The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning

I keep saying that I don’t review books, but what a pleasure it is to read and join the chorus of characters in praise of a book whose author I know well.

I have just finished Audrey Whitson’s new novel, The Death of Annie the Water Witcher by Lightning (NeWest Press 2019).  In fact, I finished the book in one day, which is rare for me.

When I entered Annie Gallagher’s community, Majestic, a drought-stricken prairie town in Alberta, a town whose citizens have seen hard times and miseries, I didnt’t expect to stay in the story through the whole of a miserably grey day. I was in need of a book that would make me laugh, lift me up, and take me away from the hard scrabble lives of the world.

I know Audrey Whitson and her writing. People and place are exquisitely drawn; alive and real and haunting. The story of laying Annie to rest is told from the alternating points of view of eight (and I apologize to any of  the citizens of Majestic and surrounding district if I’ve neglected to count them in) with Annie herself chiming in to reflect back on her life. Once their characters made it clear that they would sit with Annie through a wake, the night following the wake and and up to the funeral the next day, I wanted to be there with them. It’s tricky business, allowing so many voices to create the narrative in a story, but Audrey Whitson has linked these people together not only as people who loved Annie, but as community. Relationships with Annie emerge, and so too do the intimate details of the lives of her neighbours.

There are so many moments in this novel when I’m struck by the ways in which Annie’s death are redemptive and magical. In a drought ridden community where crops are failing, Annie is witching for water for roses. The Roman Catholic church is on the verge of closing. The hope for Majestic is that it will live on through an influx of city folk. The church will become their living spaces – lofts. The business deal is underway, the deconsecrating of the church is scheduled. But Annie’s funeral gets in the way.

Oh, what a funeral. When the aged Bishop arrives, I find my “favourite” character.

 “I can tell some want to jump out of their pews, out of their places, want to hold her last witching branch in their hands and join the old bishop in dancing the water.”

The ending to this book is one of the most beautiful and astonishing I have read in a very long time.

 

 

Advertisements

The Work of Justice

Jack Pecover died today, and I feel a deep sense of loss. Although we only met in person perhaps ten times over the years, we carried on a long epistolary conversation.   A letter from Jack was a time to sit down, get my wits about me, smile, laugh and hear his voice in my mind spinning his tales.

Jack and I shared an obsession, although his began long before my own. Both of us dealt with our obsession with the Cook family murders in Stettler in 1959 by putting pen to page and writing a book.  Jack’s Book, The Work of Justice, The Trials of Robert Raymond Cook was published in 1996 by Wolf Willow Press.  My book, The Boy,was published by Oolichan Books in 2011.

To share just a smattering of biography and the story of my making the acquaintance of this remarkable man, some excerpts from The Boy:

“The photo on the cover of The Work of Justice, The Trials of Robert Raymond Cook is of a young man in suit jacket and tie, hair combed straight back, looking as though he could have been on his way to a school dance, or a first job interview. This was Robert Raymond Cook, dressed for his trial in the murders of his father, stepmother, and the five young children of Ray and Daisy Cook.

The book by Jack Pecover is four hundred and forty-nine pages, with two epigraphs:

“Who shall put his finger on the work of justice and say, ‘It is there.’ Justice is

like the kingdom of God; it is not without us as a fact; it is within us as a great yearning.”                         —  George Elliott

 

“The whole case agianst me consists of suspision and if theres any justice in this world something will be done. However I am beginning to have serious doubts as to weither or not there is any such thing as justice.”   

— “Letter from the death cell”  Robert Raymond Cook

There is a foreword by Sheila Watson, author of The Double Hook, a novel which, I remembered with a jolt, opens with a man killing his mother. Even in the ten minutes I spent at a table in the library, skim reading, I found myself reaching for my pencil and the pad of post-it notes I carried in my bag. I put the pencil away. I would find my own copy for marking and defacing. Mr. Pecover, I decided, had a lot to tell me. The back cover said only: Jack Pecover is a retired lawyer and an alumni member of the Canadian Rodeo Cowboys Association.” What I knew from the heft of this book was that Jack Pecover had spent a long time and a huge amount of energy examining the trials of Robert Raymond Cook.”

So I set out to find the man.

I arranged to meet Jack Pecover at a bookstore on the far south end of the city …

“He was easy to spot, a tall slim man in a trench coat, his face familiar from the photos. We sat at a small table crowded into the coffee shop corner of the store, and I found myself babbling nervously about my interest in the Cook case. I did not need to explain my fascination to the man who had written a 449 page book on the trials of Robert Raymond Cook.

Jack Pecover was still in law school when Robert Raymond Cook was executed. He become engrossed in the case, and one day, about a year after Cook’s death, he was walking in downtown Edmonton and found himself outside the office of Giffard Main. On a whim, he went up the stairs, asked to speak with the famous lawyer and to his surprise was escorted into Main’s office. He wanted to write a book about the Cook case, he told Main, and to his even greater surprise, the man agreed—on the condition that he, Giffard Main, would write the first and last chapters of the book. Jack Pecover said that at that point, he would have agreed to any condition to be given Main’s blessing. Main helped carry the files related to the case down to the car, and Pecover drove away with the pieces of a story that would take almost twenty years to emerge as a book, and even then would remain an unfinished puzzle.”

From my acknowledgements at the back of The Boy:

“To Jack Pecover, whose book, The Work of Justice, The Trials of Robert Raymond Cook, became my well-thumbed reference, I am indebted for a wealth of information, the acuity of his analysis, and his understanding of my obsession with finding the family buried in this infamous case. I am grateful to Jack as well for reminding me of the pleasures of old-fashioned correspondence, of opening an envelope and holding a real letter in hand.”

What a gift it was to know this man who so generously shared his intellect, insight, deep sense of irony and sharp wit.  I know that I will continue to watch my mailbox for an envelope with that familiar script. But I will have to be content to re-read Jack’s past letters.

I know there are many who played significant roles in Jack’s life and that they will blessed with memories and stories. So very many stories.

 

 

The names that become infamous; the names forgotten

Today is the anniversary of the 1989 massacre of fourteen women at  École Polytechnique, an engineering school affiliated with the Université de Montréal.  Marc Lepine’s name is indelibly written in this tragic piece of history. Today is the day to remember the names of the victims.

While I was doing research toward writing The Boy, driving toward Stettler on a snowy day with the CBC for company, I gained insight into why it become so important to me to write this book, but in a way that shifted the focus from Robert Raymond Cook to the victims in this crime; a father, stepmother, and five young children.

I remembered these words almost verbatim, before I went back to the book to find this excerpt:

“It was still rush hour at 9:00 AM, and traffic on the Deerfoot Trail came to a full stop so many times I was able to pour coffee and glance through my notes. Finally, beyond Airdrie the highway opened up. As the landscape flattened, a stiff wind whipped up from the ditches and threw a veil of white over the icy stretches. After a few miles, I relaxed. I am a good driver, and I enjoy the road.

 I began to pay attention to the radio, to Shelagh Rogers on “Sounds Like Canada.”  It was the eve of the eighteenth anniversary of the Montreal massacre of fourteen young women at the Ecole Polytechnic. Shelagh was interviewing two women involved in establishing monuments to the slain students in their respective cities. Both of them had faced fierce opposition and even personal threats. Ironic, considering their efforts were meant to honour the lives of women lost to violence. So much attention had been paid to Marc LePine, the man with the gun who’d killed himself in the end, one of the women said, that eighteen years later, everyone knew his name. But the names of the victims were lost. I turned off the radio.

Victims.  Robert Raymond Cook’s name was part of Alberta lore, and his father’s by association, but many of the people I’d interviewed had forgotten Daisy’s name and no one but the man who’d been Gerry Cook’s best friend remembered those of the children.”

— from The Boy (Oolichan Books 2011)

The Figgs by Ali Bryan

This is not a book review. It is a celebratory note to the talented/tenacious/prolific and delightful Ali Bryan. I am biased. I had the pleasure of getting to know Ali through the Writers Guild of Alberta mentorship program when she was working on Roost. My reaction to Roost-in-progress on first reading:  WOW—this story snaps and crackles with comedy, craft and clever footwork. A cinematic style, a story with the pace of a screenplay. I could well imagine Roost as a television series.

I read a very early draft of The Figgs and felt certain that June’s family would be as engaging, as quirky, as totally normal as Claudia’s cast of characters. I was certain as well, knowing that Ali Bryan is a quick study, that the writing would be even more polished, more definitive in its style.

 The Figgs delivers all of that. Dysfunctional families have become a particular sort of meme, a flavour of the past decade in books, movies, television series, and stage plays. The Family Figg is not dysfunctional; the characters are as “normal” as your neighbours, and as likely to shock and surprise you as your own kin. They have their moments, each of them, but as frustrating as they are to mother, June, from whose perspective we watch this story unfold, it is clear that they are her world—however much she has hoped that by now they would have moved at least a province, or perhaps a continent away from the family nest.

There are scenes that are comedic:  June on Percy, the rocking horse, attempting a perilous gallop up the basement stairs; the entire family storming the hospital to be present at the birth of their grandchild/niece or nephew whose arrival is as unexpected to them as it is to their son, Derek, the baby’s father; the baby shower with a cast of guests who are celebrating with the raucous gusto of a beer bash.  The same scenes are seeped in poignancy, and I found myself near tears both from laughing and from feeling all that’s going on in June’s heart and mind. This is signature Ali Bryan story-telling, this ability to combine comedy with tenderness.

Like Roost, The Figgs is fast-paced and has that same cinematic feel. Almost every chapter/episode brings yet another surprise, and there were moments when I had to curb my sense of disbelief.

This is a story of a family in crazy-making chaos, told from the perspective of the mother. There is a point, though, at which this becomes June’s story.  There is a point at which the story becomes focused on the loss of the mother-child bond. The absent mother of Derek’s son, an adopted child with a buried longing to know her birthmother, a birthfather divulging/grieving the loss of a son.  In another life I was a social worker: I counseled mothers who were “surrendering” (a long ago term for giving up their parental rights) their babies; I worked with adopting parents; in my last position I facilitated adoption reunions. There are moments in this novel where I wanted to intervene, and had to remind myself that the rapid succession of events was characteristic of the style and story.

By the end of The Figgs, through the magic of Ali Bryan’s pen, there is a sense that … Oh, just read the book.  I’m already guilty of some near-spoilers.

http://www.freehand-books.com/books/the-figgs

 

 

Writing Alberta

I read a review of Writing Alberta; Building on a Literary Landscape, edited by George Melnyk and Donna Coates ( U of C Press 2017) in AlbertaViews quite recently and it has been on my “to read” list. Essays by or about Alberta authors and their work are always of interest.

Yesterday, I discovered in the Member News in our latest “Westword,” the WGA magazine, that George Melnyk lists some of the authors included.  To my great surprise, in a list of authors who I hold in high esteem –Robert Kroetsch, Alice Major, Bernice Halfe, Chris Turner and others– my own name appears.

I have just borrowed a copy of the book from the Calgary Public Library and what an outstanding contribution it is to the Canlit canon as  “an overview of Alberta historiography of the past century.”

The authors referenced go as far back as Elsie Park Gowan and Sheila Watson. This book would be on my shelf even if it did not include: “Strategies for Storying the Terrible Truth in John Estacio’s and John Murrell’s Filumena and Betty Jane Hegerat’s The Boy”, by Tamara Palmer Seiler. To say I’m honoured to have my work included in Writing Alberta is understatement and to say I am in awe of Tamara Palmer Seiler’s description of The Boy as “a work of creative non-fiction that draws heavily on metafictional strategies” is  understated admiration for the fine critical analysis in this essay.

This is not intended to be a promotion of my work, but rather a statement of my gratitude at having been included in the collection, and also my strong recommendation that you read this book for the landscape of literary identity it provides.

Thank you George Melnyk and Donna Coates as well as the fine essayists and University of Calgary Press for publishing this work. https://press.ucalgary.ca/books/9781552388907

The Top of Toy Mountain (1999)

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’m stuck in traffic, making one last trip to the mall. A radio announcer with a soulful voice implores me to consider the children who will have nothing under the Christmas tree. He wants me to help build Toy Mountain.

For three weeks, I’ve shopped, baked and decorated. I am building Christmas for my family. Today, I have one last purchase to make for each child; one special present to add to the practical pyjamas, sweaters and socks and the books, games and CDs.

I will spend tonight assembling my ten-year-old’s costume for the politically correct school concert. Having clothed angels, shepherds and wisemen for almost twenty years, I am an expert, but this year’s school costume stretches my creativity. He’s to dress like Elvis. Other classes are wearing western garb for “Santa’s Holiday Hoedown.” Trying to explain to my son what part Elvis played in Christmas, I finally shrugged and told him flatly, “None.”

Now, waiting to turn left to the mall as the radio beseeches to make this a Christmas a child will remember, I let my own memory idle back.

Christmas Eve is what I remember, and probably 1954. In a small white Lutheran church in New Sarepta, Alberta, I leaned against the scratchy wool of my dad’s suit coat with my eyes fixed on a twinkling tree that was surely twenty feet tall. In a few minutes, we’d file past the smiling man at the back door who would hand me a brown paper bag bulging with one Mandarin orange and a generous fistful of nuts and hard candy—the men who filled those bags had generous hands. Then home to our own tree and presents.

There was no Santa in our Christmas. The gifts came from Mom and Dad: a sweater, socks, underwear, and maybe a Nancy Drew book. I have no memories of perfect toys , but what I remember is the sweet swelling in my chest as the voices of the people I loved rose in the final verse of Stille Nacht.

It is the same tender ache I will feel when I stand with my children in the candlelight on Christmas Eve at Lutheran Church of Our Saviour in Calgary in 1999.

I have been trying to build my own Toy Mountain. I dart into the right lane, out of the stream of traffic and head north to a little shop called Ten Thousand Villages where, two weeks before, I found a pottery burro made in a Mexican village. He bears the Holy Family on his back and in Mary’s face there is the same expression of awe that I wish for my children at Christmas. The Mennonite Central Committee operates the store, the staff are volunteers, and the Mexican villagers who craft the pottery are paid fair trade wages.

I buy three figurines, pause and add a fourth. When my children open their presents, I will tell them the story of 1954.  The fourth little burro I will add to the top of Toy Mountain.

(published in the Calgary Herald, Christmas 1999 &Canada Lutheran Vol 14 Number 9  December 1999)

Betty Jane Hegerat was a member of Lutheran Church of Our Saviour at the time this piece written and is now a member of Lutheran Church of the Cross in Calgary.)   

Sharon D’s rose, 13 years later

 

My original post of “Sharon D’s Rose” was written in June 2011. As with every memory of a friend lost, I shake my head and ask how it could be that so many years have passed.

Bob and Marilyn had come for tea in the garden that weekend. In my ramble around the yard before they arrived, I found a perfect stem of roses to send home with them. The shrub with the totally inadequate and utilitarian name of Winnipeg Parks had just began its blooming.  I planted this rose in memory of Sharon, a mutual friend of Bob’s — and every summer since, when it’s at its peak, it outshines all the other roses in the garden. Bob went straightway to a garden centre to buy the Winnipeg Parks that is blooming now in his garden.

Yesterday, clipping a bouquet to bring into the house, the memory of the spring and summer when Sharon became a gardener, flooded my thoughts.

Looking ahead to solitude in her house —her first two children had flown and the third was poised on the age of the nest to leave for university in the fall— Sharon was gazing out the window one morning, she told when she called. She had decided that she wanted to turn that rectangle of back yard with its lawn and shrubs into a beautiful place. “Help me make a garden, Betty! Any fool can make a garden, can’t she?” I flashed back to a similar conversation just a few months before when Sharon was contemplating walls and called to say, “I’m tired of these walls. Any fool can remove wallpaper, can’t she?” The rental of a steam unit, and three days of labour later, another phone call. Quavery voice. “Betty, you know the layers of wall underneath the paper?” Drywall. Made soft by oh such enthusiastic steaming … But still, I knew my friend was no fool at all, but a bright spark of a poet who would bring such creativity to her gardening I couldn’t wait to watch this garden grow.

First the pruning back of trees, then the digging of the beds (Sharon hired my youngest son to do the labour), the round and round my garden for plants she loved, and the digging and sharing. Then the trips to Greengate and at my suggestion of a bed of roses along the front driveway where the sun shone all day long, we reached the climax of this gardening story. I think there were six assorted roses in the first planting, but the day the Winnipeg Parks opened its first bud, Sharon sent an email saying she was off to Greengate. She was in love with that rose, and she needed at least two more bushes. On a day in late September, I had an email from Sharon saying she’d just finished planting tulips among the rose bushes when the first snowflakes of the season drifted down. She was hooked on gardens. She couldn’t wait to see those tulips pushing through in spring.

In January, Sharon died very suddenly. I think it helped that the world was covered in snow and we didn’t have to think about her garden for several months. That summer, my son tended the yard, pending the emptying and sale of the house. The tulips bloomed but were neatly decapitated by the deer that range nearby. But the roses, the roses were splendid.

Each year, my intent to  drive by Sharon’s garden to see if the Winnipeg Parks is still there lessens. By now, the sadness that kept me away in the first years would surely give way to joy should the roses still be in that perfect spot. But there is a good chance that whoever lives in the house now has different preferences, and they will be gone. I prefer to hold close to the memory of the excitement on my friend’s face that summer she was transformed into a gardener.  This year’s Winnipeg Parks in my own garden will be enough.