The title of Bonnie Farmer’s easygoing, 1930s Montreal tale about a girl named Mildred whose musically gifted next-door playmate is a boy named Oscar Peterson is a clear nod to Beethoven Lives Upstairs, the audio-recording/book/movie phenomenon from the early 1990s. But the reference is more than just a superficially cheeky indulgence: in the annals of Canadian jazz, Peterson is surely our Beethoven.
The fathers of Mildred (depicted by illustrator Marie Lafrance in cornrows and a variety of colourful smock dresses) and Oscar both work as porters on the railway, the tracks of which encircle their predominantly black, working-class neighbourhood in Saint-Henri. Though Mildred’s dad complains about the incessant trumpet playing that keeps him awake most nights, the little girl secretly enjoys “Oscar’s lullaby.” When the “root-a-toot-tooting” suddenly stops, it’s not because Mildred’s dad has run interference, it’s because Oscar has contracted tuberculosis. Now it’s Mildred who is unable to sleep.
Months later, Oscar finally returns from hospital (where he developed a case of selective mutism), but his compromised lungs necessitate a switch from trumpet to piano. In an indirect homage to the musical genre for which Peterson eventually became famous, Farmer gives us a conclusion that’s satisfying, but open-ended.
Oscar Lives Next Door has none of the pretentiousness that often plagues books attempting to teach children about art or “important” cultural figures. It’s entirely possible to enjoy this book as a simple story about two children living in a time and place that has vanished. Still, kids whose interest is piqued can learn more about Peterson in Farmer’s useful author’s note. Farmer grew up, decades later, in the musician’s neighbourhood, now known as Little Burgundy. In the 1970s, Peterson’s street was razed to accommodate one of Montreal’s less-loved creations: the Ville-Marie Expressway.