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.

 

 

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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)

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)

 

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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.)   

One Woman’s Island

 

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My good friend, Susan Toy, dedicates a large amount of time to promoting books and authors, and offering advice on “the business.” She also finds time to write and publishes her work and that of others under her own imprint, IslandCatEditions.

Susan is a splendid cook and an inspired one.  A recipe she created for Cinnamon Buns and kindly shared with me has won me many compliments. When I told her I was serving Susan Toy’s Cinnamon Buns at a coffee gathering last week and that I would give her acknowledgement but not divulge the recipe, she laughed and said I was to make sure everyone there knew that the recipe, along with several other of her “island” recipes is in her latest published ebook, One Woman’s Island.

( Some I will try but I will pass on Goat Water Soup.)

After several years of being on the receiving end of Susan’s promotion, I’m delighted to be able to shine some light on her writing.

In 1989, Susan and partner, Dennis, visited Bequia Island, a small island and part of the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean, and were so enchanted with this bit of “paradise” that they bought property, built a home and moved to Bequia in 1996. In the ensuing years, Susan has returned to Canada for several extended visits to Calgary, and more recently has bought a holiday home (she refers to it as “the trailer”) in Ontario.

As soon as I began reading One Woman’s Island, (and the same recognition occurred when I read Susan’s first mystery novel, Island in the Clouds), I could clearly hear Susan’s voice in the narrator, Mariana, who is looking for time to sort out her life. Six months on Bequia is a compelling choice.

The characters, the  island setting which emerges as a character unto itself, and Mariana’s introduction to Caribbean culture have resonance for me because I have heard so much from Susan about this place. The resonance, I think, would be there for anyone who’s dreamed of living in paradise.

There is a community of ex-pats—mostly Canadian and American—to whom Mariana is initially drawn, but with whom she becomes quickly disenchanted. Susan pulls no punches when it comes to the hardened judgement most of the “visitors” express freely about the “locals” and island culture. She also skilfully gives glimpses of the shrouded feelings of the locals toward these visitors on whom their tourist industry relies, creating a livelihood for many in this struggling population.

Mariana’s overflowing compassion is entirely believable, and so too is the reaction of her fellow ex-pats and the local community.  And so the story unfolds, with mysterious deaths and nefarious characters.

Just a tip:  Should you ever have the good fortune of visiting Bequia and meeting Susan Toy, stay away from swimming pools. She enjoys disposing of bodies—only a literary predilection we will assume—in convenient pools.

If I have one quibble with the writing, it is a small one.  I find reading dialect distracts me from story, even in this case where Susan’s many years on the island and finely tuned ear give her the skill for re-creating the voices of the local characters. There are places where a bit less, without entirely removing the beautiful song of the Caribbean voice, might make for smoother reading.

If you are seeking an escape, the island of Bequia, even enjoyed from your comfortable chair at home in your own personal paradise, would be a lovely bit of travel in any season.

If you have an interest in ethnography and sociology, there is plenty for pondering.

If you’re looking for a recipe for Rum Punch, you will want to try Dennis’s creation.

And of course, there is the recipe for the cinnamon buns which I brazenly now refer to “Betty Jane’s as told to her by Susan Toy.”

For availability, check IslandCatEditions website.

https://islandeditions.wordpress.com/islandcateditions/

One Woman’s Island is available through the Calgary Public Library’s electronic resources and I am sure through other libraries as well.

Well done, Susan!

An Interview with Dianne Harke, author of: Incognito, The Astounding Life of Alexandra David Neel. (Sumeru Books 2016)

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BJH   First of all, Dianne, I congratulate you on piecing together the story of the life of this fascinating woman. I appreciated your Author’s Note wherein you provide the rationale for the term “fictional biography” which to me, speaks to the care you’ve taken in recreating the “elusive” Alexandra. I believe that Alexandra David Neel would approve of you as her biographer and have no difficulty at all with your careful handling of “the invisible line between fiction and non-fiction.”

DH    Thank you for your kind comments. Not so sure that Alexandra would approve. I imagine her appearing in one of my dreams to give me a right rollicking about something that does not meet with her approval. So far, so good, though.

BJH   A woman who travelled incognito all over Asia, spent several long periods in Tibet, and lived as a hermit in a cave in the Himalayas—when and how did you first encounter the life of Alexandra David Neel?

DH    Can’t pinpoint an exact year, but know that somewhere in my early 20s, probably, I came across a reference to her book, My Journey to Lhasa. Promptly bought a copy and read about her amazing trek. At that time, I was doing a fair bit of reading about Buddhism and fancied myself to be as intellectually cool as Beat Generation icons like Alan Watts and Allen Ginsberg. When she died in 1969, I also read an article that highlighted her achievements.

BJH    I know that you have spent many years on the research and writing of this book, and I, as many other authors will as well, understand how we become enthralled with a character or story and arrive at a point where interest become obsession. Is it fair to say that it was obsession that drove you to persevere with this story? Did the interest develop over time, or did you know from the earliest research that you would have to write this story?  Were there times when you tried to put it aside?

DH   Obsession is the correct word. My early research was driven mainly by curiosity. Who was this woman? Where did she travel to and why? But, as time went by the hidden Alexandra became my focus. The biographies I read didn’t seem to delve deep enough into her psyche so I started to formulate my plan for a work of historical fiction.

BJH   “Ever since I was five years old…I craved to go beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passed it by and set out for the unknown,” —My Journey to Lhasa, Alexandra David Neel.

Does the quote speak to you on a personal level?  Do you identify with her wanderlust?

DH   Another excellent question! Well to be honest, I am certainly not as intrepid or brave as Alexandra, nor would I be comfortable packing heat as she did. I do enjoy traveling, but coming back to a home base seems to be almost as important to me (at least now) as going off on trips to unknown parts. People and their stories are my keenest interest so if following the road takes me in that direction that would be my ideal. Walking several sections of the Camino pilgrimage path on two occasions was like that. So many interesting people, so many stories!

BJH   This is the portrait of a woman on a deeply spiritual journey in search of revered teachers of Buddhism and the Tibetan language.  Did it become, vicariously, such a journey for you as well?

DH   Yes, it certainly did become that kind of journey. Over the years, I became more and more interested in knowing more about both Buddhism and Tibet. Did try to learn some Tibetan and to practice it with a Tibetan speaking pen pal, but really haven’t progressed much. In both Edmonton and Nelson, I have done drop in meditation sessions at Buddhist centres and have appreciated the calmness but really don’t profess to know very much. Reading seems to be my number one way to make this journey. The teachings and books of Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia top of my spiritual journey booklist.

BJH   The numerous sources you acknowledge with gratitude, speak to impeccable and eclectic research. You have had a long and successful career as a librarian and consultant. How did this experience influence your approach? How did the people you contacted respond to your interest in Alexandra?

DH    My research skills have certainly been honed by my training and work life as a librarian. I took copious notes from books that I had collected over the years and also spent many hours at the University of Alberta library.

Several binders and a bulging brocaded bag of folders soon filled up. I also travelled to France with my husband and spent a few hours at the Alexandra David-Neel Museum in Digne les Bains. Walking in her footsteps into the room in which she wrote and died was truly moving, and eerie. I told the staff there about my project and later my publisher made arrangements to buy the rights to some archival photographs.  They were very cooperative, although there were a few bumps because of our limited French and their limited English.

BJH   What different formats did you eventually amass?  Could you describe the process of sorting, culling, organizing what must have been a formidable mountain of material?

DH   From binders, and handwritten notes, I progressed to a number of computer files. Because Alexandra lived for so many years and had so many distinctive parts to her life, the chronology fell into order quite nicely. The problem was figuring out what to leave out and also how to prevent it from turning into a dry, discursive account. By interweaving the first-person chapters with the third-person accounts, I hoped to achieve some sort of balance.

BJH   The voice in which you’ve written the sections that are headed “From the journals of Alexandra David-Neel”, has the ring of authenticity and intimacy. It feels as though you were inside the skin of your subject and writing her perception of her world and the life she was leading. I thought, at first, that these were the actual journals.  The narrator in the other sections has the same eloquence of voice. This is what writers hope they will accomplish, this sense of being the character. Was it difficult at times to sustain that voice, or did the research provide enough of both the insight and the language to guide you?

DH   It was difficult at times, yes, but when that happened I would just do my best to “channel” Alexandra. My great-grandmother on my mother’s side was a practising Spiritualist who communicated with long-dead people and pets, so perhaps there was an inherited disposition at work. Going back to the stacks of books and the voluminous pages of notes really helped as well.

BJH   The description of the land through which Alexandra travelled has that same authenticity. Have you been to Tibet? Any plans to go there?

DH   No, I haven’t been to Tibet, although I have read many books related to this fascinating country. The current political situation is upsetting. I have a Tibetan Buddhist monk pen pal (who grew up in exile in India) who is currently attempting to do educational and environmental work in Tawang province very close to the Tibetan border. The Chinese government, without consulting with local residents, is planning to go ahead with a number of hydroelectric projects that would destroy sacred cultural sites and habitats for endangered species. Police fired on peaceful protesters last year with two deaths recorded. I am also bothered by the vilification of the current Dalai Lama by the government, so yet another reason that I won’t be travelling to Tibet.

BJH   Authors usually have a particular intent, a vision, for the work they are producing. Can you describe briefly what your intent was?

DH   In brief, my intent was to introduce more English readers to this remarkable woman and to show myself that I could actually finish writing a work that had been started years ago. I also didn’t want to disappoint the very patient publisher who, after reading the first few chapters on Wattpad, had offered to publish the book – the best incentive for any writer!

BJH   What other writing have you done?

DH   I have been a scribbler for a long time. This is my first book, but over the years I have had shorter pieces published in newspapers – a children’s story and several columns in The Edmonton Journal and an essay in The Globe and Mail. One of the pieces previously published in The Edmonton Journal has recently been included in Lotus Petals in the Snow – Voices of Canadian Buddhist Women (The Sumeru Press).  I have also done some contract writing for Alberta Education (related to school libraries) and have written two radio plays for Alberta School Broadcasts (in the way, way back). Some book reviewing for school library magazines and a vitriolic clutch of letters to the editor on topics near and dear to my heart complete my oeuvre, such as it is.

BJH   And the tired old question that must come at the end of any author interview: Do you have another project in progress?

DH   Thank you for asking. Yes, I do, but details will be sparse. For some reason, I harbour very old-fashioned superstitions about talking about projects too much before they are complete. Don’t want to jinx things. A truly silly idea from a deeply flawed person – forgive me, please.

Now for the sparse details. If/when this project is finished, it will be a work of fiction set in contemporary times that features the appearance of a long-dead American literary icon (female). Time is a series of metaphysical spaces rather than a process in this world. No zombies or vampires, just some quirky fun

BJH   And another that seems to be expected these days—What are you currently reading?

DH   I have two daily reading rituals. To ease into the day, I adjourn most mornings to my poetry chair. This time features poems from three collections. Staying Alive – Real Poems for Unreal Times (a truly magnificent anthology edited by Neal Astley) Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins, and New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver. I read the poems aloud – the plants seem to thrive on these words – and keep this book stack on shuffle. Which book today? Which random page to begin at? Oh, the excitement never ends!

To ease out of the day, I adjourn to the bedroom no later than nine (having given up the CBC TV news – induces glumness and troubling dreams) to read books taken out of our local public library. Usually have two or three on the bedside table. The one currently in progress is The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, a very fine work of historical fiction inspired by almost fifty cases of so-called Fasting Girls in the British Isles, Western Europe, and North America between the 16th and 20th centuries. Highly recommended! Coming up next is Carol by Patricia Highsmith. An article some time ago in The New York Review of Books has piqued my interest in Highsmith. Read The Talented Mr. Ripley some years ago and was very impressed.

I am, of course, terrifically curious to know the identity of that “long-dead American literary icon. Looking forward to hearing more. Thank you, Dianne. For persevering in your quest to reveal some of the mystery around this amazing woman, and for this chance to talk with you about the book.

For information on the publisher who produced this beautiful book:

http://www.sumeru-books.com/

Available from Chapters Indigo: https://tinyurl.com/z4vx4n7

Even better, check with your local indie bookstore to see if they can order for you.

And of course, always a good idea to contact your local public and suggest a title you’d like them to order.