Tag Archives: Canada

TEARS IN THE GRASS

Secrets are like pods of the milkweed. They always burst open… Red Sky in the Morning

The old rocking chair faced east looking down the Qu’ Appelle valley in Saskatchewan, Canada. God knows where its journey began, but when the Cree Indian woman found it abandoned in the plains grass, she knew it was special and dragged it back to her tipi. Her young daughter, Red Sky in the Morning, was the only one that heard the chair’s past in the creaking wood.

When the Indian Act of 1876 forced this First Nations family onto reserved land, the chair traveled with them and continued to collect memories. It soothed the pain of the uprooted people and saw the hardships of life on the reserve. It sat in wait for ten-year-old Red Sky to return after she was forced to attend the Canadian government’s religious-run school. The school was a harsh environment. The children were treated as curs in need of retraining and received little kindness and suffered hard work and long hours controlled by bells and regimented routine.

Eighty years later, Red Sky in the Morning, now known as Elinor, sits in the old rocker, still facing east to the rising sun. She still lives on the reserve trading life in a tipi for a rickety wooden house that to Elinor is paradise. She is ninety-years-old and harboring a seventy-five-year-old deeply buried secret that began the day she was raped by a  school employee. A secret she did not share with her beloved husband, Joseph, and after his murder, with her daughter, Louise, or her granddaughter Alice.

The secret – a daughter was the product of the rape. A child she named Bright Eyes. A child stolen from her arms moments after birth by the nuns and replaced with a grainy black and white picture. Time is now short. She wonders why she waited so long to take action on something that has pained her every day of her long life. The secret must be shared so she can die in peace. She must find her first born child and she will need the help of Louise and Alice.

Life has not been easy for Elinor but she is a survivor with a feisty spirit and an insane determination to live her life on her own terms. Her teenage daughter, Louise, mysteriously disappeared from the reserve, leaving a heart-broken Elinor to wonder for years if she was responsible for driving her away?  Now years later, living in separate worlds but reconciled, the mother and daughter have a guarded relationship.

Louise’s reason for leaving never discussed between them. Louise, strong-willed like her mother, has done well with her life but she has found that she will never be fully accepted in the white man’s world. In the white man’s world, this highly educated and ambitious lawyer finds herself facing much more than a glass ceiling. Like her mother, Louise harbors a deeply held secret. And like her mother, she found a loving husband; a white man with a heart of gold who does not know her darkest secret. Their union producing a great love in Elinor’s life, her granddaughter, Alice.

Alice has a secret she shares with the reader. It’s 1968 and she is a gay Chee half-breed. A toxic mix in a mixed-up wartime world. She is not sure her family will accept her if they knew and she knew the world at-large would not accept a gay school teacher. She would lose her job.

Elinor, slight in stature, slender as a dry stalk of grass, and in frail health holds center stage in the novel. There is no doubt who is in charge during the search for Bright Eyes; the need for the search never in question but clues are few and Elinor takes matters in her own hands. Did the trio ever find Bright Eyes? I am not going to tell.

I will tell you I will never hear the wind, pluck a flower, listen to rain, or watch a tree sway in the wind the same again.  Tears in Grass is exquisite in its simple prose and symbolism. It is a simple story with deep resonance to themes that plague us all; family relationships, societal strains, personal secrets that fester and affect our lives.  It is a story balanced with the beauty of the natural world and the belief that what comes next after death should not be feared.

The book may not appeal to all. It is slow paced. Not in a hurry or filled with heady suspense. I savored the quiet moments of reflection with Elinor as I sat in my own rocking chair, facing my own scenic world, and listened to my babbling stream. Yes, Elinor there is no place like home.

The novel is filled with magic and as much unreal as real. A talking stuffed buffalo?  Even the description of evil suffered by Elinor is handled in a manner much like childbirth itself. Painful beyond belief but instantly forgotten when you look into the eyes of a newborn.  As the last chapter in Elinor’s life closes, you will be satisfied.

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STILL LIFE: Chief Inspector Gamache series #1

THREE PINES, Quebec

Three Pines is a village that isn’t on any maps. There is a sense that it’s only ever found by people lost. No one goes there on purpose. They sort of bumble into it. But the people who do find it were meant to find it. -Louise Penny, Author

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Louise Penny began her career as a radio broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. After years struggling with personal issues and with the support of her husband, she found her literary voice at age 46.  It was difficult at first. Her first cozy murder mystery, Still Life, was rejected or ignored 50 times before Minotaur Press opened the door to the enchanting world of Three Pines, Quebec.

Still Life, with its the eclectic cast of lovable characters and down-home setting, was inspired by Quebecois places and people. The book garnered immediate popularity and received numerous awards. With the success of her first book, Penny began writing a murder mystery a year for the past thirteen years. Each new book returns readers to Three Pines where we step back into the lives of the core characters much like returning home for an annual family reunion. The characters have become our neighbors and friends. The town has become real. So much so, that ardent fans travel to Quebec to visit the area just north of the Vermont border to capture the feel of the Eastern Townships for themselves.

Dunne/Minotour published her 15th novel in the Chief Inspector Gamache Series entitled,  The Better Man, on Aug 27, 2019. Like all of her previous books in the series, the newest book can be read and very much enjoyed as a stand-alone-mystery.

If you have not read any of the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, I recommend  you begin at the beginning with Still Life.  Join the highly decorated Inspector Gamache as he investigates a death occurring in a middle-of-nowhere place called Three Pines; a cluster of homes and a few small businesses. A place known to only a few; stumbled upon rarely, but a place, once discovered is never forgotten.

The First Book – Still Life

Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning miss of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all round… She’d fallen spread-eagled, as though making angels in the bright brittle leaves… Chief Inspector Armand Gamache… knelt down [near her body.] Jane’s gentle and kindly eyes stared as though surprised to see him… Shot through the heart by an arrow.

The Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force located in Montreal, taps the infamous Chief Inspector to investigate the death or identity the death as a hunting accident. He heads out of Montreal, crossing the Champlain Bridge, heading into the Eastern Townships.  The scenery changes from congested urban environment transitioning to pastoral greenery and suburban villages. Suddenly, off to the side, is a pockmarked metal sign pointing down a rough-and-tumble dirt road. The road dead ends revealing a charming magical scene – a “Thomas Kinkade” village that exudes peace and calm. A most unlikely setting for a violent murder. A place one resident told Gamache she doesn’t remember a crime of any kind during the twenty-five years she has lived there.

Gamache begins his trademark style of investigation – patient observation; patiently letting the story  begin to unfold itself. He parks himself on a bench in the town square and casually watches. We dine at the Bistro, brush off crumbs from croissants purchased at the boulangerie, browse the bookshelves of the retired psychologist turned bookstore owner, rein in the crusty feisty septuagenarian who happens to write popular poetry and discover the home-life secrets each resident disguises in public.

As the misdirection proceeds, Gamache must deal with an arrogant Agent trainee who repeatedly upends his investigation plans. He learns that the victim, a beloved retired schoolteacher and reclusive artist, has submitted her first publicly viewed art work at a local gallery just days before her death, and the murderer, once revealed stuns Three Pines.

The victim, Jane, was prescient, when she quoted the British poet W. A. Auden in a flashback moment,

Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table.

Reflection

Be warned! Three Pines is addictive. Each succeeding book gets better and better. The central characters in Still Life  return in every future book, growing older, experiencing life as we all do with its up and downs. But always, Gamache and Three Pines meet to solve another sudden mystery and we drive down that dirt road to join old friends.

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They Left Us Everything

they left us everything cover

They Left Us Everything: A Memoir

by Plum Johnson

First publication: Penguin Canada 2014

award

2015 RBC TAYLOR PRIZE
Excellence in the field of literary non-fiction.

G.P. Putnam’s Sons | July 26 2016
Hardback: 288 pages
ISBN: US edition 978-0399184093
Genre: Non-fiction/Memoir

★★★★☆

ARC: E-book from First-To Read in exchange for an unbiased review.

Garden gate porch

Photo courtesy of Plum Johnson

Point O’ View

Nineteen years, one month, and twenty-six days of eldercare have brought me to my knees.

This award winning Canadian memoir of the death of aging parents will be available in the US in July of 2016. If this topic scares you, don’t go away! Her family will amaze you with its rich history! If you or anyone in your family has become a caregiver, you will find that you are not alone in your feelings.  Johnson has handled this story with grace and dignity.

Plum Johnson’s Toronto message machine blasts her cantankerous 92 year-old Mum’s voice. “Promise you’ll drive out first thing tomorrow! Damn this machine call me!”

For “First Daughter” Plum Johnson the death of her 92 year old mother marks the end of a tumultuous and emotionally painful 20 years as caregiver that has left her painfully stranded between who she was before, who she has become and what she will be next. As she opens the garden gate and leads us inside the family home, she shares the emotional turmoil in the intimate corners of herself. The physical tour of the house and its belongings taken in step with the inventory of her feelings and self reflection will stir up sadness, joy, amazement, anger and love.

The wartime marriage of a British Naval officer and an American Red Cross Director endured and left a legacy of treasures measured in 5 children, memories and 23 rooms filled with mementos, artifacts and yes, junk. After their deaths, the children discover incredible personal mysteries hidden in the home and answers to questions they wish they knew to ask while they are alive.

Divorced, self-employed and an empty nester, Plum was the obvious choice to serve as caregiver to her parents.  For 13 long years she cared for her father as she watched his retreat from life into Alzheimer’s deep fog. Three years after his death, Plum is still in life limbo caring for her mother. But her mother’s ever growing cantankerous disposition and demanding nature have eroded any remaining compassion or patience. All encounters become jousting matches that leave no winners.

Friends of mine who lost their mother’s early kept telling me, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are… I’d  give anything to have my mother back for just one minute.’All I wanted was my freedom. I looked into the future and thought, will I ever get my life back?’

Grief has no expiration date.  It has no parameters. It can’t be exchanged or coerced.  This heartfelt story of one person’s experience expressed honestly and candidly.  In the end, she and her siblings learn one of life’s greatest lessons.  Parents are people with their own dreams, ambitions, faults, and tragedies. When we stop seeing Mom as mother and we stop seeing ourselves as a wronged child, it is possible to love Plum as Plum and Anne as Anne. And with that knowledge a person regains compassion, understanding and the freedom to move on….

Reviewers  note:

There are references to other non-fiction books about members of this family. I encourage others to read the gripping tale of her father’s escape from a Japanese POW camp. I was, at first, very angry at her father’s harsh disciplinary style but as I learned more about him personally I came to see that he was doing his best with what he knew from his own experience. It doesn’t excuse his actions but shows that he is at heart a deeply loving father.

Plum Johnson’s childhood is far from average and goes to show that you can not make assumptions about another’s life. As stated above, Grief knows no bounds and we are all more than one dimensional beings.

I want to thank the author for permission to use her personal photo in my review.  I also want to thank her for reminding me of things in my life that I discovered when we cleaned out the closets and basement of my family home.

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