Category Archives: fiction

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.

CIMG2864

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.

Shadow of the Shore

 

 Edith Wharton at her desk.
On a recent trip to Memphis, Tennessee, my husband took me to a used book store called Burke’s Books. We have done this on many trips, and it is one of our traditions for which I am most grateful. We spend a good amount of time in these establishments; he never rushes me or questions my purchasing habits, another one of his many strong suits. While in the stacks, I browse and sit in waiting chairs, picking up and putting down many books. Mostly, I wait for a certain feeling to come over me, a tingling, or an inkling that will lead me in a direction I need to go. It was in a used book shop in Coeur d’ Alene that I found a sentence in a history book that led to me spending a decade creating My American Eden. My husband found two of the most significant details of the story in second-hand shops- one in our town and another in Westchester County, Pennsylvania. When we left the shop in Memphis, he joked that he had in his hand a book that may well be the key. I laughed because I often have the same feeling. On the plane home, I cracked open my treasure: Edith Wharton’s Summer.
The book jacket revealed that this work was considered by many to be her finest. The trip home flew by in a jiffy as I devoured Wharton’s beautiful work.
From Summer:
“The lake at last- a sheet of shining metal brooded over by drooping trees. Charity and Harney had secured a boat and, getting away from the wharves and the refreshment-booths, they drifted idly along, hugging the shadow of the shore. Where the sun struck the water its shafts flamed back blindingly at the heat-veiled sky; and the least shade was black by contrast. The Lake was so smooth that the reflection of the trees on its edge seemed enamelled on a solid surface; but gradually, as the sun declined, the water grew transparent and Charity, leaning over, plunged her fascinated gaze into the depths so clear that she saw the inverted tree-tops interwoven with green growths on the bottom.
They rounded a point at the farther end of the Lake, and entering an inlet pushed their bow against a protruding tree-trunk. A green veil of willows overhung them. Beyond the trees, wheat-fields sparkled in the sun; and all along the horizon the clear hills throbbed with light. Charity leaned back in the stern, and Harney unshipped the oars and lay in the bottom of the boat without speaking.”
Page 95
The Mount
When asked which books made her the most proud, Edith Wharton named Summer as one of them. In reading more about her life, I happened to learn about her home, a beautiful estate in the Berkshires, known as The Mount. As she penned a book about houses and gardens, she was able to oversee every detail of this exquisite treasure. Born of wealth and privilege into an old moneyed family, instead of whiling away her life in gorgeous drawing rooms and delicate gardens, she picked up a pen and gave us a body of work, worth picking up time and time again. Now I am obsessed with going to see her lovely home and have added one more adventure to my wish list. Her library is depicted below.

If you are the proprietor of a second-hand book shop, thank you. If you can spend an afternoon in a dusty shop, consider yourself lucky. You never know when you might find the key. It may lead to a decade of further study.

Provocative Silence

 

 J.D. Salinger

 Born: January 1, 1919, New York, N.Y.

 Died: January 27, 2010, Cornish, New Hampshire

Ron Rosenbaum, of Esquire magazine when describing the solitary nature of J.D. Salinger wrote:

“It is not a passive silence, it is a palpable, provocative silence.”

My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff spoke to a great fantasy of mine. While I do not read romances with shirtless men on the cover, I am not without special nooks and crannies in my imagination where the topic thrills me, and sends me off into delicious flights of fancy. What do I lust after in my heart, to quote President Carter? I want to gobble up all I can about the New York literary scene.

Joanna Rakoff, at the age of twenty-three, spent a year working at an esteemed literary agency in the heart of the best of all literary worlds. What drew me to the story right from the beginning was my abiding desire to step inside one of these establishments. My filing cabinets have folders holding rejection letters, letters expressing interest, letters asking for the full manuscript, and why I keep them all is a mystery to me. Writer’s conferences invite agents who are looking for new talent. Since they are the gate-keepers to the publishing contracts, it behooves any writer to learn something about the people who hold the keys to our kingdom. Over the years, I have learned a few things about these agencies. For one, they seem to stay in business. Two, they maintain the same address, and three, they grow in the numbers of employees. Four, they have graduate students and new-hires reading our query letters. Books on how to approach literary agents and how to seek representation are plentiful. Yet, as a voyeuristic and curious reader, I want to be right inside and sitting at the desk. Joanna Rakoff did an excellent job of putting me there. She writes about her year as an assistant, in the nineties, at the old and venerable establishment working for a woman holding the coveted post of agent for J.D. Salinger.

The period of time in my life where I gobbled every word written by Salinger, is still fresh in my mind. Rakoff, well into her time in at the agency, still had yet to pick up Catcher in the Rye. We know that Salinger is reclusive and must be protected at all costs. His agent must shield him from those who would make a pilgrimage to his front door. Rakoff has the job of answering fan letters. It has always been an accepted arrangement where a reader can write to a publisher if they want to contact the author directly. The publisher would be duty-bound to see that the mail reaches its intended recipient. Rakoff, given the standard form letter, began to veer from that, and answer letters addressed to Salinger personally. Intrigued by the emotional impact his writing has on the public, she finally reads Salinger’s work and like so many others, becomes a devoted fan.

There is such clarity to Salinger’s work that it seems he can write without effort. Of course, that is not the case. His desire to keep distractions at bay has always been admirable to me. Understandably, there are those who would disagree. It is my contention that he deserved to be able to do what he did best. Never, not for one day, did I imagine that he was not continuing to write out there in Cornish, New Hampshire.

Perhaps the last sentence from Catcher in the Rye says it all:

“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”