“Tenderhearted and enchanting, Etta and Otto and Russell and James takes us on an incredible cross-country journey – from dusty land to stormy sea, from small moments of sweetness to grand gestures of love.” Marjorie Celona, Giller Prize-nominated author of Y – see my review of Y here.
Etta and Otto are a couple: the story begins when Etta leaves Otto a letter in blue ink and it says
I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.
She also left a pile of recipe cards written in blue ink. “So he would know what and how to eat while she was away. Otto sat down at the table and arranged them so no two were overlapping. Columns and rows.” Otto thought about going to find her but he didn’t. He did go and get the globe and figured out that if she went east she would have to walk 3,232 kilometers and if she went west to Vancouver it would be 1201 kilometers. He knew she would go east. “He could feel the tightness in the skin across his chest pulling that way. He noticed his rifle was missing from the front closet.”
Including Otto, his parents had fifteen children. If one counted Russell who spent much of his day at Otto’s home, they had sixteen children. Otto lived on a farm. Etta lived in town and had only one sister, Alma.
Etta and Otto didn’t actually meet until Etta became the school teacher at Otto’s school. Otto and Russell took turns going to school and the days one of them didn’t go the other helped with the farm work at Otto’s place and walked to school and back home with the other boy. Russell’s parents had lived in Saskatoon but his father died and his mother went to work in Regina and sent Russell to live with his aunt and uncle. Russell was five months younger than Otto.
“The day after Etta Kinnick’s appearance at Gopherlands (the school she would teach at), Otto went to meet Russell after school. He had finished giving the cows their drops (for the dust in their eyes). …He waited, leaning aganst the overlapping wood of the school’s siding, along with all the dogs from the vrious farms that came to meet their masters. …Together they all listened to the scraping and gathering of students at the end of their day.” When Russell came out he greeted Otto
“Otto! he said. This new teacher! This new teacher…Come on, let’s head home now. I want to talk to you now, away from here a bit. He put a hand on Otto’s should, steered him away…Otto, she’s wonderful, said Russell…Why didn’t you tell me she was wonderful?
I told you we had a new teacher. I told you she was nice.
Nice isn’t the same as wonderful.
No, I guess not.
I asked so many questions. I’m going to be noticed, Otto. I’m going to read all the books I can find. I’m going to be the best student she’s had…Otto,don’t you think she’s wonderful.
Otto shrugged. He wasn’t sure really. Miss Kinnick seemed to be a good teacher. And she had nice calves. But she was a teacher. Their teacher.
I think she’s wonderful,Otto, said Russell. Just that, wonderful.
Shut up, Russell,said Otto. But he was happy. Russell didn’t get excited very often. It was nice to see.”
The conversation continues, but Otto has more important matters on his mind:
“Russell, said Otto, interrupting, Miss Kinnick is wonderful, it’s true, yes, and will continue to be, and we can talk about that lots and soon, but right now, I need your help. I need to steal the radio.”
The story of “stealing” the radio is a good one and an even better story involves the relationship that develops over their entire lifetimes between Etta and Russell and Otto. When we first meet Etta she is starting out on her journey to the water and she is carrying with her in her coat pocket a paper on which is written
Etta Gloria Kinnick of Deerdale Farm. 83 years old in August.
Will she get to the water? Will Otto and Russell just wait or will they try to find/follow her? Who is James?
This is a great adventure and will speak to the reader on many levels. I will add it to my list of well-written and innovative novels about aging. I highly recommend it. It is Emma Hooper’s first novel and I am impressed at her ability to write these characters so well.
1) from William Wordsworth, The Prelude
Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear.
2) from Emily Dickinson, “770”
I lived on dread – [she wrote]
To those who know
The stimulus there is
In danger – other impetus
Is numb – and vitalless –
(from pages 5 and 6 of the novel)
“Of course he’d considered going Outside thousands of times – as he’d considered executing a standing double backflip or walking around with his feet magnetized to the ceiling or chainsawing a trapdoor in the floor – but had never dared. Even when he lobbed their garbage bags as to the curb as he could manage from the front foyer, or watched shirtless neighbourhood boys plow their BMXs through the meaty summer heat, he’d never been sufficiently tempted. Mailmen over the years had asked why he and his mother were always home, and Will often replied, “Why are you a mailman?” with one raised eyebrow, which usually shut them up.
The real reason was that he was her protector. Her guardian. From herself. From it: the Black Lagoon. It wasn’t like he was trapped. The doors were not locked. She made no rules, issued no commandments, declared no penalties, and exacted no punishments. Staying Inside was something he’s invented, intuited, for her sake, to keep her from falling so deep she’d tremble and explode and weep all her tears and go dry and insubstantial as the dandelion fluff that occasionally coasted Inside like tiny satellites. He’d always known that if fear took her for good, he’d be left treading water forever in the ocean of life with nothing to buoy him.”
Will’s mother, Diane, hadn’t always needed protection. She’d grown up in Thunder Bay and had a twin brother, Charlie. She’d been to New York with Arthur. She’d had a promising career as a film maker and a retrospective of her career was being planned. So how did she become agoraphobic? How did it happen: this intense all-consuming fear of the outside world? And how did it effect her son?
“How easy it is for a life to become tiny. How cleanly the world falls away.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the details but I continued to read anyway because I needed to understand. And Will is an irresistible narrator.
Will and his mother lived initially in Toronto. Arthur deposited generous support cheques in her account every month so that was not a problem. She had had a plan: it was about finding her balance and maybe making another film. She still owned the house in Thunder Bay that she and Charlie had bought. Charlie worked in the grain elevators and was saving money to go to university but he died in an accident at work when he was 24. Diane was the only surviving member of her family and she couldn’t bear to sell the house.
In Toronto when Will was a toddler there had been an incident on a subway platform. She “still couldn’t summon the incident in her mind without panic spreading in her like laughter in a crowd. She knew she’d brushed against true madness that day because it was huge and blunt and screaming.”
“She’s blamed the city, its wilderness of signs and traffic and sounds, its flip book of faces and lightening storm of a million brains. So she packed up their apartment and moved Will north to Thunder Bay” where she hadn’t returned since Charlie died. She ought a car and drove the fourteen hours to Thunder Bay listening to the CBC for as long as the signal held ad then singing along to old tapes. She was surprisingly tranquil behind the wheel. She was a hive of activity when they reopened the house.
“The work did her good, and this was a period of reprieve.”
Driving gave her a sense of freedom but then crossing a highway in the Thunder Bay area she confused the brake and the accelerator. So she began to avoid the highway but new rules emerged: “No roads over a certain speed limit. No night driving. Then no left-hand turns. She hugged the shore of the right lane, never risking her car in the path of an onrushing vehicle …each night her mind burbled with the close calls of the day, the inadequate traffic bylaws, the numbers and speeds and the physics of it all. And after weeks of this she perceived driving for what it truly was: an impossibly complicated and lethal activity. ”
She gave up driving, sold the car and learning that the local public transportation system would not fill the gap, she and Will began to take taxis. Soon she could no longer tolerate the taxis and their drivers and so that was when “ordering from home began in earnest.” She became a master at getting things delivered: she knew exactly when to use the words “severe condition” when placing an order.
Then began another stage of withdrawal – pulling completely into the inside. The avoidance of risk was a major consideration and the front yard and the back yard became too full of danger and so they stayed inside. “It was almost relieving, this simplification, and there followed some relatively peaceful, untroubled years.”
So there you have much of the explanation of how the situation developed. But you need to read about their actual lives and see what it was like for them and possibly understand how it could have worked. Because it did work although you might think it couldn’t possibly.
And you must meet Will.
And you will want to know whether Will ever goes Outside and, if he does, how does that go?
And if you are like this reader, you will also find the information contained about the elevators at Thunder Bay very interesting.
I like Michael Christie’s style and his imagery. Here’s a favourite passage of mine:
“Since he’d been riding trains, the whispering had worsened, and his words were further jumbling in his head, as though someone had taken a sledgehammer to the card catalogues in the library of his mind.”
The subtitle is “What I learned on my road trip with Grandma” and that is exactly what the book is about: the book is even dedicated to Grandma. No surprises here. See Iain and his Grandma here where they discuss the book briefly.
The epigraph supports what Iain and his Grandma think about their experience of spending time together: “Time just gets away from us.” (Charles Portis, True Grit). We hear it often…I always meant to visit him but there was always something I had to do: there are as many versions of it as there are people. It might refer to a friend, a parent, a grandparent, a neighbour, a cousin etc. etc.
The road trip started out as one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. The author had been at a pub in Ottawa with his older brother and they were discussing Christmas gifts. They used to give gifts as a pair: sometimes home-made, twice they gave self-portraits for which they dressed up in costume. However, this year Iain’s brother had decided that “it was time to expand his gift basket into his own, private, improved basket.” He broke the news to Iain at the pub making sure he had already bought his gifts so he couldn’t be talked out of it.
Iain began to feel stress about gift buying for the first time: it was a “new, uninvited feeling.” “I’d never understood the requisite stress others felt when giving gifts. I’d always just waited until a day or two before, and inevitably the magic would happen.” His Grandma was the last grandparent left and the only elderly relative, the last of her generation. She had been part of his life much oftener when he was growing up but he hadn’t seen much of her in the last decade. “She was on the cusp of ninety-two. Ninety-two! Considering that cusp, she was in incredible shape, mentally and physically.”
His brother suggested that the most valuable thing he could give his grandmother would be time. “I know you’re working on your writing, but you can also take time off. Time that you could then spend with Grandma. No one else in the family can o that as easily.”
“Actually, you could take her on a trip.” And that’s how it all got started.
When Iain tells his brother that he’s not really worried about Grandma and her routine, we realizethat he is worried about his routine! His brother gives excellent advice and no sympathy: “Stop worrying for three seconds of your life. Get out of your own head.”
Iain is used to being alone all the time and he is worried about what he and his Grandma are actually going to do for five days in one another’s company. He knows that his grandmother never complains but his brother explains that this is a good match because Iain always complains.
The scene when he picks up his grandmother is very cinematic:
“I finally manoeuvre room for both of Grandma’s bags in front of the duvet and behind the cooler. I slam down the rusty trunk and walk around to her side of the car. “Ther you go,” I say, opening her door. “Don’t worry, it’s comfy. Well, comfier than it looks.”
She pats my arm “It looks cozy.”
The door, like the car, is tired. It sags and groans on its rusty hinges. Grandma smiles, lowering herself gradually, carefully. She steadies herself on my left arm all the way onto the low-riding seat.
That’s when I notice my front licence is hanging on by a single screww. Theleft screw is long lost. But, as Dad had pointed out earlier, I keep it in place with grey duct tape. The most recent strips of tape must have lost their hold. I usually have to re-tape every two weeks or so. I ask Grandma to hand me the roll that I keep on the handbrake.
As I straighten and fasten the dented licence plate, my delicately positive mood disintegrates. With Grandma watching, this act makes me feel more foolish and unsophisticated than it usually does. And realizing this, that I don’t usually feel any remorse or embarrassment over continually taping my front plate, fills me with a deep self-directed sourness.”
But our endeavor is official now. It’s no longer speculative. It’s real. It’s happening. Grandma’s sitting in my car. Even while I drove to her house, part of me still didn’t believe our trip would actually happen.”
It is at this point that Iain realizes the following:
“The most difficult thing for me might be having constant company for five days, the responsibility to make conversation with another person, to make meals for another person, an older person. I suppose I can cope. I’m hoping she can.”
How this turns out for Iain and his grandmother is what we learn in the remainder of the book. Here’s a bit of Grandma’s conversation with Iain just to whet your appetite further:
“I think feeling lucky is really only important, really only helpful, in the present. It seems tempting to wait for perspective, perspective gained by time. But it becomes irrelevant in the past. Luck doesn’t really mean the same thing if it’s only understood through memory, is what I’m trying to say.”
When Grandma and Iain discover they both like books and they both like Iain’s record album collection, things start to liven up.
I personally found Grandma’s own story slightly more interesting than Iain’s story but then she does have the advantage of 64 years more experience!
I’m thinking I will try Iain Reid’s first book soon. It’s called One Bird’s Choice and I’ve got a hold on it at the library. How about you? What’s next on your TBR list?
P.S. check out this latest news re Iain Reid’s writing.
I read this book around the time of its publication in 2007 but I recently came across a reference to it in something else I was reading and was inspired to reread it. It turned out to be a delightful and rewarding experience as rereads often do. It will join the growing list of fiction about aging that provide comfort and wisdom on my own journey.
It is the recounting of an experience of eighty-year-old Georgina Danforth Witley who is setting out on a trip in response to an invitation she received:
The Master of the Household has received Her Majesty’s command to invite Mrs. Georgina Danforth Witley to a Lunch to mark the 80th Birthday of the Queen.
Georgie has spent considerable time pondering this trip and has planned carefully what she wants to see and do. There have been 99 men and women invited and all were born on the same day as the Queen. The actual invitation event is for the 19th of April and Georgie has planned her trip to include resting up when she arrives and also doing a bit of sightseeing. “She wants to walk the streets of the ancient city and visit places she has read about all her life.She wants to sit tall in a London cab and drive past sites she has known only from photographs and her imagination: Marble Arch, Piccadilly, Downing Street, Big Ben. She’ll walk through the Abbey and remember stories of kings and queens, explorers and poets. She’ll run her hands over the bones or memorials of Handel and Hardy, Browning and Chaucer, the Brontës and Shakespeare. Her footsteps will echo over old stone.. She’ll have tea at Fortnum & Mason’s and visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Dickens’ house and the Tate.She’ll buy a scarf of Liberty silk and she’ll try to get a ticket for a play, and she’ll run out of energy before she’ll run out of things to do.”
As she leaves the house she passes by the “mahogany cabinet with the glass doors where she has stored the memorabilia she has collected from the time Elizabeth was a young princess … programs, postcards, Maclean’s 1937 special Abdication issue – five cents a copy – which includes the “Message of Abdication” from King Edward VIII…maps of Royal visits, a Coronation matchbook stamped Elizabeth R 1953 and The Princess Elizabeth Gift Book…It’s all there.”
She is driving herself to the airport, having turned down her daughter Case’s offer to drive her. “As she rounds the first curve, she checks her wrist to be certain she hasn’t forgotten her watch, the one with the wide gold strap. Because her attention is on her wrist, she allows the steering wheel to twist slightly to the right. In a split second, the right front wheel slips off the pavement. The moment the tire catches a depression in the shoulder, the entire car gives a jolt, and Georgie’s hands clamp back onto the steering wheel.
But the car, with a mind of its own now, refuses to continue the curve.”
“The car lands in the top branches of a large tree and then flips, and flips again, and brushes past another tree, and down and down.”
Georgie’s position at the bottom on Spinney’s Ravine will give her cause to remember, among many other things, the names of the bones in the body.
“Concentrate. Think of the bones, she tells herself. Are there any broken bones?
The ones she can’t move.
Try the left leg.
Try the right.
Pain, shooting through.”
She learned the bones of the body from Gray’s Anatomy, 1901, which she began examining when she was six years old and had let herself into her grandfather’s library. Her favourite diagram was the skeleton whom she named Hubley and, using her grandfather’s margin notes, told him that “Structure determines function” and he should “Be mindful ” of how he behaved.
Besides her grandfather through his books, another person who influenced Georgie was Miss Grinfeld who instructed all eight grades in the country school she attended. She learned the names of the Great Lakes by repeating “Every Man Has Socks On – Erie, Michigan, Huron, Superior, Ontario.” Also, because Miss Grinfeld revered prepositions, she wrote them on the blackboard alphabetically and had the class sing them to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”. Georgie could remember these and along with the bones of her body of which she was increasingly aware because of her fall she kept her mind busy reviewing them along with recalling the many stories of her mother, her grandmother and her daughter. In between she worries about dying of thirst and the sounds she hears and how long it might take her to drag herself to the car. She reviews as well her marriage to Harry and the loss of their baby son and the grief that consumed them.
Itani writes fully fleshed out characters: people the reader can recognize and become attached to very quickly. She does it through the use of details, most of them very small but very intimate. In her collection of stories, Leaning, Leaning Over Water, the first story, A Long Narrow Bungalow, contains an excellent example. The mother and busy wife, Maura, has arisen an hour before her children:
“This was her treasured time – before she took over the grip of household affairs, before she became what she must be.”
“Her first sip from her cup of tea was the best moment of all. She could stand at the window to drink. She could sit on a kitchen chair. She had choices. She could take a few moments to read – not poetry, as Jock liked to do, but thick books that took months to get through because she could give them only small portions of her time. She ran her fingers over the threading cover of Stories from Australia, a book she deliberately read slowly because it was about far away and she wanted it to last forever.”
What a delightful introduction to a character and how very revealing although it gives no personal details such as age, hair colour or style, height, etc. but rather some very specific details about her approach to personal time and what she does for pleasure.
In October 2014, I reviewed Itani’s Tell: you can find it here. It has a post World War One setting in Deseronto, Ontario.
Have you read or do you have plans to read any of Itani’s books?
The invincible power that has moved the world
is unrequited, not happy, love.
GABRIEL GARCIA MÁRQUEZ
I will bring my people again from the depths of the sea.
And while we’re reading quotations, I like this one from the back of the book jacket:
“The guy can really write: atmospheric, lucid, sophisticated storytelling with real heart.” Anne Enright, Irish Times
Mary Tryphena appears on the first page as a child and I was taken captive by the name alone and soon by the character herself. On the beach at the end of April is a beached whale waiting to be butchered by the population of Paradise Deep. A population of “Irish and West Country English and the bushborns of uncertain provenance – were camped on the grey sand…on the feast day of St. Mark.”
“They’d scaled the whale’s back to drive a stake with a maul, hoping to strike some vital organ, and managed to set it bleeding steadily. They saw nothing for it then but to wait for God to do His work and they sat with their splitting knives and fish prongs, with their dip nets and axes and saws and barrels.”
Mary Tryphena is sent by her father to fetch Devine’s widow, her grandmother, who had that morning delivered Mary Tryphena’s brother. The work of harvesting the whale had been going on all day. Fires were burning on the beach to render the blubber, the stench was overpowering and the white underbelly was exposed with the stomach’s membrane floating free in the shallows. “The Torcher triplets were poking idly at the massive gut with splitting knives and prongs, dirty seawater pouring from the gash they opened, a crest of blood, a school of undigested capelin and herring, and then the head appeared, the boys screaming and falling away at the sight. It was a human head, the hair bleached white. One pale arm flopped through the ragged incision and dangled into the water.”
“The body was dragged out of the water by Devine’s Widow and Mary Tryphena’s father. No one else would touch it though every soul on the beach crowded around to look. A young man’s face but the strangeness of the details made it impossible to guess his age. White eyebrows and lashes, a patch of salt-white hair at the crotch. Even the lips were colourless, nipples so pale they were nearly invisible on the chest. Mary Tryphena hugged her father’s thigh and stared, Callum holding her shoulder to stop her moving any closer.”
Eventually the bystanders decided that the “unfortunate soul was owed a Christian burial and there was the rest of the day’s work to get on with.” Jabez Trim conducted a service from his incomplete copy of the Bible and Mary Tryphena’s father and James Woundy began to haul the body off the landwash. They stopped to argue about whether the man was dead or alive and “Mary Tryphena stood watching the pale, pale figure as the argument went on. A man delivered from the wale’s belly and lying dead in his own filth on the stones. Entrance and exit. Which should have been the end of the story but somehow was not. Froth bubbled from the mouth and when the corpse began coughing all but the widow and Mary Tryphena scattered up off the beach, running fortheir homes like the hounds of hell were at their heels.”
They decide to take the man to Selina’s house which was a” Wexford-style farmhouse with a fieldstone chimney at its centre, polished wooden floors upstairs and down. Mullioned windows imported from the West Country of England, iron-latched doors. ” It was a wedding gift from Selina’s father but she had lived for seven years in a plain stud tilt, the rough logs chinked with moss and clapboarded with bark and she birthed three children in that shelter.
“On the morning of their (she and King-me Sellers) seventh anniversary, Selina refused to get out of bed. -I”ll lie here, she told her husband, until there’s a door on that house o close behind me.” Once the front door was hung,’Selina got out of bed and dressed, packed her clothes into a trunk and walked the fifty yards to her new home.”
Selina is just one example of the folks who live in Paradise Deep. You will meet her husband King-me Sellers, Jabez Trim the owner of the incomplete Bible, the Widow Devine who doctored the community, Callum Devine the son of the Widow and Mary Tryphena’s father Callum, his wife Lizzie, Father Phelan and, of course, “the albino stranger…known as Judah”. There are also King-me and Selina’s son Absalom and Saul Toucher and his ten-year-old triplets and Olive Trim, Jabez’s wife who walks on her hands. Oh, and Levi and Henley and and and………
After Judah arrived, the cod reappeared in great numbers. People began to call him the Great White or St. Jude. Many believed he could heal. He recognized his name and came when called, even followed orders, but he didn’t speak and folks treated him as if he were deaf.
The book might have been called Mary Tryphena or even Judah because it covers each of their lives. But it covers so much more! There are stories galore and characters galore and tears and smiles galore! Entertainment galore you might say. I’m planning on rereading very soon.