Much has been made of Maud Lewis and her art over the years: baby books, art, biographies, even a movie. She is well-known here in Nova Scotia – I remember learning about her in school over 30 years ago. Since then, more has come to light about her life, or, more likely, more has been made known publicly. I wondered what another book could bring to the table.
I was blown away by Carol Bruneau‘s gentle and compassionate portrayal of Maud, and the cleverly structured narrative.
Still, I wondered, coming straight from Maud’s own mouth, how will Ms. Bruneau tackle those dark rumours about Everett’s character and Maud’s marriage to him? And the parts of her story that no one is likely ever to know? But she does it. Ms. Bruneau addresses these issues in a way that makes sense or that leaves it up to the reader’s interpretation. And she does it with confidence. She boldly takes Maud and gives her life – she’s smart, creative, and funny. And it’s that humour that saves her. Humour and her eye for beauty.
The first thing you need to remember is that I’m no longer down where you are, haven’t been down your way in years, in what you people call the land of the living. You could say I’m in the wind, a song riding the airwaves and the frost in the air that paints leaves orange. As the rain and the sunshine do, I go where I want… If you know anything about me, you might be thinking, oh my, that one’s better off out of her misery. Which might be true, but, then again, might not. But I dare say, without the body I dwelt in and the hands that came with it, I wouldn’t have gotten up to half of what I did in your world; I’d have spent my days doing what you do. Where’d be the fun in that?
… I had known since forever that it’s colours that keep the world turning, that keep a person going.
Most of the interest in Maud lies with her art and her life with Everett. She suffered from a debilitating illness that made it hard for her to move around like an able-bodied person. Everett took care of the house and the cooking while Maud painted.
How did Maud come to be the wife of Everett, a poor fish-peddler who had grown up in the Digby poor house? Born in 1903, Maud grew up in a relatively prosperous family in Yarmouth and was well-loved by her parents. She and her mother used to paint Christmas cards to sell to neighbours every year. But after her parents died (1937), her brother sold the house without giving her any of the proceeds and she was sent to live with an aunt in Digby. Wanting to remain as independent as she could, she answered an ad to be Everett’s housekeeper. Shortly after, they married.
I don’t aim to candy-coat my time below. What I am saying is, it wasn’t ever so bad I couldn’t stand it. The way I look at it, I was lucky.
Maud describes her childhood in Yarmouth to the reader; the relationship she had with her family and the things she enjoyed doing when she was young – one of which was painting. Her condition was not yet severe, but she was still often teased at school, so she spent a lot of time at home or with her mother. “As for the teasing and mockery dealt to me, looking back I figure it was good training for being married to Ev.” Maud ends up taking one big secret to Digby with her – the birth of a child. Through Maud’s narrative, we get all the juicy details about Maud’s affair with Emery and the adoption of their daughter Catherine.
Because of her past accidental pregnancy and her worsening arthritis, Maud considers herself a “dud” and believes herself fortunate to be married (and not a burden to anyone else), even to a man like Everett. She knows Everett has flaws, but understanding the circumstances of his childhood allows her to look beyond them to his better qualities: his ability to make something out of nothing, his ability to find good stuff at the dump, his willingness to do the cooking and the housework so she can paint, and his pride in her paintings. He was especially keen to help sell the paintings, and although he sometimes ended up drinking the money, he always made sure Maud had everything she needed to paint her pictures.
It was hard to get mad at Ev, harder to stay mad at him. Before he left, he’d set everything up so nice. My sardine tins were topped up with paint, just so, the turpentine in its alphabet soup can. My clean brushes stood bristles-up in their peanut butter jar.
What separated me from Ev was his hunger, the hunger that coils up inside a person and leaves them always wanting. I had learned a long time ago not to hunger for anything.
… painting didn’t mean to him what it meant to me. It wasn’t his friend like it was mine. It hit me, not for the first time, that Ev was the loneliest person I knew. So even when he’d been drinking I could hardly give up on him now, could I?
Any discussion of this book cannot go without the mention of Matilda. Creating Matilda and Willard was a creative stroke of genius on Ms. Bruneau’s part. Matilda–with “eyes that had such a glimmer you figured she knew things people didn’t“–is a crow that Maud watches from her window and is particularly fond of. Willard is Matilda’s mate. They provide Maud with a source of pleasure, company, and a way for Maud to live vicariously outside her home. While Maud is stuck inside in her chair all day, she can imagine up life for Matilda and Willard; one of freedom and beauty.
Some get the world they guess up in their dreams and some don’t. You make do. It helps to fall in love with the sun as it sinks, the blossom as it falls, the rustle of feathers even as one bird raids another’s nest.
It’s why I was made in the first place, to float above beauty, to take it all in. Marshlands, beaches, islands, and the sea are all a rolling rug of greens and blues, every hue you can imagine is hooked into it, it’s the prettiest hooking made by the happiest hooker. If there’s a God in charge of all this, that’s what she is, a hooker of borderless rugs.
Pickle Me This: “This book is beautiful, as rich and uplifting as it is a literary masterpiece.”
Matilda Magtree: “What surprises me most is how joyful the story feels, despite the not so joyful reality. In whatever way Maud managed to turn difficulty into a tolerable happiness, so has Bruneau turned a difficult story into one of ultimate brightness, capturing the essence of Maud’s pragmatic outlook.“
Interview with Carol Bruneau at Atlantic Books Today: “Bruneau’s commitment to fully developing an authentic character makes her novel far more than a faithful rehashing of known events.”