A wide-ranging trio of books; a fascinating Atlantic Canadian memoir, a heartbreakingly good novel about residential school trauma, and a joy-of-a linked story collection.
The Dome Chronicles by Garry Leeson (2019)
The Dome Chronicles doesn’t look like the type of book I normally gravitate towards – physically, it’s tall and wide and floppy, kind of like a thin text book – but I wanted to want to read it because it’s about a family living off-grid in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. When it won the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award for Non-Fiction (over what I thought to be some pretty steep competition), that sealed the deal for me. I should also note that it’s published by Nevermore Press, whose books have been stellar.
It turns out that, on top of everything else Garry Leeson seems to be good at (which you will discover at length in his book), he’s also a great storyteller. Back in 1972, Leeson and his fiancee Andrea left Toronto for a hundred-acre farm on the South Mountain where they planned to build themselves a geodesic dome.
Each chapter of the book tells a story from one of their adventures over the last forty years. And there are many. The first being the story of how they acquired their property for just $1300. After determining they didn’t make very good farmers, they created other ways to earn a living, like wilderness tours and auctioning off livestock. And over the years, their family grew. I don’t know how they found the time and energy for everything they accomplished.
The Dome Chronicles gives a good overview of some of the other valley families and farms over the decades. Families were isolated yet knew their neighbours well and counted on each other for help and even just for social time. Over time, more people started to move off the mountain and away from farming. But the Leesons are still there.
Our arrival at our little plot of land in the woods immediately aroused the curiosity of countless neighbours. We were constantly visited by people wanting to see what we, being “Come From Aways,” were up to. It was opportunity for us to learn about the history of the area and to pick up a bit of the local vernacular. Our front yard would henceforth be known as our dooryard, my wallet would be called my purse, and aunt (“ant”) would be pronounced “awnt.” Also, when our visitors were joined by others whom they couldn’t quite place, the standard question was, “who’s your father?” It seemed that most of the people in the area were related in one way or another.
Among my favourite stories: a mule with a penchant for ditches, Franny the pig (“As time passed, the little brown piglet became an eight hundred pound behemoth and was almost unmanageable. I constructed an enclosure that was a combination of heavy gauge wire, sheet steel and electric fencing. The kids nicknamed it Jurassic Pork.“), and the baby quilt competition for Princess Diana’s new baby. Definitely stories that need to be shared with the world. And there are personal family photos to pour over as you read.
Five Little Indians by Michelle Good (2020)
The story follows the lives of five residential school attendees, all of whom were students at the same institution in British Columbia. Taken at the age of six, they are kept at the school until the age of 16 when they are let out into a world they are not ready for. Home is no longer a familiar place to them, so they end up drifting from job to job, or end up in Vancouver where they know nothing about how to live and survive in the outside world. Without each other, I don’t know what they would have done.
She remembered George telling her once that Indians were like weeds to the white people. Something to be wiped out so their idea of a garden could grow.
Lucy got dropped off in the city with nothing but a few belongings and the address of her friend who had left the school a year before. Kenny ran away from the school at the age of 13 and became a drifter and a drinker, unable to ever settle or be content. Clara is full of rage at the system and gets politically involved. Maisie lives a double life; one that seems functional and one that feeds her shame. Howie spent years in jail for a petty crime of desperation.
Five Little Indians highlights the damaging effects of the residential school system by following the lives of these children into adulthood. As their lives intersect over the years, they struggle to overcome their trauma (some having more success than others) and try to find a way to belong in a world that doesn’t want them.
As bleak as it sounds, Michelle Good offers us hope in the form of friendship and resilience.
I was reading this book when the news came out about the remains of 215 children found buried at a former residential school in British Columbia. “I think of how many didn’t go home.” I hope everyone reads it.
Depth Rapture by Carol Bruneau (2003)
Depth Rapture is a delicious example of interlinked-short-story-goodness. Marcie invited me to join her in a Carol Bruneau-reading-marathon, but with my reading rate being a lot below hers, I chose to read the one book Marcie couldn’t get her hands on. Someday I will get to them all. (In case you’re curious, the others I’ve read are here, here, here, here, and here.)
The stories in Depth Rapture–set mainly in Nova Scotia–revolve around Barbara; her coming-of-age in the sixties and seventies; her career; her marriage; motherhood and middle age. The other characters in the stories are related to her by blood or circumstance.
Through Barbara’s young eyes, we see her mother Kaye carry a baby to term only to lose it. We go along on Arthur’s rounds through “Hubville” during a flood. As a teen, Barbara and her friend Marilyn hitchhike to Frenchy’s with $2.50. (“We’re always on the lookout for fat-waled hiphugger cords, fringed purses, and crocheted ponchos.“)
Right after high school, Barbara heads to Vancouver – she doesn’t know if she’s going for the experience or to get away from her stifling boyfriend Rick (who ends up marrying a woman named Maureen). Barbara comes back to Nova Scotia to attend university where she meets her future husband in a lab. (“The lab’s a cocoon, like being inside a seed, a cell. No windows, no distractions; just the sound of running water, the squeak of my labmates’ shoes on the scuffed floor.“)
Other stories include: Barbara’s estranged cousin Jeremy and the drowned girl; her old friend Marilyn with her four boys; Barbara’s husband’s health crisis. They then slip into Kay and Arthur’s old age and the new generation of Barbara’s children as teens.
With a strong sense of time and place and lovely imagery, Depth Rapture has stood the test of time.
I follow Aunt Laura into the porch, past the wringer washer under its yellow oilcloth, the pile of ‘Atlantic Advocates’ beside it; the neat tower of ice-cream containers. The air is hot and dry with the hum of flies, the smell of warm plastic.
Seven days and nights it rained, one entire week without let-up. It was as if some giant sluice had opened, spilling every drop ever drawn into the sky. Creeks choked with overflow, and above town the Salmon River backed up like a faulty sewer; instead of emptying into Cobequid Bay, it spewed without mercy across the marsh.
What have you been reading from the library lately?