San Francisco, 1876: During an unbearable heat wave and a dangerous outbrea...more3.5/5. For this and other reviews, please visit EditorialEyes Book Blog.
San Francisco, 1876: During an unbearable heat wave and a dangerous outbreak of smallpox, Blanche Beunon bends over to unlace her boots and bullets fly over her head, killing her new friend Jenny Bonnet almost instantly. Blanche is sure her lover and his best friend are behind it, that the bullets were meant for her. Jenny, a prototypical coucher surfer who makes her living catching frogs for restaurants and has done jail time for her habit of wearing men’s clothing, was simply in the wrong place. But can it be more than that? From the notorious House of Mirrors where Blanche dances to Chinatown where she and her lover live, Frog Music draws a picture both bright and bleak of post–Gold Rush San Francsico and brings to life a real unsolved murder.
Blanche, a former Parisian circus performer, pays the bills as a celebrated burlesque dancer and sometime-prostitute, and has saved enough money to buy the rooming house in Chinatown in which she and her lover Arthur live. Arthur and his friend Ernest live la vie boheme, which for them mostly means living off and freely spending Blanche’s earnings. Everything changes when the trouser-wearing frog girl Jenny accidentally drives her high-wheeler bicycle into Blanche. She follows the dancer home and asks some guileless but uncomfortable questions that cause a series of tragic events to unfold. In particular, Blanche realizes how little she knows about the “farm” where she pays to have her and Arthur’s one-year-old son P’tit fostered. The narrative jumps back and forth between the murder and its aftermath and Jenny and Blanche’s burgeoning relationship and the havoc caused by the reintroduction of the baby into Blanche, Arthur, and Ernest’s carefree lifestyle.
The present tense narration puts the reader directly into the action. This immediacy makes us remember that these aren’t just characters, but living, breathing people. I love this kind of historical fiction. Donoghue has meticulous research skills and an immense imagination. She gives us a huge, intricately woven tapestry: San Francisco is as much a character as a setting here. From restaurants and saloons to bawdy houses to parks, everything is created in vivid detail. We can see the the little yellow flags hanging outside doors, feel the horror that smallpox resides within. The stifling heat wave, the brimming xenophobia, the glorious multiculturalism, and the expansive freedom our post-Prussian-war main characters feel in America makes for a delicious reading experience. And the mystery of who shot Jenny, and whether the killer had meant to aim for her or for Blanche, is satisfyingly convoluted. Many different characters have means and motive, and the fact that Jenny’s death is already inevitable tinges even the fun and intimate scenes with tragedy.
Blanche is a fascinating heroine, a woman in the 19th century who genuinely loves sex and is entirely comfortable with her sexuality. She’s fashionable, shrewd with money, and not maternal. Her fight for her baby is far more a matter of will and a sense of duty than love or instinct. This is a refreshing take on motherhood and womanhood. Too, Blanche’s emotional journey is engrossing: from blithe ignorance and meek submission, letting Arthur call the shots even though she is the breadwinner, toward a fuller sense of self-worth. The best moments of the novel come when she is interacting with the boisterous Jenny. Though Blanche makes her living as a burlesque dancer and prostitute, she is in many ways the upright, buttoned-down straight woman to Jenny’s quite literally free-wheeling, jolly, criminal life.
As charming as the high-wheeling, cross-dressing frog hunter is, because we only see her through Blanche’s point of view, and only in the flashback scenes, there is something of a detachment that occurs. Jenny never comes as alive as I wanted her to, remaining closer to a caricature as Blanche realizes how little she knows about her new, dead friend. The mystery of Jenny’s back story is compelling, and way she and Blanche connect so deeply and yet at the same time almost not at all, makes for the best kind of readerly frustration: you want more for these women than history has allowed them to have.
Frustrating in a less appealing way is the choppiness of the chronology. There is no real need to jump back and forth so much. The reliance on flashbacks rather than a straightforward timeline took me out of the narrative somewhat, rather than compelling me forward, and made it difficult to see Arthur and Ernest as the villains of the piece. It strains credulity somewhat that Blanche lived so closely with them for nine years, only to be turned on so quickly and fiercely. And because Donoghue incorporates so many historical, well-researched characters, at times the facts seem almost too crammed in, as though the ghost of each person gets to make a quick cameo in this fictionalization of their story.
Frog Music is nevertheless well worth the read for its lush historical detail, seedy glimpses into San Francisco’s underbelly, and twisty, turny, totally plausible explanation for who killed the real life frog catcher Jenny Bonnet. Blanche and Jenny, caught up in their tragedy, will stay with you long after you finish reading their story.(less)
What’s a freelance writer who is a bit short on cash to do when his brot...more4/5. For this and other book reviews, please visit EditorialEyes Book Blog. ~*~
What’s a freelance writer who is a bit short on cash to do when his brother bails on their customary joint gift for Grandma’s birthday? If you’re Iain Reid, you follow said brother’s advice and give your grandmother a gift uniquely suited to you: time. The Truth about Luck is Reid’s memoir of the week he and his grandma took a staycation together. It’s an unassuming premise that unfolds into a quiet, funny, and insightful book.
Reid offers to take his 90-year-old grandmother on vacation for a week to celebrate her birthday. He doesn’t mention that due to cashflow issues, the vacation is going to take place in his apartment in Kingston, a couple of hours away from her home in Ottawa. Grandma doesn’t mind, though. In fact, she tells him that all her friends simply couldn’t believe he was doing such a nice thing for her. Reid’s guilt and neuroses that he can’t show Grandma a better time are overwhelmed by her relentless optimism and genuine pleasure at spending time with her grandson. They roadtrip together from Ottawa and over the course of the week go out for dinner, enjoying reading on rainy afternoons, take a ferry out to Wolfe Island, and find their conversation flowing more and more freely.
That’s it, really, as far as action goes. Reid’s style is sweetly self-deprecating, poking gentle fun at himself in a way that’s never grating. Pointing out his various fears (what if she doesn’t have a good time? What if she doesn’t like his place? Why doesn’t he have more food for her in his home? Most of all, what on earth will they talk about for that length of time?!), he allows Grandma to be the star throughout his narrative. She takes her time in all things, moving slowly, eating daintily. She enjoys a good meal out. And she is the biggest non-complainer I’ve ever come across. She’s genuinely delighted by every small kindness, every opportunity. Even as Reid frets that he hasn’t enough activities to do with her, she’s pleased to curl up in a chair and just read for a few hours—she never has time to do that at home. Grandma’s attitude is a thing of beauty.
At the beginning, Reid is a bit apprehensive about the upcoming trip. He hasn’t spent this much one-on-one time with his grandmother, ever. Reid and his grandma have known each other all his life, of course, but they have a relationship that is probably familiar to many readers: they are sort of strangers as adults, familiar with each other only in the context of child/elderly relative. Although they don’t go very far geographically, theirs is a shared trip towards a closer relationship, getting reacquainted in a way that deepens their respect and affection for one another. There are silences at the beginning; Reid wonders after a bit of sherry filched from his parents’ places loosens the flow of conversation if he can just keep Grandma a bit tipsy for the whole trip. As they spend more time together, though, they begin to tell stories and to really talk to one another. This is one of the books major themes: the importance of shared stories and memories. The stories go both ways, with Iain sharing tales of his childhood that Grandma didn’t know, and Grandma telling him about her fascinating life story, including as a nurse in the war, and how she met his grandfather. Grandma apologizes for talking so much, but Iain is delighted to listen to her. Seeing the quantity and quality of their discussions improve as they get used to one another’s presence is a wonderful path to follow along with.
Reid’s portrayal of grandma is incredibly human. She lives and breathes on the page, a wholly real person who is never reduced to a cliché. She is frail and forgetful at times. She loves cheese. She is never the “wise old elder” stereotype, even though she certainly has wisdom to share. As they talk and discover how much they have in common (as well as the many ways their worldviews and life experience have rendered their outlooks very different), themes of loneliness, and the difference between being lonely and being alone, emerge. Perhaps my favourite motif throughout is the idea of “treating” yourself or your loved one. Grandma says this regularly, and it’s not just a throwaway phrase: when she goes to the mall on a weekday morning for a breakfast out, she is giving herself a treat, and when she insists on paying for dinner with Iain, she is giving a treat to him. It’s just a lovely concept, to accept small favours and kindness with a little extra grace and gratitude.
This is a lovely read, a quiet story where not a lot happens, and that’s okay. I lost my grandma not too long ago, and this book made me miss her keenly. I was lucky to have her into my late twenties, equally lucky to have a good relationship with her. She used to love telling me stories about her years as a teenager living in Toronto, and when I visited her in her small town, I would show her photos of the Distillery District or tell her about walking down Yonge Street where she once walked. It was pleasure to spend a week with Iain Reid and his grandma, to think about my grandma, to ruminate on the importance of telling stories and sharing memories.(less)
3.5/5. This and other reviews at EditorialEyes Book Blog ~*~ Snake Woman and Eleanor Donaldson live in two very different versions of the Canadian prair...more3.5/5. This and other reviews at EditorialEyes Book Blog ~*~ Snake Woman and Eleanor Donaldson live in two very different versions of the Canadian prairie in Alanda Greene’s debut novel Napi’s Dance. Snake Woman, who begins the story as Snake Child, grows up in a time of upheaval. The palefaced people are making inroads into indigenous land, bringing with them weapons, alcohol, and values foreign to the Blackfoot people. As political strife and outside danger rips at the fabric of her world, Snake Child and her foster mother Mountain Horse are tasked by the mysterious Women’s Society with the honour and responsibility of hosting a Bundle Spirit in their lodge. Several decades later, Eleanor falls in love with the wide open spaces and huge sky when her family moves from Aurora, Ontario, to a homestead in Medicine Hat, Alberta. As the Donaldsons adjust to farming life in a sod house, they are visited by representatives of the Royal Ontario Museum who wish to bring Aboriginal artifacts back to Ontario, to preserve this dying way of life.
This is a beautifully written story, in the tradition of Rudy Wiebe and Guy Vanderhaeghe, exploring settler and Indigenous stories that crisscross the same geographical area at different times. The first half of Snake Child’s narrative is laced with traditional story and great little side trips into the points of view of animals and even rocks and rivers, commenting on the state of the world and the action of the main story. The historical research is obviously meticulous: Greene recreates the complex society in which Snake Child lives, including political and family systems, gender roles, everyday life, and most especially religious beliefs and rituals. Blackfoot cosmology informs the world view: “Lame Eagle had enthralled their son with the story of how Napi set the hills there on his great walk northward, when he created the world. How Napi had drawn, with his finger, the pathway of the Milk River that wound beside them. In hushed tones Lame Eagle would speak slowly. ‘Napi is fond of those hills. He filled them with his spirit’” (p. 17). Trouble arises for the Black Elks and other tribes in the area when Old Man Buffalo, who dwells within a giant stone on the prairie, is moved from his sacred resting spot by a white preacher intent on proving the superiority of the European god. Watching the fraying of political alliances and the approach of disease and discord is heartbreaking in its inevitability for a modern reader: we know how this story will end. Added to this is the Bundle Spirit, a powerful female deity who resides within a Bundle that travels from lodge to lodge.
Interspersed with Snake Woman’s story, we see the world through Eleanor’s eyes. Where her mother despairs of living in a house made of dirt and never having the opportunity to bring out the good china, Eleanor is captivated by the sky, the landscape, and the artifacts and stories of Aboriginal life before the white people came. As someone who is in and out of the Royal Ontario Museum often, I particularly enjoyed Lily Hamilton, a representative of the fledgling ROM, who has set out to collect Aboriginal artifacts to put in the museum. She sees the Indigenous way of life as something that has come and gone, and wants to preserve the memory of it for future generations. She’s also looking for an artifact that’s been stolen and possibly brought back to the prairies. This brings up a fascinating question of museum philosophy: is it truly better to take away part of a still-living group’s heritage in order to preserve it for future generations? Does anyone have the authority to do this? I wonder about this every time I pass the Ming Tomb on the first floor: should it really be sitting in a museum in Canada, or should it be where its inhabitant thought it would rest for all eternity in China?
Each young woman is spirited, pushing against the boundaries her society places upon her. Snake Woman is determined to have a horse of her own and learn to ride and hunt as well as the boys, so that she can take care of her all-female lodge and not rely upon the men for food. And she takes care of her family, too, with iron will. Eleanor takes to prairie life immediately and embarks on a mission, which I won’t spoil, that goes against what she “should” do as an obedient girl. They are good counterpoints to one another.
The structure of the book is somewhat problematic, alternating between two timelines with no real differentiation between the two in terms of tone. I was at first confused about how Eleanor’s family would be homesteading at the time of Fort Edmonton before I realized that we’d jumped forward a number of years. The two stories are unevenly represented, with 220 pages of Snake Woman’s tale for 50 pages of Eleanor’s, plus a coda the two share, which means that Eleanor’s parts feel a bit small and rushed compared to Snake Woman’s. And yet, I felt distanced from Snake Woman as a character. We are introduced first to Mountain Horse and her foster daughter Owl Woman, learning about the life they’ve shared as Owl Woman gives birth to her baby. She doesn’t survive childbirth, and we meet Snake Woman as a new infant, and then as a secondary character viewed through the eyes of Mountain Horse as a special, if irascible, child. It isn’t until she’s a bit older that we start to see the story through her perspective, and I never quite connected with her because of it. Had we perhaps seen her birth and younger years through flashbacks or better yet through stories told by Mountain Horse, always through Snake Woman’s own eyes, she would have been a stronger character. Eleanor, meanwhile, is brought to life so well that I was left wanting more of her, and more of her Uncle Bernard who seems to figure large in her life but doesn’t appear until very late in the narrative. Had the book been structured differently, perhaps starting with Eleanor’s coming to the prairies and her first meeting with the much older Snake Woman (and perhaps told in the present tense, to differentiate time periods more solidly), then jumping backward in time to tell Snake Woman’s tale, and finally joining together at the end to tell the part of the story the two women share, the book would be stronger.
Very traditionally written (the way the narrative and style feels, it could have been written in the 70s just as easily as now), the book is nonetheless compelling. I particularly appreciated the emphasis on female roles and lives within these societies. A consideration of the Canadian prairie and its peoples at two different points in its history, this intersecting story of two young women from different worlds in the same geographical space is a lovely read. It would dovetail nicely with high school and university history or English courses as a vivid glimpse into two ways of life that are now gone.(less)
This review has taken a long time to write. How do you review Alice Munro? The task...more5/5. This and other reviews available at EditorialEyes Book Blog ~*~
This review has taken a long time to write. How do you review Alice Munro? The task is akin to being an art critic who looks at the Mona Lisa in order to write a review—only this is a brand new work, not an age-old classic.
I’m always a bit twitchy when a new work comes out from an author I love. What if it doesn’t live up to my expectations? (See, for example, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I may review that book here if I ever force myself to finish slogging through it.) I needn’t have worried, though. In her latest collection, Dear Life, Munro surpasses herself. This is a gathering of stories set mostly in rural Ontario (“Munroland”), mostly in the not-too-distant past, that are as much about what is remembered by the narrator as what isn’t, as much about what is left out of the story as what is brought into it. This book is a work about the shifting nature of memory and the way we build and rebuild our own narratives.
The book begins with “To Reach Japan,” a story that lets us enter Ontario by starting in Vancouver. As Greta and her young daughter Katy board a train, it’s more than just her husband they’re bidding farewell to for a few months. Greta is letting go of long-held fears, social awkwardness, and prescribed roles, turning her back on social mores, and all based on a chance encounter and a shocking explosion of emotion. But of course it isn’t that easy, and unexpected dangers result. The very imminent threat and fear near the end is so palpable, the reader has to remind herself to breathe.
Munro’s characters live in a concrete but liminal world, in spaces that are absolutely familiar and mundane, and yet that operate on the boarders of society: a train, a sanatorium, the outskirts of town by a gravel pit, the inside of her own head when she was a young girl. Each story is utterly independent of the others, even as they share certain themes and certain settings. Fundamental to these stories are a sense of the strange within the familiar, an inversion or left-turn in the last quarter of the story that takes the reader completely by surprise. Themes of religion and of faith (not always the same thing), and how religious or societal conservatism can inform and constrain an individual or a group thread throughout many of the stories.
Guiding the stories, which are by turn playful and remorseful, light and dark, are questions of memory. Many of the narratives are admittedly incomplete, missing key points that a child couldn’t understand or that have been lost to the narrator as the years go by. Consider “Gravel,” told by an adult narrator looking back at childhood memories. ”I barely remember that life,” she says, “that is, I remember some parts of it clearly, but without the links you need to form a proper picture. All that I retain in my head of the house in town is the wallpaper with teddy bears in my old room” (pp. 91–2). Later, recalling the main incident the story outlines, the narrator tells us as much as she can in a fragmentary way and then gives up: “Beyond that I have no details” (p. 104). Many of the stories play with this question of memory, are framed by absences of backstory or of characters explaining their pasts. These tales exist within the bubbles of the small worlds in which their characters operate.
In “Leaving Maverley,” which is set in a small community in the old days when there was a movie theatre in every town” (p. 67), a cop named Ray finds himself in charge of escorting an introverted teenage girl from an almost cult-like and closed-in family home from her job at the cinema each Saturday night. She takes tickets but is forbidden by her strict father from watching the films. Ray coaxes her to speak on their walks by explaining movie plots, makeup, and special effects to her. The growing but barely narrated consternation his wife feels over his strange attachment to the girl, and his own sense of betrayal when the teen leaves, is breathtaking, and is turned on its head by the second half of the story. Later in the book, in “Dolly,” an older couple’s quiet life together is thrown into chaos by a blast from one of their pasts, while in “Corrie,” a wealthy, single woman and her married lover are being blackmailed, a situation that leads Corrie to a discovery that is totally unexpected to both her and the reader, but which somehow deepens her relationship.
Munro does an excellent job of pairing these shocking (but always entirely believable) turns with timeless stories. In “Train,” I read the first few pages several times to see if I was missing something, but again, the story is created by its absences and lack of information (which becomes more apparent as the story progresses). One character’s choice and life’s path in the latter third took me completely by surprise. In “Amundsen,” a young teacher goes to work in a tuberculosis sanatorium and falls in love with the head doctor. Their story progresses in a way that is both exciting and inevitable. The ending, abrupt and cool, feels like the only possible finale for these characters.
Dear Life ends with a quartet of almost-biographical sketches, which Munro prefaces by saying, “The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last—and the closest—things I have to say about my own life” (p. 255). These are so gripping in their feeling of truthfulness, and in the tension they hold with the first set of wholly fictional pieces, which are themselves informed by unreliable narrators and gaps in memory.
I can’t recommend these masterful stories enough. I can’t even choose a favourite, though the final quartet must be read by anyone interested in storytelling and in Canadian fiction. No one does it like Alice Munro. And Munro herself just gets better with every new publication.(less)