This is a beautifully written book (translated by Rhonda Mullins) which you will likely wish to have been much longer than it is which possibly means that it is exactly the right length! It is on the short list of the books being presented in March by the Canada Reads program on the CBC and it is being defended/presented on that program by the musician Martha Wainwright.
Here’s some important information given to the reader on the opening page:
‘Freedom is being able to choose your life.’
‘And your death.’
That’s what Tom and Charlie would tell their visitor. Between them they have lived almost two centuries. Tom is eighty-six years old and Charlie is three years more. They believe they have years left in them yet.
The third man can no longer speak. He has just died. Dead and buried, Charlie would tell the visitor, who would refuse to believe him, so long had been the road to reach Boychuk, Ted or Ed or Edward – the variations in the man’s first name and the tenuousness of his destiny will haunt the entire tale.
The visitor is a photographer who is as yet unnamed.”
Oh and yes, there is a bit about love making life worth living but you can be trusted to suss that part of the theme out for yourself!
And there is some history here as well. The visitor coming to the area is a photographer who had heard that Ted/Ed/Edward Boychuk was one of the last of the survivors of the Great Fires. He is the third man spoken of above.
On July 29, 1916, fires which had been burning for some weeks around settlers’ clearings along the Timiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway were united by strong winds into one huge conflagration. Burning easterly along a 64 km front, it largely or completely destroyed the settlements of Porquis Junction, Iroquois Falls, Kelso, Nushka, Matheson, and Ramore. It also partially razed the hamlets of Homer and Monteith, while a smaller fire caused widespread damage in and around Cochrane. The 200,000 ha holocaust took an estimated 223 lives, more than any other forest fire in Canadian history, and led to the development of improved techniques and legislation for the prevention and control of forest fires.
The photographer had first learned about the Matheson fire from an old woman she had met on a park bench in High Park in Toronto on a lovely April day two years previously. The woman had told her about the sky black as night and the birds that were falling from it like flies.
“It was raining birds,” she told her.” “…you couldn’t breathe for the heat and the smoke, neither the people nor the birds, and they fell like rain at our feet.” The old lady had left the photographer stunned and without having taken a picture. And so she ventured on her quest to find more pictures of the destructive beauty of the birds raining down in the old woman’s eyes.
The photographer took pictures of other survivors of the Great Fire and Boychuk (see opening quotation from book above) had so far eluded her camera. He had lost his entire family in the fire. It takes the photographer some time to win over Charlie and Tom and she listens to a collection of stories by the camp fire. Eventually she is taken to Boychuk’s grave and meets his dog Kino. Tom assures her that Ted Boychuk had simply “reached his expiration date”.
The plot, however, has thickened for the photographer and another character arrives on the scene in a Skandic snowmobile in winter and on a Honda TRX 350 in other seasons. More information about Charlie, Tom and Ted are passed on to the reader via Bruno.
And through Bruno another person, an old fragile woman, expelled from the world, comes to join the camp in the woods. She is Bruno’s aunt and her arrival means great change to the little community by the lake.
“A bit like when a newborn arrives in a family, a sort of grace descended upon the community and ensured there were no concerns other than the well-being of the new arrival.”
A literary gem and a welcome addition to the highest quality titles on meaningful aging in North American society. A treat for the mind and the heart. I am grateful to Jocelyne Saucier and Rhonda Mullins.