It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve finally read this book. Everyone else around me has read it, being a Canadian classic set in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. The author lived in the valley himself, and so I imagine this novel is partly autobiographical, although, Ernest Buckler calls Ox Bells and Fireflies his “fictional memoir”.
This is a coming-of-age story about David Canaan. He lives in rural Nova Scotia on a farm where life is practical, a cycle of planting, harvesting, and preserving as ruled by the seasons. It’s not long before David realizes he is different from most of the others – he is interested in words. He wants to go to university at a time when his brother and his friends are finished with school and helping their fathers out on the farm.
Suddenly he knew how to surmount everything. That loneliness he’d always had… it got forgotten, maybe, weeded over… but none of it had ever been conquered. (And all that time the key to freedom had been lying in these lines, this book.) There was only one way to possess anything: to say it exactly. Then it would be outside you, captured and conquered.
Ernest Buckler’s writing is poetic and descriptive. I got a wonderful sense of David’s growing up years – school, chores, his relationship with his parents and grandmother (who lives with them), and time spent with friends, horsing around in the swimming hole or teasing each other about their stature or their experience (or lack of) with girls.
I was, however, appalled by the boys’ casual way of talking about (and treating) girls from a very young age. (“He wished he could do it with Effie as if somehow she wasn’t there.”) I felt upset by a couple of scenes in particular, although I’m also aware that the author is portraying life as it was then. And that’s the way it was.
Despite that one gripe, I enjoyed the novel, loved the writing, and look forward to reading Ox Bells and Fireflies.
Favourite line: “When the day’s work was done and supper over, the kitchen seemed to smile.”
I read this book with Rebecca and Penny way back in August. I loved it so much (so much!), but just didn’t ever get to writing about it. It probably felt like a big undertaking, because of all the things I would like to have said. But now that some time has passed, maybe I can get a grip.
(It helps that I have since discovered that my notes are lost. Should I ever find them, I will be back to add in my favourite passages!)
I’ll just list the things I loved: the writing; the setting of Yellowknife NWT; the tight-knit cast of characters (who all work at the local radio station) circling round each other, pulling away, getting closer, falling in and out of love and admiration. Most of all, the canoe trip taken by four of the characters into the Arctic wilderness, following in the path of John Hornby who, along with his two companions, starved to death in 1927. The caribou, the bear, the frigid waters. Reading about the Arctic mosquitoes from the comfort of my own home.
The next day they paddled on. The air was calm. The mosquitoes ferocious, almost as plentiful as the caribou hair in the bushes and at the water’s edge, white, brittle, hollow hairs and some finer fluff, a floating mattress of hair. The shore, formerly flat and hard, was churned up by hooves.
My copy of Late Nights on Air is 364 pages, but I wished it was longer.
You stand next to the sea and you’re in touch with all your longings and all your losses.
I’ll leave you with this passage from The Mountain and the Valley…
The smell of the tree grew suddenly and the memory of the smell of the oranges and the feel of the nuts. In that instant suddenly, ecstatically, burstingly, buoyantly, enclosingly, sharply, safely, stingingly, watchfully, batedly, mountingly, softly, ever so softly, it was Christmas Eve.
Happy Holidays, Everyone!