In this novel, set in Deseronto, Frances Itani returns (same time period as in Deafening) to the period following World War One, with a story of told and untold secrets.
The story opens in Toronto in November of 1920 in a room with “oak floor, oak desk” and shelves stuffed with black binders. There are four women in the room, a man and a six week old baby. Mrs. Davis oversees some neatly arranged papers. “A low rumble from the street railway outside seems far off”. “There had been no advertisement (outside) for the office used by adoption officials, only a number beside the door at street level, which matches the number of the room where everyone is now tensed, waiting for the proceedings to end.” One woman holds the sleeping baby and manifests considerable stress as she leans forward to sign the papers. Once she has signed she hands the baby to the young couple who, after embracing the woman, exit the room with the baby. After a few moments, Mrs. Davis wishes the mother a safe journey to Oswego and speaks the words “somehow, we manage to survive.”
Then the story goes back one year to November 1919 and the author proceeds to tell us what happened, what brought those four women and one man to that office on November 1, 1920.
Items from the local Deseronto Post are used to enhance the setting and familiarize the reader with the community. One of these early items informs us that plans are being made “to set up a scholarship to commemorate students of Deseronto High School and other young men of the vicinity who took part in the “World’s Great Struggle” just brought to a close, and especially those who made the SUPREME SACRIFICE in said war.” The same issue of the Post reported a runaway horse on Mill Street Tuesday afternoon. And there was an ad for Windsor Salt “on sale in the local stores.”
And so the stage is set for the reader to meet Kenan Oak who was born in Deseronto and came back from the war wounded and had not left the house “since the day he’d returned and set foot in it.” He has lost the sight in one eye, his face is disfigured and his left arm useless. His experience in the trenches has marked him in other ways as well. He “wondered why one of his own eyes had been spared, the events of the carnage having been so random, so finite. There was no explaining who walked away, who returned home, who vanished into a landscape of mud roiling with bodies, dead and alive.” Kenan “did not go out into the town, because it was safer to stay indoors.” “He did not have to look at people, and no one had to look at him.”
Kenan is married to Tress: they had both grown up in Deseronto and were best friends throughout their childhood years. Kenan and Tress are both trying to adjust to the people they had become. “War changed everything. Including what went on in the bedroom.”
Tress had a younger sister who became deaf at age five. She was able to help Kenan “to recover the language inside himself, the language of words he had been unable to utter after he had come home.” Grania had helped him immensely but she had moved away when her own husband had returned from the war.
Tress worked at the restaurant her parents owned and Kenan worked at a job the veterans association had found for him at home. Tress often worked late and Kenan missed her because he had so few other contacts with people because he didn’t go out of the house. He was an orphan who had been raised by his uncle and this seemed to add to his solitariness. He and Tress were once soul mates but things had changed since the war and “there hadn’t been much laughter” although it was once a part of their lives together.
The house they were living in had been rented from the postmaster when Tress received the telegram from the War Office telling her that Kenan was coming home.He had been in hospital in England and the war was still going on when he was sent home. He was ambushed when he first entered the house: “Gates and doorways of countless billets in France had risen before him.”
The memories of “dwellings where soldiers slept like tinned smelt on rubber sheets laid over salvaged boards, or on sandbags layered together, or on kitchen floors that were nothing more than hard-packed earth.”And other places where “the stench had made it difficult to go down into that cellar, but men were to be billeted in that place, so Kenan descended and then went outside to dig a grave behind one of the outbuildings” so that a body found in the cellar would not disturb what rest the men might be able to get. “The buildings where men slept could receive a direct hit and they’d all be killed anyway.” So, going into this new house brought back memories of his wartime experiences and how he himself used to disobey orders frequently and sleep outside in the open air where he felt safer. In his head he saw men marching by “hundreds, hundreds of thousands” “into oblivion”. He sometimes felt as though he had dropped off the edge of the world.
Eventually he dares to leave the house. He knew the town well and stays away from areas where he might meet people going instead to a farm he knows which has an abandoned barn. He squeezed “between loose boards” and ducked into a dark space which “smelled of old manure, of dust and packed earth and sweet, rotting hay.” He could see to a lighted window of the farmhouse kitchen where he saw a woman moving about. Tress had told him about her and he recalled what she had told him.
“He relaxed, leaned against the boards of the old barn and closed his good eye. His right hand made a sound, a word. (Grania had taught him sign language.) A finger to his lips and back to his chest. Tell, it seemed to be saying, but the word was directed at himself. It was his private communication: Tell.”
What was he to tell and to whom? While he was out someone had seen him from the clock tower above the third-floor apartment in the post office building. The watcher had seen Kenan grow up: he was one of the few permitted to visit after Kenan returned from the war. Could he help Kenan? Would Kenan tell him what needed to be told? What would the consequences be? How will it be connected to the four women and one man in that office? Was Kenan the man? Whose baby was it?
Much to ponder here about secrets and their impact and the significance of communication particularly in primary relationships when pain gets locked behind walls so strong they cannot be breached.