Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/8/2011 (3753 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
By Frances Greenslade
Random House Canada, 376 pages, $30
Gypsies and vagabonds have a lot in common. A passing and unfettered restlessness impels these free spirits to pick up, leave and escape the confines of modern society, often abandoning those who love them in their quest for freedom.
In her first novel, Penticton, B.C.-based Frances Greenslade develops characters who occupy a world of spirits and legends and who struggle relentlessly with stark and cold "reality."
Metaphors and allegories contrast with broken beer bottles, First Nations stories co-exist with logging deaths, and family loyalty is juxtaposed with desertion.
The novel's most absorbing and authentically spoken parts involve the few stories told by the First Nations characters. Legend and mythology combine in these stories and help to ground Greenslade's writing.
A one-time Prairie resident who got her undergraduate degree from the University of Winnipeg, she divides her book into three, roughly equal, sections: Food, Water and Fire.
These divisions are, in one way, too blatantly related to their respective subjects and, in another, a mystery altogether. They are unnecessary; the novel's title gives a pretty decent clue about its focus; the breaks among sections seem arbitrary and artificial.
Greenslade's writing is slow-paced and careful. Maybe it's the English professor in her; however, her phrasing is often ponderous, and her narrator, Maggie, is sometimes unsympathetic.
Incessantly and laboriously, Maggie worries introspectively and lingers on nature descriptions. Maggie's sister, Jenny, offers the novel's few moments of levity, thankfully, easing the often humourless story.
Jenny, the more typically "feminine" of the two girls, hangs out with her girlfriends and buys nail polish and pretty clothes with her money. Maggie buys thick work socks and canned food for journeys to the bush. It is Jenny, however, who asks Maggie to "write all this down," as Maggie says in the novel's opening sentence.
Despite Greenslade's sometimes overworked lines, the story itself is compelling. Maggie, who is seven in 1967, and eight-year-old Jenny, initially live in the isolated Duchess Creek, and then in small-town Williams Lake, B.C.
Their logger father, Patrick, emigrates from Ireland in the 1950s and their dreamer mother Irene is raised in the Chilcotin area in which the book is set.
Electricity arrives in Duchess Creek in 1967; the family, though, has "power only occasionally, and only for the lights." An electric stove, found in a dump and given to Patrick by one of his friends, is "never hooked up," a situation by which Irene is undisturbed. Maggie states: "Mom said that if she wanted to join the 20th century, she'd move to Vancouver."
Greenslade's first book was a travel memoir; her second, also a memoir, is entitled By the Secret Ladder: A Mother's Initiation. Shelter is, thematically, a combination of her two previous stories, a tale about travelling from place to place and is about mothers. In this case, it is the mother with the gypsy soul, driven to escape.
A self-described tomboy, Maggie spends countless hours with Patrick in the bush, where he teaches her survival skills such as building a lean-to, or a "shelter," and ways to pick the right food should she be stranded. Maggie absorbs every detail, as well as the anxiety that likely motivates her father, nicknamed "Mr. Safety," to plan for disaster.
Disaster, however, does strike Maggie and Jenny, nonetheless. Abandoned, intentionally or not, by both father and mother, the girls have few emotional survival techniques.
Their anxiety manifests itself in different ways for each. Maggie feels the burden of loss more acutely, driving her to search for her wandering mother and to discover her own story in the process.
Elizabeth Hopkins is a Winnipeg writer.