Crow Lake

Unknown   What if a car accident killed your parents when you were a child, and you were raised by your older brothers?   In Mary Larson’s Crow Lake, two teenage brothers bravely cope with this premise in a story of resilience and perseverance, set in the cold wild isolated area of Northern Ontario.

Kate Morrison narrates her family’s story, as a traumatized seven year old, and later as a successful research  biologist in her late twenties.  With two older brothers and a toddler sister, she remembers how they determinedly grappled with the problems of staying together.  At every turn, heart-wrenching decisions and difficult daily life follow the Morrisons.  Only Bo, a toddler at the time of the parents’ death from a car accident, provides some comic relief, as the assertive and funny terrible-two year old who plays with pots and pans on the kitchen floor.

The Morrison parents have gone to town to buy a suitcase for eighteen year old Luke, who surprisingly has been accepted into a teacher’s college.  His seventeen year old brother, Matt, always thought to have been the smarter of the two brothers, has a promising future too, as he heads into his last year of high school, focused on getting a scholarship to study biology.  When a logging truck kills the parents, the two brothers are determined to keep the family together, despite well meaning offers from their father’s family to send the two little girls to live with distant relatives.

With little money left to them after their parents’ death, the brothers rely on the charity of the small town neighbors who knew their father, a banker.  Luke foregoes college to stay home to care for the two little girls, working part-time on an adjacent farm and later as a janitor in the local one room school.  As the story unfolds, family secrets are revealed, and  Kate looks back on the  “what might have beens” – decisions affecting her brother’s lives forever – Luke’s encounter with a flirty attractive girl,  Matt’s tangling with the violent farm neighbor’s daughter.  Life is hard, with smatterings of humor, but severe turning points mark life-changing choices.

As the only sibling to go on to college and a Ph.D., Kate feels guilty for what she has, and what they lost.  Finally, she faces her demons at a family reunion – her nephew’s eighteenth birthday – and with the help of Daniel, her colleague and lover, Kate makes peace with her family and with herself.

Crow Lake is a page turner.  Lawson’s storytelling style is comfortable and will draw you into the places and the people – the kind of book you can get lost in.

Mary Lawson has published two more books and has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize since writing this first novel, Crow Lake in 2002. If not for Liane Moriarty, I would have missed this talented Canadian author who lives in England. In responding to an interview for “By the Book” in the New York Times, Moriarty confirmed Crow Lake as the book she wished she had written, “with every character …so beautifully described and developed…”   Lawson’s The Other Side of the Bridge was on the long list for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, and has characters again in northern Ontario.  I can’t wait to read it.

 

 

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman

9781843915362_p0_v1_s192x300Denis Theriault’s The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman surprised me.  

 Bilodo, a Montreal postman, secretly opens other people’s mail before delivery, and lives vicariously through their hand written letters.  When he opens the letters between Ségolène, a young woman in Guadeloupe (a French territory in the Caribbean) and  Grandpré, a local professor and poet, he is immediately caught up in the exchange.  

Anticipation of the letters offers Bilodo a respite from his dreary life, but when the poet is killed in a car accident, Bilodo despairs.  To keep the epistolary exchange going, Bilodo takes a leave of absence from his job as a postman.  He assumes Grandpré’s identity, moves into his apartment, and continues to write to Ségolène.  

Since the poet has only written in haiku, with Ségolène responding in kind, Bilodo must learn how to write this traditional Japanese poem.    At first, his attempts are pedestrian but he improves as the story continues.   As the letters fly back and forth, growing more and more ardent, two incidents threaten to interfere in the intrigue and the budding love affair. The first is resolved, but the second was quite a surprise.

The book is short and compelling and the ending is a shock that I did not see coming.  Although the book has been compared to work by Julian Barnes (possibly for the strong impact through a short work), the ending reminded me of Kafka.  

Originally published in 2008 in Canada, and recently republished by UK’s Hesperus Press, the book is not in my library’s collection.  Since the book is a testament to writing actual letters, it seemed ironic I could only find the ebook version.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman is worth looking for and reading: I enjoyed it.  It may inspire you to sit right down and write a letter, as you consider which persona you will use to wield your pen.

Related Reviews:

Finding Winnie – 2016 Caldecott Award Winner

9780316324908_p0_v3_s192x300When you think of Winnie the Pooh, you may imagine the Disney character or the rumbling voice of Sterling Holloway, but Lindsay Mattick tells the real story of the bear in her 2016 Caldecott winning book – Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear.

Illustrated by Sophie Blackwell, the story evolves into two tales: first, the saving of Winnie the bear cub from a trapper and his stint as the mascot of Captain Harry’s World War I regiment; next, as the bear in the London Zoo who played with Christopher Robin Milne “right inside her enclosure,” inspiring the little boy to rename his stuffed bear after her. Christopher Robin’s father, Alan Milne made Winnie famous by writing about the adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

Mattock adds an “Album” at the back of the book, sharing family photos and the excerpt in the 1914 diary, identifying the day when Harry met Winnie – August 24th.  A picture of Christopher Robin and the real Winnie at the London Zoo in 1925 is included.

Canadians from Winnipeg are reminded of the bear’s roots and his savior, a local veterinarian World War I soldier, Captain Harry Colebourn, with a statue in Assiniboine Park.  Mattick, a descendant of Harry tells his story to her young son, his namesake, as a bedtime tale.                                   

“Sometimes the best stories are {true}.”

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As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust: A Flavia de Luce Novel

51Byag2ZQwL._SX200_She’s baaack…  When Flavia de Luce was shipped off to boarding school in Canada at the end of Alan Bradley’s last installment of the precocious detective, I sadly thought the series was over.  Happily, Flavia returns in As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, with a charred and mummified body falling from the chimney in her dorm room at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy before she has a chance to settle in.

With Flavia’s penchant for chemistry, as she concocts imaginary ways to eliminate annoying characters, she rivals Agatha Christie for powerful and effective ways to murder.  You wouldn’t want Flavia for an enemy.  Bradley’s tongue-in-cheek humor appeals to adults; where else can you be a twelve year-old again, planning revenge for perceived slights.

But the discovery of the murder, and the journey to whodunit drives the plot with suspects and motives.  Flavia always uncovers key clues, and following her to the final reveal through several plot twists is fun.  What a relief to know she will continue to entertain readers as she solves unlikely murders.

For more reviews of Flavia de Luce novels, start with The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

Traveling to The Thin Place

When Eric Weiner described “thin places” in his New York Times article Where Heaven and Earth Meet, he reflected on travel to places “where {he} could breath again… and became {his} essential self.”  He listed bookstores among such enervating sites, and his mention of Powell’s Book store in Portland, Oregon, reminded me of my good intentions to get there someday.  Have you been there?  Bought a book there?

Rereading the 2012 article gave me some perspective on my own recent travels.  According to Weiner, thin places cannot be planned; they just happen.  Although escorted tours come with expectations,  those unexpected moments – usually alone – make the fulfilling connections.    I’ve found thin places when I wasn’t looking: my early morning walk in England’s Lake Country among the ferns and babbling brooks; my awe at the vastness and the color of the glacial lake in Canada as the sun rose over the mountain;  a bulldog sleeping peacefully outside a country store in Wales; a fireplace in Alberta as the snow quietly fell outside.

IMG_0087Some thin places have been closer to home: the quiet of the Pacific Ocean before dawn as I walked along a seawall, a deserted park before crowds of walkers took over the paths.

Weiner’s paraphrase of Kierkegaard:

“Travel, like life, is best understood backward but must be experienced forward…”

reminded me how often I did not appreciate where I’d been until later – when the memory of beauty or quiet sustained me in a harried world.

Where have you experienced “thin places”?