Anyone who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s will be instantly familiar with the sights, sounds, and landscape in Sonia Palleck’s fictional memoir, Leave the Little Light On. The author describes her story as “one book in four parts.” An orthodontist by trade, it took Sonia fifteen months of daily effort to complete the work. In fact, the book’s inception is an intriguing story in its own right. It began on March 1, 2020.
“I was wakened early one morning by a man’s voice that came from outside of my consciousness,” Sonia says. “The voice said to me: ‘It’s time to write.’ I looked around, asked if someone was there. I even texted my therapist! Then I got up, went and got a journal and a pen, and I started writing.”
Inspiration to write her story came at a fortuitous time. Sonia’s description of that period in her life is as unflinching as her novel: “Basically, my whole life had burned to the ground,” she says.
“I lost everything that I had. I lost my parents, my grandparents… I had a divorce that was just winding up… I had done all of this healing business so that I could finally heal my heart, but I was left thinking: ‘I have been a good and kind loving person and I’ve tried to build a family and relationships. Why am I lying here all alone?’”
Her doubts were no small thing. Sonia is a high-functioning, high-achieving person. Born and raised in Windsor, she excelled in school, graduated from Herman High School and attended the University of Windsor for two years studying Science on a full scholarship. She was accepted to dental school in London and, following graduation, spent the next twenty-five years working as an orthodontist.
“When the voice spoke to me, I realized ‘This is my calling,’” Sonia continues.
“The pen wrote ‘Leave the Little Light On by Sonia Palleck’ and I thought ‘So what?’ And then I wrote that opening scene where my main character, three-year-old Athena, is sent by her mother to get her father who was outside talking to a friend. I saw this little girl approach her father. He doesn’t see her, at first, and when he turns, he accidentally burns her with his cigarette. As Athena reacts in pain, her father says it’s her fault, that it doesn’t hurt, that she shouldn’t make a big deal about it.”
To any reader from Generation X, the vividness of the scene verges on time travel. It’s not surprising to learn that Charles Dickens is among Sonia’s favourite writers. People born after the 1970s and ’80s may have trouble accepting the reality of a world where the health and safety of children were not a priority—and in the case of Sonia’s character, Athena, barely an afterthought.
“As I wrote, I realized that Athena was me,” Sonia says. “‘Athena’ means ‘wisdom’ just as ‘Sonia’ does. And that scene where she is burned by her father’s cigarette encapsulates my generation’s experience growing up. In the 1970s and 80s, it was impossible to just be ourselves. We were constantly judged and scrutinized. From this painful history of trauma—from my father who was an alcoholic and abusive, but also from society and the media—we were taught that we had to prove our worth, earn people’s love, rather than just being.”
She continues: “This made a lot of our generation empathetic. Because there were consequences for speaking up when we were kids. We saw it on TV, in the classroom, on the playground, and at home. These instructions came to us from people who were traumatized themselves. But we pivoted. Sure, we can compliment millennials for their openness, but it was our generation that created helplines, who carved out more equality, and created these inclusive environments that were denied to us.”
The story in Leave the Little Light On is harrowing. Soon after the reader meets Athena, she and her two older sisters, Danica and Lejla, are sent to live with relatives because their pregnant mother is in hospital due to complications. To anyone who did not experience the 1970s as a child, life in the relatives’ house might not seem believable. To a Gen X reader, it was stomach-turningly vivid and rings horrifyingly true. Suffice it to say, that although Athena’s auntie, Strina, and her husband—Athena’s father’s oldest brother—Stric have four children of their own, they are not exactly “kid friendly” people.
When asked about reader response, Sonia says it has been “obsessive!” Books I, II, and III are already out, and Book IV will be released by the end of the year. Although Gen X readers “get it,” Sonia has encountered reviewers of other generations who seem perplexed by aspects of Leave the Little Light On.
“Some reviewers have said to me: ‘I was disturbed by the lack of counterbalancing perspectives,’” Sonia says. “That’s what was happening in the time I wrote about. It is conspicuously absent. That’s an important point. It draws attention to the fact that even if you weren’t marginalized at that time, you also suffered—for staying silent. It was dangerous to speak up. Teachers hit us in the classroom. No one stopped fights in the school yard. To grow up in that time, you knew it wasn’t safe to react to what you were seeing.”
The book is by turns edifying and entertaining. Sonia hopes readers come away understanding: “That shame is a self-imposed blanket of unworthiness.
“When we step out of our light and our knowingness and deny ourselves love, we become so harsh and unloving. The superficial things we do for ourselves don’t satisfy: having our nails done, going to the gym, owning an expensive car. When we don’t see the light in ourselves, we don’t see it in others.”
The book is far more than a tale of woe. It’s ultimately a book about love—how we come to love ourselves. Sonia developed her own approach for “shaking off shame” with S.H.A.K.E.:
“Step into your light. Hold and heal your inner child. Articulate out loud to yourself what is making you feel ashamed. Keep the judgment away. Embrace your experiences.”
“I was raised in the Serbian Orthodox Church and spirituality has always been important to me,” Sonia says. “That’s why I’m going to go with ‘One Love.’ That’s the point where it makes sense. That’s what Jesus taught, Buddha, Bob Marley, John Lennon. These are people who I vibe with. I’m going to mine it out.”
Sonia admits she felt anxious, at first, about those close to her reading the book, but says that she received tremendous support.
“Friends have been mixed,” she says. “One friend was protective. She said: ‘Why do you have to say the book’s based on your life?’ I said: ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ And my friend said: ‘It’s shameful.’” Sonia pauses. “I’m not ashamed of my life. We come into this world forgetting that we’re divine. We have to remember that we are love. In that journey, there will be mistakes and gaffes and errors in judgment. We’ve all gone through these moments and struggled with what is the meaning of it all.”
Sonia’s story resonates. She has been interviewed on Breakfast Television, has been a guest on numerous podcasts, and her book has been the subject of several reviews and magazine articles. Her message is hitting home.
“When that pen started moving that first early morning,” she says, “I asked God to help me show people what I knew, that I was love and that love can never be removed from me. The readers know it’s showing them where to go—somewhere they have never been. The story takes them inside, which, truthfully, is the most terrifying place for us to journey. The idea that Athena is going to take your hand and let you walk with her is so brave. It comes back to that point with my friend. The world just needs a light to shine. Follow me. It’s OK. I went through it. You have to feel it to heal it. You can shake off this trauma.”
The overarching title of the book series is Leave the Little Light On. Book I takes place in Windsor. Book II is set in London. Book III occurs in Dorchester. Book IV takes place in Woodstock.
Leave the Little Light On is available at Biblioasis Bookshop, Indigo Devonshire Mall, and River Bookshop in Amherstburg. To learn more about Sonia and her journey, visit www.soniapalleck.com.