February 17, 2020

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Family's archive holds subtle secrets

Every family has its stories, secrets and unconventional relatives. Catherine’s Mennonite, rural Alberta family is no different.

Catherine is the narrator of Dora Dueck’s new novel, All That Belongs. Dueck, who lived in Winnipeg for years but now lives and writes in British Columbia, is a former McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award winner for her novel, 2010’s This Hidden Thing.

In the opening chapter of Dueck’s new novel, Catherine has just retired from the regional archives in Winnipeg where she has spent decades conserving history. Planning to spend her post-employment days volunteering, walking, reading books and trying new recipes, she quickly becomes restless and decides instead to finally turn her attention to her own unexamined family history. As her husband Jim had told her, as an archivist, "she ought to be at home with her past."

Catherine is particularly interested in finding out more about the events and unspoken emotions surrounding the deaths of her beloved and charismatic older brother Darrell and her eccentric Uncle Must. Uncle Must had farmed with Catherine’s father and lived with Catherine’s family during much of her youth. Strange, foreboding, judgmental and reticent, he had always been a source of embarrassment for her.

Catherine sets out on her quest by doing what she has been trained to do. She sifts through old newspapers, letters and scraps of paper, revisits her hometown in Alberta, reimagines long-ago conversations and occurrences and harasses her elderly mother for her fading memories.

"I would have to persist with the belief that a pilgrimage into the past could be a reset, that rehearsing shame could lessen it," Catherine says. "Persist, even if retrospection was inherently disorderly. Even though I might feel my feelings too much."

Most of the discoveries Catherine makes on her pilgrimage confirm what she has already known or always remembered. Still, she uncovers a few surprises and, in doing so, is finally able to properly grieve her brother and better understand her uncle’s religious fanaticism, bizarre behaviour and also his basic goodness.

There is not a lot of excitement or poignancy in these discoveries, but that does not diminish the pleasure or potency inherent in this lovely novel. It is, after all, much more than a story about digging up and coming to terms with one’s past, and even more than a story about the lingering effects of trauma and pain, and grief and guilt.

All That Belongs is also a story about aging with grace and accepting what you cannot change.

It happens to be, as well, an homage to a long, loyal and loving marriage, and an homage to the city of Winnipeg — even to its weather.

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.


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Updated on Tuesday, October 8, 2019 at 11:15 AM CDT: Book cover changed.

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