October 22, 2020

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Logger copes with fractured family

You either love it or hate it — that’s just the way life is in the now-derelict logging town of Black River. Joe Adler, a third-generation logger, loves it. To his surprise, he discovers that Sarah, his wife of several years, hates it.

"Motherhood, for her, was a death sentence. She’d had dreams, ambitions, then found herself tied to a young man that she may or may not love, and a baby on the way. She was too good a person to hate the child so she hated me and loved the child," Joe says.

In Things Worth Burying, Toronto author Matt Mayr, who grew up in a small northern Ontario mining town, digs deep into the dysfunctional family in which Joe grew up, at the same time creates a window revealing the beauty of the rugged northern Ontario bush.

The accidental death of Dan Lacroix, a man working for Joe, is the trigger for Sarah to split; she heads to Toronto to take a writing course, trying to find herself, leaving Joe to care for their seven-year-old daughter Anna. This sets the stage for Mayr to explore a series of complex love-hate relationships.

Joe’s mystical relationship with the land defines his approach to the world. "It’s the land that makes the person, never the other way around," he muses. Beauty and danger are opposite sides of the same coin in the wilderness: "This vast rugged land, beautiful from a distance, from inside your vehicle was an altogether different beast once the engine stopped and the sun went down. Death, out here, was measured in minutes and in small errors."

Joe’s parents fought all the time. His father never hit his mother, instead channeling his rage into alcohol consumption. Joe and his younger brother Thomas, who hates his mother, were terrified of their father. When the father dies, Joe wants to move on in the relationship with his mother. But "There were mountains of pain….all I could see in my mother’s eyes was sorrow and guilt, endless guilt." The problem with his father, she tells him, is that he "spent years searching for something out there in the bush and at the bottom of a bottle. "

It quickly becomes clear to Joe that Sarah, who is a rather cold character, has no intention of returning to Black River. She asks Joe and Anna to spend Christmas with her in Toronto; Joe reluctantly agrees. Sarah doesn’t want the responsibility for their daughter any more. Joe sees her relationship with Anna as "a selfish kind of love that says something like ‘you must love yourself before you can love others.’"

After Toronto, Sarah wants to go to a writing school on Vancouver Island to look for herself some more, and argues she will be a better, if only part-time, mother to Anna if she is happy. She tells Joe he should find another woman.

That he is already working on. When Anna left he hired Jenny Lacroix, Dan’s 25-year-old widow, to babysit Anna after school. Jenny, who has always accepted her role as a young mother in a small town as part of the natural order of things, is a much warmer character than Sarah.

Joe reaches out to his estranged brother Thomas, who reveals a dark family secret about his father and grandfather that has been tormenting him for decades. Thomas feared for his life when their father was around, and hated their mother because she did nothing to protect him.

Mayr’s three-dimensional characters capture working class life in a small town, a life many readers will remember, fondly or otherwise.

Gordon Arnold is a Winnipeg writer.

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