The nominees for the Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction will take you to three distinct areas of Nova Scotia: Yarmouth, Lunenburg, and Cape Breton. From the 1910s and 40s to the present day.
The Difference by Marina Endicott, Knopf Canada
I was overjoyed by the inclusion of this book on the list. It is one of those books that you feel you have so much to say that you don’t know what to say or how to begin.
I want to tell you about how it’s set in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia – which is where I grew up. I want to tell you about how I’ve been searching for fiction set in Yarmouth and up until now I’ve had no luck. I want to tell you about how well Endicott writes about the town (and area – Lake Milo, John’s Cove, Cape Forshue, Parade Street, Hebron – my Yarmouth friends are going to love this book) as if she’d spent time there. I want to tell you that I discovered that she has spent time there – as a child. I want to tell you that this book was inspired by the story her piano teacher told her when she lived there.
I want to tell you about the fog she writes about and how I miss it.
Behind them the ‘Morning Light’, all her sails stowed, receded into a low shape in the water, a collection of black sticks against the foggy sky.
Have I told you that I love sea adventures? I think I probably have. (In this way, The Difference reminds me of The Sea Captain’s Wife by Beth Powning.) The Morning Light will take you from Yarmouth to Boston to South Africa, Auckland, Ha’apai, Pulo Anna, Shanghai and Singapore. There are lives lived on that ship. (“The ship became the world.“) The lives of Kay and Thea, half-sisters thrown together by the death of their father. Thea is married to the ship’s captain and Kay is still just a girl of twelve, as they sail around the world visiting new places, meeting new people, and making new friends. Thea yearns for a child and Kay battles her nightmares. Thea holds steadfast to her faith while Kay is always questioning.
Thea walked everywhere, in every company, as the most superior person in the room. It was not egotistical of her, it was simply her perception of the reality of things, her calm understanding of the strength of her character and education and the protection of her religion. Kay thought it odd that she herself had not received that same certainty from Father, spending so much time in his company. Her sense of her own position in the world seemed to come out as – not lower than other people, precisely, but off to one side.
I want to tell you about how Thea adopts a young boy from a tiny island in Micronesia (buying him for four pounds of tobacco!) and that even thought they love him, take care of him, give him anything he could ever need or want, he struggles in life. This incident raises themes of home and identity and belonging, as well as racism and discrimination. And intent. (“Good intent – was it enough?“) I want to tell you about how Marina Endicott cleverly weaves in the legacy of the Residential Schools in Canada from the perspective of the head teacher’s children – Thea and Kay – who lived, helped teach, and played with the children at the school. I want to tell you about Kay’s unique character – unique in the early twentieth century – she has a different way of looking at things; a more modern way. And that she is the hero of the story – the hope of a better world to come.
Forward, forward, running along the scudding tips of the waves, the pleasure of that enormous breathing in and breathing out that is the movement of the ocean.
Lastly, I want to tell you to read this book. I hope you love it as much as I did.
They travelled the changeless, ever-changing ocean between everywhere there ever was… (Thanks, M!)
What was the use of going elsewhere in the world when you brought everything dull along with you?
She was surprised that tears did not come shooting out of her eyes and drown them all and sink the ship.
None of the books on board were interesting. Francis read nothing but naval histories, and Thea (even worse) only spiritual improvement.
Broken Symmetry by Rosalie Osmond, Nevermore Press
Moving from a pair of sisters in 1910s and 20s Yarmouth to a pair of sisters in 1940s and 50s Lunenburg.
From a large family in a rural community outside of Lunenburg, Emma and Virtue marry brothers and move together into a duplex in downtown Lunenburg, right next to their husbands’ barber shop. They don’t have a lot, but they have a house and they have each other. The trouble comes when, after seven years of trying, Emma is blessed with a daughter while Virtue remains childless. Jealousy ensues.
Virtue becomes critical of Emma’s parenting, and does what she can to entice Eleanor over to her side of the house. Over the years, Eleanor grows up with this tension between her mother and aunt, not to mention the knowledge that she can always have two desserts – one at home and one across the hall.
Eleanor stood in the middle, and her aunt and mother knelt, one on her right hand and one on her left. Each of them clasped one of Eleanor’s arms. There they knelt – antagonists, sisters, saints – tearing apart the child they both worshipped.
Virtue cannot understand why Emma is not perfectly content – after all, she was blessed with a child. Emma knows she should feel content with what she has, but can’t help longing for something of her own.
Eleanor’s life was burgeoning while hers was shrinking.
Osmond knows how to convey the complex emotions felt by Emma and Virtue; sisters, daughters, wives. There are many things at play here, in addition to Eleanor – siblings, husbands, health, socioeconomic circumstances, faith, hopes and dreams.
Emma had a horror of poverty and everything she imagined went with it… To ward off this dreadful fate, she cleaned obsessively, ironed everything in sight including her underpants, took the deadheads off the garden plants the moment the flowers died. If she lowered her guard for a second, who knew what might happen.
How to explain discontentment when it appears on the outside as though you have everything you should need or want to be content?
Yet, if she complained, others would insist she had nothing to be miserable about, nothing at all. She had a good husband who provided for her – worked himself to the bone providing for her. He didn’t drink, smoke, gamble, or womanize. A husband who was free of all those vices was something that ought to rejoice any woman’s heart.
Rosalie Osmond’s first novel, Waldenstein (nominated for the same award in 2014), is about the people who make up the small community of Waldenstein, the community Emma and Virtue are from. I’m eager to get my hands on it!
The train’s whistle was the saddest sound she had ever heard, and as it went by it got softer and lower, disappearing into some strange and empty place that was both out there and inside her.
The news was somehow consoling. The cold war and the threat of universal annihilation put one’s personal problems in perspective.
And so it went on, the tidy ironing stacking up on the table and the messy lives desiccating all around them.
Crow by Amy Spurway, Goose Lane Editions
And now on to contemporary Cape Breton where one woman has come home to die…
In addition to this award, Crow has also been nominated for the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award for Fiction. And deservedly so. I read Crow last year when it first came out… here’s an excerpt from my review…
When Crow comes home, she imagines she’s come home to die, and to be taken care of by her mother. But life is not finished with Crow. She meets up with her old friends, enemies and flames, who she still refers to as Willy the Gimp, Duke the Puke and Becky Chickenshit (to name a few). It’s like being back in high school whether she likes it or not: her mother cooks her endless amounts of her favourite broccoli casserole; she hooks up with Willy the Gimp, her old high school “friend with benefits”, and amply partakes of his pot; and she’s reunited with her friend Char who is a new mom, a bit off her rocker, and who manages to convince Crow (along with a bottle of wine) to shave off all her hair.
The friendless, homeless, hairless end-of-life trajectory taking shape here is not the swan song I expected.
And that’s just a drop in the bucket. You think things can’t get much worse for Crow, and then they do. There is surprise after surprise in this book, and I can’t tell you about any of them! Suffice it to say that there is never a dull moment. I mean, it’s Cape Breton after all. Settle in with some tea and squares, get your head out of your arse, and enjoy the ride.
If I were inclined to believe that the almighty Universe is preoccupied with sending middle-aged, lower middle-class white ladies divine cosmic messages about what they should or should not be doing with their existence, I might interpret the events of late as a series of none too subtle signs that my plans to live and die on this island was, in fact, a bad one.
Words to live by…
Don’t be so contrary all your life, take a day off.
Some days, I feel like dying. But not today. Today, there’s shit to do.
Do any of these tempt you? Predictions for the winner? Aren’t the covers beautiful?
The Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction is part of the Atlantic Book Awards.