Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tip of the cap to debut novel

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Willingness to change (or not) is a recurring theme in this entertaining debut novel, published by a small Winnipeg-based literary house.

After its protagonist, 21-year-old Pertice McIlveen, discovers a mysterious key in her Toronto mailbox one summer day, she sets out on an eastward journey to find the lock it fits.

Her travels take her to the quaintly named Honeysuckle Cottage on an island off the coast of New Brunswick, where she learns of her inheritance from a mysterious benefactor known only as PM.

The cottage will remain hers so long as she wears its former owner's many hats, literally.

The longer Pertice stays at Honeysuckle Cottage, the more hats she wears -- nine in all over the course of nine months. In that time, she adjusts to island life by learning from her many missteps.

Author Wanda Campbell's character development is extraordinary. A Nova Scotia creative writing professor and poet, she captures the spiritedness of those who live their lives harmoniously with the ebb and flow of the tides, as only a Maritimer can.

Pertice repeatedly faces figurative storm surges, and her resilience is remarkable.

With strength and grace, Pertice carves a place of belonging for herself among the Gannet Island locals. Campbell allows her readers to identify with a struggling writer who idolizes Hemingway because she cleverly uses excerpts and ideas from Death in the Afternoon as anecdotal commentary on everyday life.

Even in its quietest moments, such as a walk to the island's lighthouse or afternoon tea at the local bed and breakfast, Hat Girl resonates because the narrative is so relatable.

Heroes and villains, lovers and lost loves, saviours and the damned, these archetypal figures in our lives determine the hats we all wear.

Influence is all-encompassing, and Campbell illustrates this throughout the novel with Pertice's catalytic hats.

At times she allows circumstances to define her, wearing the hats she has been given. On other occasions, her hats are lost or she gives them to others who need them.

In a moment of clarity she chooses her own hat -- a remarkable feat of self-actualization for a woman who formerly had such an aversion to hats she barely tolerated hairnets.

Campbell has assembled an inspiring collection of triumphs over life's many battles in her first work of fiction, which won the H.R. (Bill) Percy Prize for an unpublished novel in the 2010 Atlantic Writing Competition.

Throughout Hat Girl she demonstrates that when the time comes for a tête--tête, all one truly needs is the right hat. Hats off to her!

Jennifer Pawluk is a Winnipeg communications specialist.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2013 A1

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