Category Archives: fiction

The Opposite of Nothing is Something

Thien

The very best writing reads like music. It has rhythm. It has style. Madeline Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a symphony. The author weaves a tale of her native China, the tragic and tumultuous history with the stories of interlaced characters pulled through generations. We see history not only as it unfolds, but in the impact, it has on its people. The book is an extraordinary achievement winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize and being short-listed for the Man Booker Prize of 2016. While the competition for both prizes was intense, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a standout.

Thien‘s style is intricate and beautiful. She is deft at moving through settings, characters and time. It is a book that can be described, as Annie Lamont put it, written ‘word by word.‘ From the very start, I found myself inwardly gasping at the beauty of her writing.

The book opens with a profound and engaging beginning. “In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.” Page 3.

From this start, we follow Thien’s journey to understand the events that led to this pass. She is living in Vancouver, in an apartment shared with her mother when we first encounter this thoughtful, cerebral girl. Before long a third person arrives without a coat and carrying a light suitcase. She is a family friend whose history is connected to theirs. What links them together is the fact that both of the fathers were musicians forbidden to practice their craft in the dark years of the Cultural Revolution. If music sustained her father, Marie finds a home in mathematics.

From Page 191:

“In the spring of 2000, after my mother passed away, I gave myself entirely to my studies. The logic of mathematics-its methods of induction and deduction, its power to describe abstract shapes that have no counterpart in the real world- sustained me. I moved out of the apartment that my mother had been renting ever since she and Ba first came to Canada, and in which I had grown up. Desperate to leave it behind, I cobbled together every penny I had and bought a dilapidated apartment on Alexander Street. The windows looked straight out into the port of Vancouver and, at night, the endless arrivals and departures of multi-coloured shipping containers, what they held, what they divulged, comforted me.
I kept my parents’ papers in the bedroom closet and a Cantor taped to the wall: ‘The essence of mathematics lies in its freedom.’”

This picture finds an easy grace in my imagination. The link between Shanghai and the western ports of North America, where we now receive goods too staggering in size to even contemplate from a nation that was once brought to its knees is both beautiful and sad. That is the tone of the work; it hit the right note for winter reading. Every once in a great while, we pick up a book that deserves to be read twice. Some sentences are so profound that the reader needs to stop and puzzle through them. Sometimes it means putting the book down and returning to awaiting tasks with the thoughts presented rattling around begging for more time.

From Page 419:

“I know that throughout my life I have struggled to forgive my father. Now, as I get older, I wish most of all that he had been able to find a way to forgive himself. In the end, I believe these pages and the Book of Records return to the persistence of this desire: to know the times in which we are alive. To keep the record that must be kept, and also, finally, to let it go. That’s what I would tell my father. To have faith that, one day, someone else will keep the record.”

Ideally, a great novel gives us a new understanding, either of times and events or, in the best possible scenario, of the pages of our own story. Madeline Thien’s work carries the power to do this. Could it be possible that I feel as if I am a better person for having read  Do Not Say We Have Nothing? I hope so. For God knows, there is much work to be done.

winning thien    Madeleine Thien

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Rave Reviews for Idaho

 

Idaho ruskovich

 

 

Emily Ruskovich’s debut is causing a stir. The praise for her writing skills is well-deserved. Her prose has a maturity well beyond her years. From the first page, the reader is at home in this book, curious to learn more and is turning the pages feverishly. The book has dreamy qualities where time seems to be on the back burner while a magnifying glass is applied to an horrific event in which all characters are caught. The harsh and beautiful environment is lovingly and emotionally depicted by the author who is no stranger to the scene. She is a native of our beautiful North Idaho who sings the praises of our fair skies. The characters remain with the reader who cannot put them down or explain them away by any of the normal means. If a book lingers on in the mind, the way this one promises to do, one tends to expect its journey out in the world to be full of praise.

How does the place manage to be so central to the story? The first question one would ask is that could this story be transplanted into say, Kansas City, and read the same. No. In this case, the mountains of Idaho are part of the narrative.

From Page 113:

“Wade and Jenny are prairie people. Prairie people living on a mountain they had not noticed was so much larger than themselves. An acreage purchased in a hurry because it was cheap, because it was nothing like the prairie. Such arrogance and childishness—an avalanche of a dream. But what kind of person would tell them they wouldn’t be trapped on a snowy mountain, when surely, without a tractor or a plow, they would? Still, they should have questioned it. They should have made sure. And now the only other person in the world who knows the truth of their desperation has tattooed his hatred to his hand.”

In spite of the challenges, the story of this family moves along until the day of the murder. The weapon is an ax wielded by a mother, landing on a child. One girl dies, and the other runs away. Wade is left alone with an even bigger problem: his mind is fading with early onset dementia which runs in his family. He meets a music teacher named Ann who decides, in a moment of clarity, that she can take care of him. She inhabits the story in a way that is almost other worldly. She becomes obsessed as she steps into the story as to what really happened on the day of the murder.

Ruskovich has the skill to let the story unfold through the voices and perspectives of other characters. Since we are caught up in the tension of wanting to know more about the events of the fateful day, there is no shortage of curiosity on our part. The way in which the story unfolds is not at all traditional; one part is told through the perspective of a bloodhound.

From page 282:
“The loose skin of a bloodhound is meant to hold the ground. The ears that drag along the forest floor send the scent up the skin, where, trapped within the wrinkles and the folds, it reminds the hound what the trail is even when the trail is lost. The smell of the trail becomes the smell of himself, trapped between the wrinkles of the neck and all around the eyes, which require an effort to rise under the weight of all that skin. Head down, whatever the dog follows he follows blind; gravity heaps the forehead down to the top of the snout, so that the scent between the wrinkles is more of a means of seeing than the eyes of the wrinkles cover..”
“Off-duty, head up, the bloodhound is a different dog. The wrinkles fall open. The forehead is smoothed, the scent let go.
This is how a dog forgets. This is how a dog moves on.
He lifts his head.”

Emily Ruskovich has written an intricate and beautiful book. While she touches on the deep fears we all carry, she also brings to light the good people who come along to help us through. She describes a place full of staggering beauty: a place we know turns pink in the snowy winter sunsets, a place where roads wash out in the spring, but still bring and newcomers who are ready to roll up their sleeves. It is a place where we roar around in boats in the summer, sing songs around the campfire, cut wood for the winter and vow, once found, to never leave. Idaho is not only a great place to live, but it has also inspired Marilynne Robinson‘s novel Housekeeping, has been described by Jess Walters in Beautiful Ruins, was home to Ernest Hemingway and now has played a role in a wonderful book bearing its name.

mineral ridge trail

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Social Satire

 

the-sellout

Wikipedia defines social satire as the means by which “vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are subject to ridicule.”

William Shakespeare, Jonathon Swift, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain may be the most familiar practitioners of the form, but now we have another member of this illustrious club. Largely the purview of cartoonists in today’s world, a brilliant newcomer steps up to stage.

Long in the habit of reading the winner of the Man Booker Prize, this year’s choice did not disappoint. The committee is given the challenge of reading the longlist and then narrowing the field to the shortlist. While it is a daunting task, it is one I would sign up for any day of the week. Choosing the best work from an astonishing array of talent would not be easy, and I can imagine the lively dialogue of dissenting voices. Bookmakers in England bet on the favorite and the choice is never easy. However, one clear voice emerged over all others. Paul Beatty won the coveted award this year.

The Sellout puts you down in a place that’s miles from where it picked you up.” Dwight Garner, The New York Times.

Social satire is the art of mentioning what we dare not say. If an absolute bumbler is indulging in vile discourse, then we have the luxury of laughing, allowing the architect to escape with his or her life. On the back cover of The Sellout the explanation is offered up this way:

“The work of comic genius at the top of his game, The Sellout questions almost every received notion about American society.”

It is not the subject matter or the form alone that intrigues me. Paul Beatty writes with a voice that is so present, it sings.

From Page 11

“When I was ten, I spent a long night burrowed under my comforter, cuddled up with Funshine Bear, who, filled with a foamy enigmatic sense of language and a Bloomian dogmatism, was the most literary of the Care Bears and my harshest critic. In the musty darkness of the rayon bat cave, his stubby, all-but-immobile yellow arms struggled to hold the flashlight steady as together we tried to save the black race in eight words or less. Putting my homeschool Latin to good use, I’d crank out a motto, then shove it under his heart-shaped plastic nose for approval….
Semper Fi, Semper Funky raised his polyester hackles, and when he began to paw the mattress in anger and reared up on his stubby yellow legs, baring his ursine fangs and claws, I tried to remember what the Cub Scout manual said to do when confronted by and angry cartoon bear drunk on stolen credenza wine and editorial power. ‘If you meet an angry bear-remain calm. Speak in gentle tones, stand your ground, get large, and write in simple, uplifting Latin sentences.
Unum corpus, una mens, una cor, unum amor.
One body, one mind, one heart, one love.
Not bad. It had a nice license plate ring to it.”

Sitting in Quaker State garage, nestled in among an array of tired magazines, the vending machine, and the blaring television set, waiting for the man to come out from the hole in the floor under my car, I was glad to be alone in the small waiting room. If anyone were to observe me reading the last pages of The Sellout, they would have seen a perpetually silly grin on my face. I wished I hadn’t blasted through the book so quickly because the uplift was a welcome respite. I hope I don’t have to wait so long to read a work of great social satire again.

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No Small Potatoes

Map of Idaho potato

There has been a movement afoot in literature to focus on one commodity, and make a book of it. People have written about salt, wine, and chocolate. I wondered if anyone has written about what the great state of Idaho is known for, namely, the potato.
How did this come to pass? How is it that when a person from Idaho travels, he or she is inevitably asked about potatoes. It turns out that Idaho was a trailblazer in this regard when in 1937 the Idaho Potato Commission was founded. This body, funded by a tax paid by potato farmers, set out to advertise on radio and later television, to create a brand identity from a single crop. With a seal fashioned, the customers were encouraged to look for that mark when purchasing what was to become our famous potatoes. Lots of other states grow the crop, but the affection and identity formed by the commission created a market for thirteen billion pounds of spuds, one- third of all those sold in the United States.

Galway Bay

On a past St. Patrick’s Day, a dear friend by the name of Mary, told me about a book she had just read by Mary Pat Kelly. Entitled, Galway Bay, the novel is an actual oral history passed down from one generation to the next. Told primarily through the women, it is the tale of one immigrant family and their travails from Ireland to Chicago. While it is not about the potato famine, called An Gorda Mor in Gaelic, it is the great catalyst of the tale.

“They tried to kill us, but we didn’t die.” The thread of this story, handed down through the ages, is one of incredible hardship and then survival.

When I was in school in Toronto, I recall the day the teacher told us that the famine was caused by a lazy population who stupidly lived on one crop because they could not be bothered to grow anything else.

“When that crop suffered a blight they starved,” she told us, with the implication that they should have known better hanging in the air.

I remember looking out the window, trying to sift through her facts with what I knew about my own family, all of whom are avid gardeners and farmers. At home, I asked if the story were true and heard that food had been exported to England all through those dark days. Imagine having to take the harvest to market, load a ship and return home to a house of desperate want. As the “croppies” were only given a scant bit of land to cultivate for private use, the “pratties” gave the highest yield and provided the greatest nourishment.
These are the facts: 750,000 were confirmed dead of starvation. Bearing in mind that many more died in the coffin ships landing in Montreal and Boston, this would be a severe underestimation. Without the hospitals, or the manpower necessary to deal with the influx, the sick passengers arriving in Quebec were put on an island in the St. Lawrence and left exposed to the elements. Promised, land, cash and food upon arrival, they arrived to find nothing and no way home. The bit of land they left behind on the dear, old sod had been exchanged for the price of their passage. Cecil Woodham Smith reported that during the famine years, 257,000 sheep were exported to England from lands held by absentee landlords. 480,827 swine went over as well as 186,483 head of cattle. Not even mentioning other crops, the picture is clear.
There is a happy ending to this tale. The Irish flourished in both the United States and Canada. Reading Galway Bay prompted me to look up the history of my maternal grandmother, Rose Cahill Gaudette. One of ten children in her family, I learned that her mother was the oldest in a family of ten. Examining records found on Ancestry.com, my blood ran cold when I saw the date. In 1848, Thomas Cahill arrived in Montreal. Famine. Coffin ship. Most of the passengers died, and their bodies were tossed over. Of the living, it was decided to send the Irish on a barge to Toronto. The sun blazed and the fair skins burned. Once again they were placed on an island off shore. Yet the good people of the city rowed out in small boats and volunteered to tend the sick, risking their own lives in the process. The Cahills made their way to the gorgeous Ottawa valley, carved a life in the wilderness, and flourished.

From one noun a great story may unfold.

Still Thinking

My Name is Lucy Barton

It has been four days since I finished reading My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. Having enjoyed the Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge, I picked up this book with great anticipation. It did not disappoint – not in any way. The reason I did not write about this book immediately has to do with the fact that I am still thinking.

What is it that keeps a reader mulling over phrases, words, ideas, scenes and aspects about a book for days after the book is shelved? It is most likely a by-product of tremendous skill. What is the technique or turn of phrase that would keep resonating in the reader’s mind? A page-turner will have me gallop through the plot, desperate to find out what happens, and then once all loose ends are resolved, I barely give it a second thought. In fact, those sorts of stories go into a to-be-donated pile. There would be no reason to re-read it, and therefore, I doubt I would even hang on to it any longer than necessary.

My Name is Lucy Barton could be described as a quiet novel. I applaud Random House, New York for publishing this work because there are legions of people who dislike such stories. Any writer who attends workshops or conferences will hear a great deal of advice about staying away from this style. It is true that it requires a unique skill set to do it well. It has to do with being in the mind of a created character that has sprung to life on the page.

Elizabeth Strout

Lucy Barton is confined to a hospital bed due to complications from surgery. Her mother, with whom she has had no contact for many years, comes to be with her. It was at the request of Lucy’s husband that she is there, and we learn that right away. So there is tension. Lucy is trapped, and her mother is reluctant. Ordinarily, you would not be able to create a novel around this premise. What keeps the reader engaged is Lucy’s innocence and child-like longing for a response from her mother.

From page 55:

“But it turned out I wanted something else. I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now. Stupidly-it was just stupidity- I blurted out, “Mom, I got two stories published.” She looked at me quickly and quizzically, as if I had said that I had grown extra toes, then looked out the window and said nothing. “Just dumb ones,” I said, “in tiny magazines.” Still she said nothing.”

My stomach goes into knots reading this exchange. If a terrorist had suddenly burst into the hospital room and shot both of them, the tension would be less in this reader’s imagination. Why would her mother continually behave in such an unloving manner? Perhaps she simply couldn’t, or maybe she was jealous, or maybe that is just who she was, but for whatever reason, I, as the reader, only wanted to close the gap. This is where the story is very unquiet in my mind. Lucy is going to be all right. We know that all along. She says she came from nothing, but she managed to go to college, marry well, raise two daughters and become an accomplished author. We know that she did all this with precious little support- financial or otherwise. She did it all without becoming bitter or hard-nosed. She values kindness and speaks of it often. That makes her heroic in my eyes and makes me think of her as a living entity, long after the pages are shut, and the book takes a well-deserved place on the shelf.

 

 

 

 

Finding Character

“Characters are not created by writers. They pre-exist and have to be found.” Elizabeth Bowen

200px-Elizabeth_Bowen
This is true. I have no authority to make such a statement, but there it is. Actors speak of finding characters. It is much more than saying the lines, or putting on the costumes. They try different things, talk in front of a mirror, obsess about it, work it, and then one day they will arrive at the set and describe how they found their character. They speak of the precise moment when it happened. It may have sprung from tying scarves around their heads as when Johnny Depp became Jack Sparrow, or it could be something that happened with the walk. Somewhere along the way, they become inhabited. That is how I would describe the experience.

In Madeline L’Engle’s case, she woke up from a nap and saw him, Charles Wallace Murray. He was sitting in her room. Other accounts describe dreams or even visions. In my experience, it is dialog. The character starts talking. I am only doing the typing. When this happens, I can barely contain my excitement. I fear that to stifle my imaginary friends would be wrong, so I let them run on. They may have accents, wear funny clothes, or seem a bit strange, but I assume it is not my place to question anything. They may take the story in a new direction. They will be full of surprises. In some cases they will take over, shove me out of the way and tell the story themselves. That is the greatest gift. Every word will flow like a river.

madeleine_lengle_2    Madeline L’Engle

Years ago, a young friend who wrote songs told me that the Creator likes creating. He said that he felt well in his soul when the tunes came to him. It is a strange unknown impulse that drives us all. So if what Elizabeth Bowen said is true, how do we go about this process of finding our characters? I wish I had the answer. It would be a great boon to all kinds of creative people if the method were that simple. In all disciplines, it seems that getting in the mode is the key. Even stage performances will vary from night to night, and when the magic occurs, it will be very fleeting. Those who happened to be at that performance, or at that game, or in that moment, will know it. The greatest characters in all of literature did not start when the author attempted to describe a middle-aged white man or a beautiful young girl. I would hazard a guess that those fantastic beings arrived fully formed. Maybe great souls have a desire to jump back into life this way. If it isn’t happening, don’t worry because if you stick with it for long enough, I am convinced that someone will show up.

While writing My American Eden, I wanted to bring Mary Dyer’s story to life. Since she was the only female inhabitant of Boston in 1635 that Governor Winthrop attempted to describe in his journals, I learned that she was “comely and of no mean estate.” Years later, on Rhode Island, the Governor wrote that she could converse with any man, as well as any man on any topic.” That was my start. I searched and begged for more clues. One night at The Best Food Ever Book Club in Spokane, I was elaborating on my research to date when a great friend said, “Mary Dyer? I am a direct descendant of Mary Dyer.” Next I learned that the model for Sylvia Shaw Judson’s statue commemorating this rebel saint who gave her life for the cause of religious freedom was none other than my husband’s paternal grandmother. The list goes on, but I still yearned to see her. To really meet her. While obsessing about Mary and writing the first draft I had to choose between internal dialogue, what I imagined she was thinking while alone in her house, or show her conversing with someone. Of course, who would have been alone in their house in 1635? I added an indentured servant. Not even beginning to create any sort of picture, she was there. By the fourth draft I had gone from nine hundred pages to four hundred and fifty, and switched from third person omniscient to first person. Only it was not Mary’s voice in my head following the discipline of the narrative; it was Irene, the servant, the one who arrived fully formed. I started getting a better look at Mary through her eyes.

count of monte christo

A fully formed character could be anyone. What they are is visible and memorable. The Count of Monte Christo. Tom Sawyer. Scarlet O’Hara. Jane Eyre. Harry Potter. Romeo of the House of Montague. Portia. The list goes on and on. You can’t name a great classic without a memorable character, or several coming to mind.

More Bliss

snowy deck

It was at the checkout counter of my favorite grocery store that I received encouragement regarding this topic. Answering the question of my new year’s resolutions, I answered, “Just one. Two words. More bliss.” Both the cashier and the woman helping her bag my veggies and fresh sourdough baguette applauded the concept.

As far back as my recorded resolutions state, I have begun each new year of my adult life with these two words: lose weight. What is different this year? I would still like to continue my weight loss journey, but that is not the leading resolution. Why not?

Bliss is not something one bumps into by accident. It is also not something one can micro manage or plan for entirely. What is is exactly? Where do I find it? Where does it abound? I would say Idaho. Windy Bay, Lake Coeur d’ Alene; it can be found right out my door. Communing with nature on a daily basis is the first step. Yet there is a difference between simple enjoyment and bliss. Bliss is defined as supreme happiness.

All guilt aside, Protestant work ethic and Calvinistic upbringing urging me to discard these thoughts in favor of everyday nose- to- the- grindstone good works, I can say that I will keep on with those traditions. Since I know that bliss is fleeting and short-lived, I do not need to fear going down the drain over seeking moments of profound joy. I can reconcile these two concepts by acknowledging that I am in training. For this to occur everything needs to be in place.

VIP gondola

I want to be in really good shape. To this end, my ballet, yoga, and pilates program of my invention are essential. I need to be strong enough to ski with my husband who is a wonder. Yesterday, Silver Mountain was spectacularly beautiful. While cross-country skiing, breaking trail on a quiet, wooded road, with the sun glistening and a massive eagle soaring overhead, it happened. I was awestruck. My jaw drops in such moments.

thirteen ways of looking

Reading Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann, yielded many such moments. When a person can write in a way that barely seems mortal, it can send my spirit soaring. Looking ahead, I am envisioning sailing with our son on Lake Coeur d’ Alene this summer. There will be a moment. I know it. The wind will grab the sails, and we will look at each other and laugh knowing that we are having an absolute blast out on the water. I also look forward to rafting, swimming, kayaking and boating down to dinner at Conklin’s Resort, and dancing under the stars.

Will I be sad, will I be angry, will I be depressed and discouraged? Yes. Will it matter? No.

It was in the seventh grade when I took this poem by Sara Teasdale to heart. It is called Barter.

Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children’s faces looking up
Holding wonder in a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

I will read, I will write, I will study, I will spend time with old friends and new, I will laugh until I cry, I will eat good food, and I will get stronger with each passing day. I will devote myself to serving others. When bliss comes along, I will be ready. It will be duly noted.

Good Books for Damp Days

 

Elena Ferrante

 

It is raining and damp on Windy Bay today. The lake is still and apart from the odd shot fired now and again, we hear almost nothing, save the delicious sound of raindrops falling on a metal roof. After a long walk and discussion about driving to town to see a movie, we opted, as we so often do, for a cozy afternoon with our books. My goal was to finish this month’s selection for The Best Food Ever Book Club.

If we had first come to see Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, the two main characters of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, as young women, it would have been our loss. By describing the friendship of two little girls with all of its inherent passion and intensity we, as readers, never lose sight of those children. This device, whether intentional or not, gives the book much of its power.

Set in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, we learn of a society struggling to cope with post-war conditions in Italy. As the girls observe events in the neighborhood, we see the volatile and frightening conditions in which they live. Girls are neither highly valued nor are kept very safe. It is this anxiety that creates a never-ending tension in the book.

As in most tales of girlhood friendship, there is a divergence in their respected paths. One will be continuing her education, and the other will have to work in the family shoe repair shop. As fate would have it, the girl with the greatest ability is the one who is stymied.

Knowing the rivalries, the competition and the gut- wrenching power these emotions have with both girls, the split is painful to imagine. Perhaps readers with a memory of such times and similar decisions made regarding the fate of sisters and neighbors, feel this more keenly. I will wait until the Best Food Ever Book Club discusses this work to see if anyone agrees with me. Perhaps I will share a personal story. It happened in a similar fashion. Sent to a private school, and then to compound matters, moving to a new house, drove a wedge between  my best friend from childhood and me. She went on to new friends as did I, and we were not able to maintain our former bond.

Even if the parting of the ways had not been centered around school, I was reminded of other factors that seem to break those incredible ties of friendship one feels in elementary school, and how something along the way always seems to come between cherished friends. If it isn’t school, it is a boyfriend, or lack thereof, or some change that often splits them apart. After reading L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables so many times over, and at least once per decade throughout the course of my life, my last go-round brought me to the understanding of the diverging paths between Anne and her friend Diana. With mouths to feed and a farm to run, Diana’s father decrees that she will not go on to further her education while Anne receives a scholarship. There is no remedy, no matter what the intention. Neither girl will be the same.

Anne of Green Gables

Elena Ferrante does a brilliant job of zeroing in on the truth of these girl’s circumstances. Neither one is safe. Not entirely, and the women who should be protecting them seem unobservant, distant, and oblivious. For how many centuries were girls and women told to accept their lot in life without complaint. For how long did we have the merest of choices over our destinies? While I would not call My Brilliant Friend a feminist novel, it certainly stirred those emotions.

My Brilliant Friend is the first in a series of four books. Whether I continue, or leave off here remains in the hands of my book club. Knowing some have already galloped on through, I expect to hear some heavy lobbying.

How Did I Get Here?

Sunrise wits end

Do you ever ask yourself that question? This query need not be existential in theory; I refer rather to one’s geographical location. Windy Bay, Lake Coeur d’Alene is our present home.

When I reached the age of seven, I was sent Canoe Lake, in Algonquin Park, Ontario to attend summer camp for the month of July. I had been waiting desperately for the big event. My older siblings had all gone off ahead of me, and I could not wait for my turn. While my mother fretted about me being so young my father had utmost confidence in me. As a camper in training, I swam my three hundred yard requirement with him in the cold waters of Lake Joseph where we kept our summer home. On my first day at camp, I dove in confidently, assuring everyone in sundry that I could do it. In fact, I had already done it that morning at the crack of dawn. I took to camp like a duck to water and loved every minute. The first night, the camp director’s husband, Dr. Harry Ebbs, came to talk to us, and give us a bedtime story. He wanted to tell us about trees. He took us out- a little gaggle of girls in baby doll pajamas with flannel robes wrapped around us and flip flops on our feet, for a brief walk in the woods. He had something to show us. We looked at a beautiful assortment of saplings of birch and fir, protected by buildings on three sides. Next, we walked the length of the island to see an amazing pine jutting straight out over the water with roots clutching to the bare rock. Which trees had the greatest chance of survival, he asked? We thought the protected ones would fare the best, and all chimed in that the trees behind the lodge would have the best chance. He surprised us all by telling us that we were wrong. The dramatic pine, bent by storms and seeming to be facing the greatest of challenges would fare the best. Why? He told us that the saplings were vulnerable because of their protection. They did not have to develop deep roots. A squall could topple them, but the tree that fought for every square inch of its territory had developed the roots to endure. He then added that our parents had sent us to camp in order to develop our roots.

A few nights later we trooped into the lodge, a great building designed for dramatic events, to see a film about the voyageurs, the hearty fur traders who explored the lakes and rivers of Canada. My hair stood on end. They sang as they paddled, and this old film re-enacting their journeys featured a map showing us how far they traveled. The next day we went out to learn how to weave, and I endeavored to make a voyageur belt, a long affair that wrapped around the waist twice and ended in a fringe. Perhaps it was the sight of me in that belt that I would not take off, or perhaps it was my love of camp, or perhaps it was something in my nature that led my dad to call me la fille du bois. We did not speak French in our home, so he explained that it meant girl of the woods.

Years later, when living in Sacramento, California and contemplating our future, we planned a trip north to visit relatives in British Colombia. I had often begged to drive through Idaho as I had been curious after reading Ernest Hemingway. A more direct route was always favored until a fortuitous offer of free accommodation near Rathdrum changed the route. Looking at a map in my father-in-law’s fantastic atlas, I saw the French names of the lakes in North Idaho. That prickly, funny feeling crept across my scalp and into my heart. I knew there could only be one reason: the voyageurs. So we drove up with our kids in the backseat of the old Subaru station wagon full of excitement. We were heading north from Moscow when I saw a sign depicting a boat launch.

“Turn!” I yelled. “Turn! This must be Lake Coeur d’Alene!” We drove down to Sun Up Bay. “It’s great!” I screamed. When we got back in the car, we carried along the upper part of the road until we came to a stop sign. We could not proceed, due to its designation as private.  We stopped to admire the view which by the strangest of all co-incidences, is where we live right now.

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More years later, I took an interesting journey with ancestry.com following the line of my paternal grandfather, James Gaudette, a man I never had the privilege of knowing. I was astounded to learn that records kept leading me back in time all the way to 1635 when the family arrived in Port Royal, the first settlement in Acadia, now Nova Scotia.

Astoria

This summer I read Peter Stark’s, Astoria. Once again, I thrilled over tales of the voyageurs. Peter Stark maintains that many of them had been trapping all through the eighteenth century, originating from Port Royal. Sources of the River, Tracking David Thompson Across North America, by Jack Nisbet, is another excellent tale of unbelievable tenacity in the face of boundless wilderness. It was on that first trip to North Idaho that I read a roadside marker depicting Thompson’s journey. Perplexed, I thought, this can’t be the same David Thompson. I knew him from the old camp movie, for it was he who first mapped Canoe Lake and Lake Joseph in Ontario. Yet it was. I often tell people that it is possible to travel from Montreal to Lake Coeur d’ Alene by canoe and portage. I get a very blank and confused expression in return. David Hackett Fischer’s, Champlain’s Dream, is a detailed and masterfully written book depicting the founding of French Canada. He, too, was a great explorer. In reading Astoria, I learned of John Jacob Astor’s failed attempt at founding a colony in the Pacific Northwest. The idea was to establish a sea route from New York, to Hawaii, to Astoria, in what is now Oregon, to China and from there to London, and again to New York. The overland route from New York to Astoria would be established through the United States. The grand scheme became an epic and legendary disaster. Why do some colonies flourish while others fail? What was the difference between Port Royal, and Jamestown or Astoria? It is a fascinating question well worth exploring. In Astoria, terrible decisions were made on the overland route. The leaders kept going back to Astor’s dictates while the men of the Northwest Trading Company, the voyageurs used their instincts and ability to rely on the wisdom of the ages. Gleaned from the natives who had been here since time immemorial, they learned established canoe routes, and questioned dictates to boldly go where no man had gone before.

Champlain

How did I get here? Perhaps I followed my heart. I could have followed it right to Lake Coeur d’ Alene. Was it my destiny? That I cannot answer. I do know this, however. I have never been sorry. Not for one single minute. Our children grew to love and cherish this land. Every time I call the Coeur d’ Alene Casino, I am greeted with these words: Welcome Home.

A Bird in the Hand

helen-macdonald

I first heard about H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald when I learned it was a number one bestseller in the United Kingdom. Not knowing much about falconry, I thought I would order the book and take a look. I was not prepared to be utterly stunned by Macdonald’s deft craftsmanship. Her powers of description kept stopping me in my tracks. I would read a page or two and then pause; it was as if I needed time to digest the imagery.

H is for Hawk

It is after the terrible and sudden loss of her father that Macdonald decides to tackle the enormous challenge of adopting and training the fierce and unruly goshawk. The bird of prey she names Mabel isn’t having any part of it at first. What drew me into the story was the battle between a wild creature’s desire to be free, and a woman hurting and alone who accepts the challenge unflinchingly. Turning to the writing of T.H.White’s who in The Goshawk, describes his own triumphs and defeats, we learn about the level of patience the practice of falconry demands. Macdonald’s father taught her to be patient, and in accepting the challenge of taming Mabel, it is as if she has something to prove. It is her desire to show her father that she had not forgotten either his lessons, or the man himself, that drives her and compels her to persevere in the face of many cuts, bruises, frights and frustration. I imagine anyone in the throws of grief attempts to describe the experience, but I am at a loss to recall anyone as capable of getting to all the nuances better than Helen Macdonald.

“And it wasn’t until we were standing on Queenstown Road Station, on an unfamiliar platform under a white wooden canopy, wasn’t until we were walking towards the exit, that I realized, for the first time, that I would never see my father again.
Ever. I stopped dead. And I shouted. I called out loud for him. Dad. And then the word No came out in one long, collapsing howl. My brother and my mother put their arms around me, and I them. Brute fact. I would never speak to him again. I would never see him again. We clung to each other crying for Dad, the man we loved, the quiet man in a suit with a camera on his shoulder, who had set out each day in search of things that were new, who had captured the courses of the stars and storms and streets and politicians, who had stopped time by making pictures of the movings of the world. My father, who had gone out to photograph storm-damaged buildings in Battersea, on that night when the world had visited him with damage and his heart had given way.” Page 106

There are aspects of Mabel’s moods that mirror the wild panic grief can impose.

On the back jacket sleeve of H is for Hawk I read that Helen Macdonald is “a writer, poet, illustrator, historian, naturalist, and an affiliated research scholar at the department of history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge.

Macdonald uses her poet’s skill, combined with her naturalist’s eye to craft passages of the most beautiful description I have read in years.

“It’s turned cold: cold so that saucers of ice lie in the mud, blank and crazed as antique porcelain. Cold so the hedges are alive with Baltic blackbirds; so cold that each breath hangs like parceled sea fog in the air. The blue sky rings with it, and the bell on Mabel’s tail is dimmed with condensation. Cold, cold, cold. My feet crack the ice in the mud as I trudge uphill. And because the squeaks and grinding harmonics of fracturing ice sound to Mabel like a wounded animal, every step I take is met with a convulsive clench of her toes. Where the world isn’t white with frost, it’s stripped green and brown in strong sunlight, so the land is particoloured and snapping backward to dawn and forwards to dusk. The days now are a bare six hours long.” Pge 242
Our house on Lake Coeur d’ Alene is a lofty perch from which we view an endless array of hawks, ravens, eagles and osprey. They are mesmerizing. A visiting friend whose conversation had drifted off as he watched a circling hawk asked me this question: “How do you get anything done?”
“I don’t,” I answered.

This week the whole world has been sickened by the death of a favored lion named Cecil. More ghastly pictures come across our screen. The President of the United States has stated that something must be done about climate change. We can no longer do nothing while the delicate balance of our beautiful world is disrupted. The west is burning up. The Cape Horn Fire in Bayview, Idaho, a place I revere, ravaged swaths of a mountain forest. The scarred woods are eerily quiet. Even the yellow jackets have moved on. We are not aware of the gentle cacophony of life until we stand in the wasteland. We need our poets more now than ever. We need naturalists and writer’s who can give voice to our plight. H is for Hawk is much more than a pleasant summer interlude; it is a screech in a particular moment in time.