Tag Archives: Magical Realism

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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TELL ME WHO WE WERE : stories

Mr. Arcilla died. . . Handsome and scruffy and achingly tall. . .He was just out of college. . . to teach twelve-year-old boarding school girls the fundamentals of Spanish and French. . . Spanish then French. . . He never made it to French. . .

Six twelve-year-old boarding school girls at the precipice of womanhood; all individually in love with their romance language teacher. Their budding pubescent lives firing up and things getting itchy in new places in their bodies. That time in their  lives where they all felt daydreams foretold the future; where the difference between reality and imagination is blurred.

Chapter One is a short story entitled, The Translator’s Daughter, and is narrated by one of the girls as an older woman. She introduces Lilith, Romy, Evie, Claire, Nellie and Grace and reveals their interpersonal relationships, their individual backstories and their deep individual attraction to their twenty-five-year old teacher, Mr. Arcilla.

When his body is discovered floating naked in a nearby pond, the girls are devastated and disconcerted to find themselves alone to sort out the meaning of life and death and to discover that Mr. Arcilla, the kind and patient teacher, did not share their affections. He turned out to be just an ordinary man with individual troubles not unlike themselves. The scars from this event would affect each of them for the rest of their lives. The slender thread of Mr. Arcilla’s death is the only thing that remains of their friendships after they leave the halls of Briarfield.

Mr. Arcilla. Our first real love, our first real loss. We felt it keenly then, as if he had left each one of us. . .without a good-bye. . . Cast aside. Disregarded. Left on our own, alone.

We will again meet Lilith, Romy, Evie, Claire, Nellie, and Grace, featured separately in the next six stories. Each story, a slice from each girls’ future, as inspired by the works of poets and translators famous for myths about women.

The author has done a nice job of maintaining the magical realism revealed in The Translator’s Daughter in each of the subsequent stories.  To quote the publisher who summarizes it best:

Throughout these stories, these bright, imaginative, and ambitious girls mature into women, lose touch. . . achieve success and endure betrayal, marry and divorce, have children and struggle with infertility, abandon husbands and remain loyal to the end.

I particularly liked that the book is a short story collection. I savored one each night this week as I wound down my day. Readers of The Night Circus, The Snow Child and Life of Pi will find it appealing.

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VIRGIL WANDER: a novel

VIRGIL WANDER

Leif Enger

If I were to pinpoint when the world began reorganizing itself- that is, when my seeing of it began to shift – it would be the day a stranger named Rune ble

fire hydrant kite

w into our bad luck town of Greenstone, Minnesota, like a spark from the boreal gloom.”

The imaginary town of Greenstone, Minnesota lies somewhere along a remote section of shoreline on Lake Superior. A town that lost its luster and raison d’être after reaching the tail-end of a mining and shipping boom. Long-time residents of Greenstone weren’t surprised when the mines closed and the cargo ships sailed away for the last time. Bad luck has always been around the corner; this was just more of the same.

Greenstone folks are remarkable people. They don’t sit around wringing their hands waiting for the other shoe to drop on them. They just hitch up and help out the person currently caught sideways by the town’s curse. Oh, there are the gossipers, the skeptics, the suspicious, the troublemakers, the confused – but overall decent folks that somehow manage to find purpose enough to stay in the dying town but lack the courage to leave.

icy headlightSo when Virgil Wander, their  part-time town clerk and full- time owner of their decaying local movie theater, skidded off that icy cliff into Lake Superior and his airbag temporarily scrambled his brain, the town sighed, and added his woes to their infinite list of bad luck stories.

This is Virgil’s story to tell. It’s a story about rebirth and second chances. A story of love lost and love found. A story of hope, sadness, compassion, humor, and friendship that forever bonds a town together. There’s a bit of mystery, danger, and intrigue. This is a story told in that stereotypical simplicity of the mid-West; little said but much meant.  It’s a complicated but comfortable story filled with many lovable (and some not so lovable) characters.

It begins the day Virgil wakes up in the hospital after his accident.  He discovers his “storehouse of English had been pillaged” and his cranial gyroscope off tilt. He was most distressed to lose his adjectives but happy to find a few nouns and the essential verbs still there.

His first day back home at the Empress leaves Virgil conflicted. He knows it is his home but everything is off. Struggling to understand his new perspective of himself and the town in general, Virgil absentmindedly takes a walk through town ending up at the abandoned waterfront pier.

Standing on the far edge of the pier is “a threadbare stranger [with] eight-day whiskers and fisherman hands, a pipe in his mouth like a mariner in a fable, and a question in his eyes”. A brightly colored kite is tucked under his arm. The sad old man recently learned that years ago, while on a brief visit to the United States from Norway, he had fathered a child; a son. Returning now, he hoped to meet his son only to learn that he disappeared years ago and is presumed dead.

The two men, each lost in their own thoughts, chatted amicably. Out of the blue, Rune says, “Perhaps you knew my son? He lived here.” Shortly after that, the wind rustled the water and the kite left Rune’s arms to rise high into the sky; as time after time, Rune’s kites will lift the spirits of the town folk during his quest to bring his son alive in memory.

Virgil will fare much better than Humpty Dumpty; he will be able to put most of his pieces back together again. The new Virgil has a bright future and grateful for that second chance.

As for town itself, no worries. The folks learned to face their “hard luck” head on and make lemonade out of lemons. As you flip those final pages and wave goodbye, you will do so with a smile.

Recommended reading for those days when you need a lift into imagination and magic.

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