Review 1583: The Northern Lights

I so much enjoyed Howard Norman’s My Darling Detective that I made a note to myself to read more by him. I finally chose The Northern Lights because of its setting.

In the 1950’s, Noah Krainik lives with his family on an isolated lake in northern Manitoba. His father Anthony is a geographer who is mapping the far reaches of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, so he leaves Noah, his mother Mina, and his cousin Charlotte alone for months at a time. He blames his work, but there are some events that don’t add up. For example, while out working he somehow ended up in Halifax and arranged for Charlotte to live with them after her parents were killed in a factory collapse. Halifax is a long way from either Manitoba or Saskatchewan.

Every summer, beginning when he is nine, Noah takes the mail plane to Quill, 90 miles away, to live with his best friend Pelly and Pelly’s aunt and uncle, Nettie and Sam. There he experiences the richer life of a village of Cree Indians, trappers, and others who prefer this wilderness life that smacks of a much earlier time period. The novel begins, though, in 1959, when 14-year-old Noah learns of Pelly’s death.

This evocative novel explores the life in the wilderness and what happens when Anthony’s desertion provokes a move out of the wilderness to Toronto. There, Mina gets a job at the Northern Lights movie theater, where she first met Anthony.

This is a novel full of interesting, colorful characters, and I greatly enjoyed it. I especially liked the portion set in remote Manitoba.

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Review 1519: Perdita

On holiday from his university job, Garth Hellyer takes on a task for the Longevity Project by calling on Marged Brice, who is supposed to be 134 years old. Garth can hardly believe she can be as old as she says she is, and although she has a birth certificate, she has no other form of identification. Marged says she would like to die, but she has to find someone to take care of Perdita.

Marged gives Garth her journals, and he begins to read the fascinating story of a girl attuned to nature, in particular to Georgian Bay off her home on the Bruce Peninsula of Ontario. The journals begin in 1887 and tell the story of the girl’s love for the bay and for George Stewart, an artist.

Meanwhile, Garth becomes reaquainted with Clare, a neighbor on the bay. She, it appears, has cared for him since they were teenagers, but he has never paid attention to her.

This novel is atmospheric with a strong sense of place, particularly the older story, and interesting, although I sometimes wondered when we would get to Perdita. It’s a long novel at 400+ pages, and it takes a long time to get to Perdita, but it kept my interest. If anything, the explanation of Perdita seemed a little unclear. I almost think I would prefer this as a ghost story, which it is not. It does have a faint ecological message.

I’ve said I’m getting tired of the split timeframe novel, but it didn’t bother me for this one and was, in fact, necessary. On the other hand, the historical portion of the novel was definitely the more important.

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Review 1302: Crow Lake

Cover for Crow LakeBest of Ten!
Kate Morrison grew up in a farming community in far northern Ontario. She is reticent about her personal life, which frustrates the man in her life, Daniel Crane. Both are zoologists, and Kate can track her interest all the way back to the times she spent as a young girl watching insects and other wildlife in the ponds near her home with her older brother, Matt.

Kate finds it difficult to discuss her family, mostly because of her estrangement from that beloved brother. Crow Lake relates the events that led up to that estrangement from the time her parents died.

When Kate is seven, both her parents are killed in a tragic car accident. When their relatives plan to split up the four children, Luke, at 18 the oldest, decides to give up his scholarship to a teaching college to raise the two girls, Kate and Bo, aged one. He intends that Matt, the real intellect in the family, will go to the college the next year.

This sacrifice on Luke’s part makes Matt angry. Still, the biggest struggle is that the family get by at all, despite the help of the neighbors. Although their father had a good income, he gave most of his money away to struggling family members.

Aside from the troubles in the Morrison household, there are hints of tragic events at the neighboring Pye farm. These events will eventually affect the Morrisons in unexpected ways.

A visit back to the family to celebrate the birthday of Matt’s son, Simon, sends Kate’s thoughts repeatedly back to the events of her seventh and eighth years. In some ways, she is forced to face facts that she’s been avoiding.

Crow Lake is truly the kind of book that creates a world for its readers to explore. It is loaded with atmosphere and tension as Lawson explores the origins of family resentments and feelings pushed firmly below ground. This is a powerful book, completely absorbing. I was sorry for it to end.

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Day 802: This Godforsaken Place

Cover for This Godforsaken PlaceAbigail Peacock and her father are regretting the impetuous desire for adventure that led them to journey thousands of miles from England to a remote village in northwestern Ontario to run a school. In 1885 the living conditions are primitive, and Abigail’s father has fallen ill in the depths of winter. Abigail continues to run the school and finds her life tedious. Lars, the helpful store owner who brought them there to teach Swedish rail workers and miners English, is almost certainly going to propose marriage. Abigail is not enthused.

Abigail is not at first receptive to Lars’ suggestion that she get a rifle. But eventually she buys one on a whim, guiltily spending some of her family’s savings. She finds an area outside of town to practice, and it soon becomes the only thing she enjoys. One day, though, she arrives at her practice location to find a wounded, unconscious cowboy. It’s not totally clear, but suggested, that she shot him by mistake the day before.

Here’s where the story started to lose me a little bit. Abigail doesn’t want anyone to disturb the place she practices, so instead of going for help, she leaves the cowboy there and returns at times to nurse him. This decision eventually leads to an even more morally challenged decision and then to a cross-country journey to find a man connected with Buffalo Bill Cody’s western show.

I don’t expect characters to be perfect, but this is the same person whose desire to do the right thing puts herself and a friend in jeopardy later in the novel. And then there’s the way they get out of it.

This kind of thing probably won’t bother many readers, though, and the novel does make an inventive adventure story with a strong heroine. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it. Still, just one more caveat.

Part of the novel is devoted to a rebellion in Canada that I hadn’t heard of before, of the Métis people lead by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont. Early in the novel, information on this topic is introduced through synopses of news articles Abigail is reading to her father and through some discussion. These sections and later ones are handled a little awkwardly because of the amount of information and its method of introduction. The way it was handled made me wonder what it was doing in the story. The information fits into the story eventually, but I feel, firstly, that it could have been introduced more smoothly, and secondly, that the novel unhandily juxtaposes the rebellion, the James Gang, and Annie Oakley.

When I read in an interview of Gault on Consumed by Ink that Gault wanted to write something that combined her research into those three topics, it made perfect sense to me. I just think the subjects could have been combined in a way that seemed more likely.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Day 709: Family Furnishings

Cover for Family FurnishingsBest Book of the Week!
I felt it was about time I read something by Alice Munro, having only ever encountered a story or two in a magazine. Now, I only wish I’d read her earlier. A note in Family Furnishings explains that the stories were selected to cover the entire time of Munro’s writing career, although it also refers to two volumes. So, I assume this volume is from the latter half.

I am usually more a long fiction person, because I like to get thoroughly involved in what I’m reading, and short fiction doesn’t usually accomplish that. But in this case, I found myself completely absorbed in story after story.

Early on in the volume, I thought I detected a pattern of Munro telling how the different characters formed their families, sometimes in unusual ways. Later, I thought I might have imagined this pattern, or it may not fit all the stories. In any case, the stories are spell-binding, often toward the end revealing something that happened earlier than the timeframe of the story and illuminating some truth. Some of the stories appear to be autobiographical and some may be about Munro’s ancestors.

“The Love of a Good Woman” at first seems to be two unconnected stories, one about three boys discovering a car in the river with a body in it, the other about a nurse discovering tender feelings for a man she knew in high school while she is nursing his dying wife. Yet, it turns suddenly into a murder mystery. But Munro somehow makes this a banal and everyday event.

In “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” we seem to be reading about a swindle. An old man’s servant suddenly runs off with his dead daughter’s furniture to live with his ex-son-in-law. But halfway through the story, we meet two adolescent girls, Edith and Sabitha, who are actually controlling this situation through a prank.

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is the touching but even more complex source of the wonderful movie Away from Her, about a man helplessly observing his wife’s growing loss of memory from Alzheimer’s. In “The Children Stay,” a young woman walks away from her family during a vacation on Vancouver Island to leave with her lover.

Several of the stories are about Munro’s own childhood—how her father began raising animals for fur too late to make a success of it and had to go work in a foundry, how her mother suffered for years from Parkinson’s, how the truth of a story long told about a crazy neighbor’s behavior when Munro was a baby suddenly was revealed years later when she saw a poem in a newspaper.

All of these stories show us the complexities and depths of human interactions. They are minutely observed and beautifully written. I’ll soon be looking for more to read by Alice Munro.

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Day 667: Alias Grace

Cover for Alias GraceBest Book of the Week!
Most of what I have read by Margaret Atwood has been futuristic and dystopian, so I was quite surprised to find that Alias Grace is an apparently straightforward historical novel. But then, nothing with Atwood is exactly straightforward.

The novel is based on a notorious Canadian murder, in which two servants were found guilty of murdering their master and his paramour housekeeper. The man was hanged, but there continued to be debate about the extent of the guilt of the woman, Grace Marks.

The novel begins some years after the event, when Dr. Simon Jordan, studying new discoveries in the field of mental illness, is hired by a group trying to gain Grace a pardon. Grace has always claimed she cannot remember the crimes, and he hopes to revive her memory. He begins in a way meant to slyly nudge a modern sense of humor, by bringing her an apple followed by a series of root vegetables he hopes will remind her of a cellar, where the bodies were discovered.

Grace, who was very young at the time of the crime, eventually tells him what she can remember, beginning with her early life. She relates her story in a simple way, conveying the persona of a proper young girl.

Dr. Jordan appears as if he is going to be the hero of this novel, but he has his own obsessions and difficulties.

As Grace tells her story, we are drawn slowly in, waiting to learn what really happened. This novel is rich in detail and beautifully written, but it is also slyly humorous and dark.

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Day 663: Pastoral

Cover for PastoralAndré Alexis states that his intention for this novel was to write a modern pastoral. If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s not surprising, for pastoral literature hasn’t been popular for hundreds of years. A pastoral is a work about life in the country, sometimes comparing it to life in the city, showing the pleasures of a simpler existence.

Alexis tells us explicitly, though, that his protagonist, Father Christopher Pennant, expects the rural town of Barrow, Ontario, to be simple but finds it is not. Indeed, events force him through a crisis of faith.

Father Pennant is a little disappointed by his posting to his first parish of Barrow but is determined to do a good job. There he meets a young woman, Liz Denny, who has just discovered her fiancé is sleeping with another woman. Another parishioner with a problem is Father Pennant’s caretaker, Lowther Williams, 62 and certain he will die at 63. He has set Father Pennant a test to determine if he is the proper person to attend to his affairs after his death.

This is an unusual novel and I’m not quite sure what I think of it. Although I enjoyed Father Pennant’s journey, his conclusions about faith are not definitive and we’re not sure where he will end up. I was also interested in whether Liz would decide to marry Rob after all.

The novel takes place in an indefinite time period that could be any time from the 50’s on. If it is in the present, the town seems old-fashioned. A detail that struck me as odd is that at least three characters keep prayer books with them, and these characters are not religious. Now, things could be different in rural Canada, but as far as I know, I have never even seen a prayer book outside church and don’t know anyone who has one. So, I had to wonder whether something was meant by it.

The descriptions of nature are truly gorgeous. Father Pennant spends more and more of his time exploring it and wonders during his struggles if the study of nature may not be enough for anyone. The novel is written with a gentle humor and sense of irony, and the language is truly lyrical at times.

By the way, my copy is an expensively produced paperback, very nicely printed on thick, high-quality paper. Unfortunately, the last 8 or 10 pages are out of order, which was momentarily confusing.

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Day 643: The Orenda

Cover for The OrendaBest Book of the Week!
The Orenda is a powerful novel about the death of a people. At times it is difficult to read, but do not let that stop you from experiencing this novel.

Father Christophe, one of the first French priests to evangelize the Indians of Canada west of Kebec, finds himself at the beginning of the novel captive to a group of Huron warriors. The group is returning from a trading expedition, but they recently attacked a family of Ojibway, their enemies. Bird, the leader of the party, is seeking revenge for the killing of his wife and daughters by the same group. He keeps one young girl, Snow Falls, to be his daughter but kills the rest of the family.

The novel is narrated in turn by Bird, Father Christophe, and Snow Falls. Father Christophe, whom the Hurons call the Crow, finds life in the village brutal and the customs of the people barbaric, but he is determined to learn the people’s language and convert them.

Bird continues to grieve for his wife and addresses his sections of the book to her. He is concerned about the problems of the village and his people, and not least with his difficult new daughter.

Snow Falls is determined to escape and to at all times demonstrate her defiance.

The novel covers about ten years, during which things go well and then badly for this group of Huron people. A combination of disease from contact with the French and the hostilities between the Hurons and their enemies eventually have results that presage what will happen on a larger scale throughout North America.

The novel paints a fascinating picture of the daily life among the Huron and of the misconceptions and misunderstandings between the native people and the Europeans. It is a wonderfully involving book.