapped in a marriage from hell. Not even Dorothy can break the spell.

At the time, women’s rights were practically nonexistent. Women with abusive, alcoholic husbands could divorce, but might not receive child support. At a time when few women worked outside the home, chances they could survive economically on their own were slim. 

A word of warning: The book’s descriptions of sadistic sex are graphic and difficult to read. Just as difficult is realizing how little has changed for women trying to escape their abusers in the decades since. Hillier does a good job describing the guilt and shame of abuse and how difficult it can be for women to break free.

Hillier writes from experience here. One of five women in a graduating class of 150, she became a trailblazing divorce lawyer and established her own law firm in Ontario in the 1970s.  In an interview in The Toronto Star, she said she earned the nickname, “The Barracuda” as she represented “hookers and transvestites.” 

After retiring from her practice, Hillier, then in her 80s, returned to her first love, writing. In 2017 she published Sonja & Carl about a romance between a hockey player and an intellectual that is challenged when he suffers brain trauma. In 2011, she published Divorce: A Guided Tour

Hillier is now in her 90s; let’s hope she is working on more books that reflect her eventful life.

Suzanne Hillier was born in St. John’s, NF., before Confederation with Canada, and before the start of WWII. She graduated from McGill University with a BA in social sciences and attended graduate school in Columbia University in New York. She married and moved to Toronto, where she obtained a teaching certificate, an MA in literature from the University of Toronto and where she also taught for several years. She started law school in 1968 and graduated in 1972, the year of her husband’s death. She opened her own law practice in 1974, retired in 2005, and started writing. Her fiction has been published in various North American periodicals. Sonja & Carl was published by Brindle & Glass Publishing in 2017; My Best Friend Was Angela Bennett (Inanna Publications, 2021) is her second novel. She currently divides her time between Caledon, Ontario and the Southern California Desert.  by

Publish Date: June 20, 2021

Page Count: 260 pages

Publisher: Inanna Publications

ISBN: 9781771338639

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