“All my life I’ve been going somewhere, aimed toward a fixed point on the horizon that seems never to draw nearer. In the beginning, I chased it with abandon, with confidence, and somewhat later with frustration, and then with grief, and later yet with the clarity of an escape artist. It is far too late to stop, even if I run in my mind only, out of habit.
You do what you do until you’re done. You are who you are until you’re not.
My name is Aganetha Smart, and I am 104 years old.”
These words are from the Prologue which is full of wisdom and insights. It closes thus:
“There’s no starting this race over again. And still I run and I run, without rest, as if even now there is time and purpose and I will gain, at last – before my spool of silence unwinds – what I’ve yet to know.”
And so Aganetha’s story begins at the end for the reader. Having met her when she is 104 we go back to when she was 10. We meet her and her sister Fannie on a visit to the family plot in the graveyard where Fannie tells stories of the boys who are Aganetha’s half-brothers and of their mother Tilda. They speak of Robbie who is away at the war. Aganetha would like to know more about the boys Robbie writes about who suffer from foot rot. Fannie and Edith were born after Robbie. Edith has already married. After Edith, more babies died in childbirth. When the last brother,George, was born, Tilda died. Fannie and Edith were seven and six at the time. Robert Smart married the woman who would give birth to Aganetha before the next spring. The visit to the graveyard with Fannie was a regular thing for Aganetha and it is a powerful connection for her with her family history as well as with Fannie herself who was almost a mother to Aganetha.
Memories of Fannie and home and her mother and father come back often to Aganetha in the nursing home and one day when a young man and a young woman come to visit to take her out for a stroll she does not at first recognize either of them but when the young woman touches her hand she is reminded of someone. “Fannie. Fannie is still so young, She’s stayed the same … she walks effortlessly across the undulations of my mind, hair loose, hips broad, apron bleached white.” And so Aganetha slips her hand into the hand of the young woman.
Inside the story of the young woman and the young man, Kaley and Max, who have come to pick Aganetha up and have something important to ask her, is the story of Aganetha herself. The young woman is a runner who wants something from Aganetha and as the story develops the reader becomes more and more interested in what the connection is between the old woman and the young one.
Aganetha was a runner; she would run rather than walk. When George asked her how she did it she replied that it was easy. “Motion comes lightly to me. Maybe this is how others feel about calculations and equations, or about words, or about their feelings, about choices, about right and wrong. Maybe this is how my mother feels when she’s helping a woman bring a new baby into the world. Maybe this is how my father feels when he’s building one of his inventions.
What I make can’t be seen. It vanishes the instant its created. It can never be made just the same way again. How can I ever grow bored of it?”
Through Aganetha’s memories as she accompanies Kaley and Max, we experience her brothers’ participation in WWI, her family’s pain and grief due to the Spanish flu epidemic, her employment at Packer’s Meats and then in a candy factory (Rosebud Confectionary) owned by P.T. Pallister. Mr. Pallister announced in the Toronto Daily Star that he would personally guarantee girl athletes would win gold for Canada in Amsterdam at the 1928 Olympic Games. Aggie is invited to train on the grass track behind the confectionary.
And here Aggie’s story coincides with an interesting historical event which you can read about here. Aggie’s olympic experience differs from that of the actual Canadian women (check here for a link to a photo of the 1928 Canadian relay team that won gold) who participated but it poses difficulties for her: “I do not know what to do with the love and admiration of strangers. I mistake it for something personal. I believe that it is I who am loved and admired, rather than the girl in the newspaper photos. I don’t understand, yet, that I’m not really that Aganetha.”
This novel is a satisfying summation of an entire life. There is a point at which Aggie wonders who will write her obituary because no one is left from her family to tell her story. No need to worry: her story is here in full and told with compassion. And there is also a mysterious side to that story: who are these people who have come to spirit Aggie away from the nursing home and why have they risked taking a 104 year old woman out and about when they so obviously have no experience caring for such a person?
Have you read Carrie Snyder’s second book, The Juliet Stories, which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award? It was a wonderful read. I want to try her first book of stories now, Hair Hat: the title alone is full of promise! Happy Reading!
P.S. The mentions of Bathurst Street in Toronto and Sunnyside Amusement Park were tiny treats for me: so lovely when an author helps one revisit locations well known to her readers.