Keeping the Grass Green; making sure the sun shines on beautiful books


In the process of culling a lot of other possessions to make for a less cluttered home, I eventually ended up at the bookcases. Some years back, it seemed like sacrilege—me, professing to be a disciple of words and story—to discard books. Pass along so others can enjoy them, donate to book sales, pack away in boxes to be reconsidered “at another time.”  Among my treasures, though, were lovely hard cover editions of the likes of Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, To the Lighthouse, The Prophet, The Velveteen Rabbit—you know the ones that are on a special shelf, and in my house, for the most part, gathering dust. Surely there were people to whom I could gift these treasures. When I opened them and turned the pages, they gave off the undeniable scent of “old”; musty dry pages, occasionally a crumbling flower pressed between them, cracked spines. Beloved stories all, but beloved editions? It’s a short walk to the blue bin in the back alley. I put all the musty old books—there were many paperbacks in that condition as well—into a large paper bag because I couldn’t bear to hear the thud of each one going in.

I was left with books acquired post-1960s. Fortunately, this wasn’t the first clean-out I’d done, and passing years have made me more frugal, more practical where books are concerned. I read a lot; on the average, twenty books a month. I buy the books written by friends and favourite authors—often both apply. I have kept almost all the books signed by good friends, and others that I’ve bought that are simply so good that they’re keepers. My strategy, though, when I hear about a book that intrigues or someone recommends, is to head first for the library. After all, we do know about public lending rights. If I read a book and love it, know that I will want to re-read, or that I feel certain family and friends must read, then a trip to one of our local indie bookstores.

In this latest culling, in the signed copies, I’ve found books that I hold in my hand and ponder. These are fine books, deserving of a place on the shelf, books that I want to bring to other people who may never have seen or heard of the title or the author. Books that had their season and then quietly—to quote the lovely Jean McKay who I met Sage Hill—“have gone to grass,” the title of one of her slim treasures that is on my shelf along with The page-turner’s sister, and The Dragonfly Fling. I have a collection of special books by other fine authors I’ve met at Sage Hill or The Banff Centre or in writing classes, or simply through our great Alberta community of writers. At the risk of missing many names, they include: Dave Margoshes, David Elias, Leona Theis, Rod Schumacher, Allison Kydd, Myrna Garanis, Audrey Whitson, Astrid Blodgett, David Carpenter, Lori Hahnel, Barb Howard, Lee Kvern, Bruce Hunter, Cecelia Frey, Bob Stallworthy and the rest of you who must surely know who you are. Some of you are among those Susan Toy is showcasing in her recent promotions of books and authors we should know.

Looking at all of these books from seasons past, I felt compelled to hold my own books in my hand, and contemplate the number of their seasons. Apart from The Boy which has a life all its own that astonishes me, they all seem like yesterday’s news. This is not something on which I dwell, lose sleep, or feel bitter. It just is the world of books and publishing.

Every year, marvellous new books, shortlists for awards from which to choose.

I met Susan Toy in 2009 when I was doing a reading from my latest book at the time, Delivery. Big smile on her face, she marched up to me, extended her hand, and said, “Hi. I’m Susan Toy, your book rep.”  I had a book rep? Oh my, did I ever.

Most of Susan’s life’s work has involved books; bookseller, sales representative, literacy teacher, and promoter of fellow author and their books through her company, Alberta Books Canada. Meeting Susan was serendipitous; I’d been mulling over, shying away from, the very thought of promoting my own books. Modesty? Laziness? Expectations that my publisher would do the work? On that night at Pages when I met Susan, I knew after five short minutes of conversation that I’d just found the help I needed.

For almost five years, Susan promoted my books all over the province; arranged readings and speaking engagements in libraries and bookstores and at conferences. She was a constant source of affirmation and encouragement. Her enthusiasm and faith and commitment to what she was doing, and her many other skills and projects—she’s a marvellous cook! —have made her a special friend.

I have missed Susan in the years since she returned to Bequia and established a part-time home in Ontario, but was delighted that she turned her attention to her own writing and established her own press, Island Editions, to which I looked for advice on electronic publication of my first book, Running Toward Home.  The advice led to the publication of the ebook by Island Editions, a good decision and one I will consider for future publications.

I set out to write this blog post to shine a light on Susan’s recent promotions, spotlighting both authors she represented while she was in Alberta and authors she has since published through Island Editions, but got lost in my contemplation of the few books that rise to the top of the pile of hundreds  published in that same year. How to keep the also-rans alive.

I have felt some guilt, particularly because I believe so fervently that it is to authors to promote authors, for not sharing each of Susan’s promotional posts, but have chosen instead to celebrate Susan’s work, and to direct you to the Authors-Readers International list on her website, and encourage you to accept Susan’s invitation to meet all of these writers and their work.

If there is a way to dust off of a book, bring it back into the consciousness of readers, this is a good place to begin. I suspect as well, that your own bookcases could yield many books that deserve more than a short season.

Thank you, Susan. In what I know has not been an easy time, you’ve made a huge effort to send us back to the books that should not/need not be relegated to the has-been remainders bins.

Say Their Names

We need to say the names, to light candles, to remember

Some years ago, I was at the Banff Centre on December 6th.  During breakfast, women in different corners of the dining room, artists in residence, began to stand one by one and say the names.  It was the twentieth anniversary  of the Montreal massacre. Today, December 6, 2019 is the thirtieth anniversary of the Montreal massacre.

Recently someone told me that “the shoes on the cover” had drawn her in, kept her turning pages. She was talking about The Boy which was written out of an obsession with a long ago murder that is infamous in central Alberta– the Robert Raymond Cook case. Why the photo of the shoes rather than a photo of “the boy” or “the house”?  Infamy gives the name of the perpetrator a place in history. It was the victims of the crime I wanted to lift up out of the story.  Daisy, Gerry, Patty, Chrissy, Linda, Cathy, and Ray.  On one of my trips to Stettler to dig deeper into story of the Cook family murders, I was affirmed in my decision to finish the book.  I would light the candles by remembering their names and making the photo of the empty shoes the cover art for the book.


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 École 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 Boy cover image


Dispensing stories

The Calgary Public Library has joined many other sites internationally in dispensing short stories, quick reads.  This marvelous use of technology offers authors and readers a whole new venue for sharing story:

I am delighted to have one my own short stories, “Party Favours” available as a 5 minute read at the beautiful main branch of the Calgary Public Library.

If you’re not close enough to stop by and get your own copy, you can also find it online here:

Innovative, accessible, inspirational.  Technology I can applaud.

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.

An old story re-run, just because it’s the stormy season.

(previously published in AlbertaViews magazine, and A Crack in the Wall  (Oolichan Books 2008)


Storm Warning


Jess has been staring at the ceiling for hours, possibly all night. But it’s only since dawn she’s noticed the water stain in the corner above the window. A dark blot that starts on the ceiling and trickles down the flowery wallpaper almost to the floor. She doesn’t remember if it was there last summer, or the summer before, or eight years ago when Brian first brought her home to New Brunswick to meet his family. She’s always been blind to imperfections in this house. Awestruck by a bedroom that has belonged to a boy for his whole life, and a family whose greatest sorrow is that the eldest son has moved away from home.

Brian stirs and she shifts onto her side so that they’re still touching. She can never sleep without the feel of his skin. She pillows her head next to his and whispers in his ear, “There’s a water stain. Does the roof leak?”

As always, he’s instantly awake. Eyes wide, he turns his head. “Of course. This is the stormy side of the house.” He plays with Jess’s thick black hair, arranging strands across the snowy pillowcase.  She could purr when he does this, every nerve in her scalp dancing with his fingers. She wishes they could hide in this room for the whole week.

“I’m taking the boat out,” Brian says, “I don’t suppose you’d come along?”


She shakes her head. He keeps hoping she’ll be reborn a sailor. Jess catches his hand where his fingers are traveling the curve of her throat. “Do you mind that it’ll be a whole year before you can come home again?” she asks.

“If I was that much a mommy’s boy, I’d never have left in the first place. And I wouldn’t have found you.” His other hand bends her elbow to work her arm free of the sleeve. “Mom always told everyone I was smarter than I looked.”


But later, in the kitchen, Jess feels awkward as ever when she opens three cupboard doors before she finds the coffee mugs. When the first thing her mother-in-law tells Brian as he comes through the door is that Priscilla called. As though it’s the most natural thing in the world for an old girlfriend to phone before breakfast. But like Brian’s mom, Priscilla has probably been up for hours. There’s bread dough rising on the counter, fresh scones for breakfast.

“Let me do the dishes,” Jess says.

“Then what would I do? You two go on out and have fun.”

Behind the good-natured smile, Jess recognizes her mother-in-law’s discomfort at the prospect of spending a half hour alone with her. They have never been able to convince Brian’s parents to visit them in Edmonton. There at least they would see Jess in her own kitchen, her own home. She can bake muffins, brew up a decent pot of tea, but feels, each time she crosses the threshold of this house, that she’s kicked her domesticity off like bad-fitting shoes and left it outside the door.

The women in Brian’s family are fair and round with a placid good nature, a fecundity in keeping with his father’s herd of Guernseys. Jess has a storm cloud of black hair and eyes like lightning bolts. Long ago, a social worker described Jess and her brother, Louis, as “wild little animals”. Jess has never been able to pull that sliver from the thin skin of her childhood memory.

She knows she is puzzlement to Brian’s mom. She’s overheard Marie say to Brian’s dad, “Never met anyone who seemed so much from away. Have you?”

When she slips her plate and cup into the soapy water and is shooed away, Jess waits on the front porch, watching the voracious traffic of bees in the lupins until Brian comes bounding away from the phone and out the door.

“What’ll you do all morning?” he asks.

Avoid your mother, she wants to say, but instead, “I have a book.  I’ll sit in the sun and read.”

He frowns at a bank of clouds on the horizon. “Maybe not for long. Not in the sun anyway.”

“Is it going to storm, do you think?” She struggles to keep panic from her voice.

“Nah!” He plants a kiss on her forehead, then lopes toward the truck. “Just some good wind coming in!”

She can’t stifle, “Be careful!”

He tosses it away with a laughing, “Trust me!”

Jess watches the truck drop out of sight beyond the first hill. Her father-in-law appears around the corner of the barn with a pitchfork in one hand, raises the other in greeting, but trudges on into the pasture without stopping to talk. Brian warned her eight years ago when he brought her home for the first time, that Charlie spends his words with the economy of a Trappist monk. But in spite of, or maybe because of his reserve, he is the one with whom Jess feels easiest.

Jess climbs the stairs to the bedroom for her book, but instead of going down again, she sits in a chair beside the window watching the road. Like a fisherman’s wife, she thinks, watching for the sea to return her man. Finally she picks up the novel Brian’s sister lent her yesterday, but she knows she won’t finish it. Louanne says she loves a book that’s good for a cry.  Already Jess can taste the sad ending, and she’s losing her appetite. She’s been reading a while when the curtains begin to billow against her knees and the room is plunged into gloom. The heavy deck of cloud is overhead, pulling the wind with it. Down in the yard, Charlie is closing the barn door. With his hand over his eyes, he scans the sky.

Jess grabs Brian’s jacket from the back of the chair, tears down the stairs. Brian has taken the truck, but she knows the way across the fields. No more than a fifteen minute walk, ten at a run.

Always, when she smells a storm, Jess’s heart races and she’s whirled into the eye of the tornado. She was driving cab on the south edge of Edmonton the day piles of coal black clouds rolled toward the city, bulging and heaving, gathering an eerie jaundiced light. When the car began to buck in the rising wind, Jess turned it around, driving furiously toward the edge of the storm. She hesitated when she saw a man at the side of the road braced against a mileage sign, his hair, his jacket, the legs of his jeans plastered to him. A glance at the sky in the rearview mirror and her foot hit the brake. She pulled onto the shoulder, backed to where he was standing and flung open the passenger door. Both man and door were almost ripped away by the wind before he pulled himself gasping into the car and heaved the door shut.

Jess put her foot to the floor, instinctively heading for home. They were silent except for Brian’s ragged breath until a tight black funnel came spiraling out of the clouds.

“Jaysus! Is that what I think it is?” His voice was muffled in the thick heat.

Brian’s family loves to tell the story of how Jess saved him, but it’s the story of his defection that she’s heard a dozen times. His mother and sister blame Priscilla, his childhood sweetheart, for his leaving. Even nine years later, with Priscilla trailing three babies in her wake, they say she scared him off, pulled too hard when what he needed was a little slack.

When Brian went west to look for work, he promised Priscilla he’d be back in six months. She gave him six months’ grace. After the year, she called his bluff and married his cousin. On the day Priscilla, veiled in white, lifted her face to Ralph’s broad, freckled smile, the tornado cut a swath through Edmonton and, but for Jess, would have sucked Brian into its eye and blown him clear back home to Moncton.

To Jess, all of this is ancient history. She dumped her own past when she turned eighteen and was given an indifferent farewell from her last foster home. Brian’s mother presses her for memories of her people, her “real kin” she calls them.

“I don’t remember.” Jess’s voice falls flat when she’s forced to talk about her family.

“But surely you remember something, darlin’. You were eight years old when they took you away.”

“I don’t remember.”

Jess can’t blame Marie for being curious. Can’t blame the wariness she sees in her mother-in-law’s eyes. Her grandchildren, after all, will be heir to the mystery. This summer though, the conversation stays deliberately away from babies, at least in Marie’s kitchen.

On their first day back, when Jess and Brian met Priscilla on the street with her new baby in a sling, Brianna flushed and sleepy in her stroller, and Ralphine skipping ahead, the first thing Priscilla said: “Well, hey, you two. Still no babies?”

Brian’s hand reached out to touch the baby’s cheek but he kept the other linked with Jess’s. “Aw Priscilla, you’re making up for all the rest of us. Keeps you too busy to get in trouble, I bet.” He gave Jess’s hand a squeeze. “Can you believe this girl? She’s landlocked. She used to sneak away from helping her mom and sail with anyone who’d take her out.”

“If you weren’t family, Brian Maguire, I’d punch you for that. What a thing to say!  Jess will think I was some kind of tramp.”

The scope of Brian’s kinship astounds Jess. Cousins, aunts, uncles orbit the farm in an infinite galaxy. She and her brothers and sisters were more like a meteor shower, almost all of them burning out before they fell to earth in adulthood.

Every day while Brian and Jess are home at the farm, someone drops in to visit and share a meal. Last night, when Jess brought the cups from the living room, she caught Priscilla and Brian’s sister, Louanne, gossiping at the kitchen sink, their backs to the door.  Priscilla, as always, was wearing the azure green that matches her eyes; a soft sweater hugging her abundant breasts and a green satin ribbon securing the plait of blonde hair.

“I’ve heard that sometimes,” she said in a low murmur, “the partners aren’t compatible. It’s like the woman’s egg is hostile to the man’s sperm. But when people like that split up and find new partners, they’ll both be fertile.”

Jess stepped back into the hallway, eased the door closed with her foot, leaned against the wall, her cheek hot on the plaster. In the living room, the men were haranguing about bringing back capital punishment. A local girl had been murdered this spring. While Jess was still in the room, Brian had tried to change the subject. His dad was dozing in his chair. When Jess reached down to pick up Charlie’s cup, the corner of his mouth quirked up in a smile and he winked.  Jess suspects that Brian has told Charlie about her brother.  Brian’s mom and sister know that Jess is one of nine kids divided out to half a dozen foster homes, but they don’t know that Louis, the brother just a year older than she, the one with whom she moved from home to home, is serving a life sentence for killing his best friend.

Crimes of passion, they’re called, so Jess has heard. Louis gone berserk because he thought he finally had someone who loved him, and she was screwing around with his best friend. Still, Jess wanted to scream in his behalf, he only went after the friend. He kept right on loving the girl. Louis, who’d never loved or been loved by anyway but her.

Caught there between infertility in the kitchen, and punishment by death in the parlor, Jess stacked the cups on the floor in the hallway, and chose a third door. She tiptoed into the bedroom where Priscilla and Louanne had nested their babies among coats and pillows on the bed and settled on a corner of the chenille spread, her finger reaching out to stroke a buttery little cheek.

He looks like Brian, this wee nephew.  Jess has seen the baby pictures, the school pictures, the graduation and wedding pictures. Marie’s albums are a chronicle of family life.

Jess’s chronicle is a plastic folder of wallet-sized school pictures that starts when she was seven and finishes in high school. Grades five, eight and eleven are missing for reasons she can’t remember. She missed the picture day? She moved to another foster home before the pictures came back? Someone forgot to send the money? Neither she nor Brian are camera buffs, so their marriage is compressed into a handful of pictures taken at their wedding, and her formal convocation portrait which Brian proudly mounted on the living room wall. That, everyone smugly assures them, will change with kids.

When they’d just begun trying to make a baby, they’d stay awake in the dark talking about names, about bringing their child home to the family.  He’d teach their kids to sail, Brian said. On their first summer home to Moncton, Jess was game to share Brian’s love of sailing. He patiently walked her through the “rigging,” the “launching,” the jargon as light on her tongue as salt spray. They’d been sailing clear for almost an hour before she gave thought to the ocean floor.

“How deep is the water here, do you think?”

“Well, if you’re considering diving over and going down for a look you’ll need to pack a lunch for the trip.”

“Seriously, Brian, how deep?”

“Seriously, Jess, it’s so deep it’s irrelevant.”

She’d peered into opaque green glass, then up into endless sky, and was overcome with a whirling panic. Dizzy beyond reason, she jerked back, the boat tipped and she was dumped, flailing in the icy water.

When they were finally back on land again, she sprawled in the wet sand with Brian’s arms anchoring her in place. “Oh God, I’ve never been so scared in all my life. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. I never wanted to sleep with a sailor. And I’ve been waiting for my turn to save you.”

The day Jess rescued Brian, they’d hardly spoken as she steered the cab through wildly buffeting wind. When the windshield wipers surrendered to the deluge, she parked, and let the car idle. “Guess we’d better wait it out.” For the first time, she looked closely at the man beside her. His wet hair had dried into a deep wave across his forehead, his cheeks had lost their pallor and gleamed with the sun-burnished health of a young labourer, and he sat loose and easy. But it was his eyes that were Jess’s undoing — intensely blue with circles of turquoise around the iris that sent a jolt of electricity straight through her like lightning to the base of a tree. She turned away to hide the flush in her cheeks, and stared into the rain. “That was a pretty stupid place to be hitching, you know.”

“Yeah? Well, I don’t have a car and I was gettin’ out to a job. And pickin’ up hitchhikers is pretty stupid too.”

“Yeah? Well, I’m a cabbie. Picking up people is what I do. Would you rather I’d left you there? We can go back if you want.”

“No,” he said. “I think this was meant to be.”

She’d found what she was looking for in the calm face, and when the rain slowed she drove the few blocks to her basement apartment. They stumbled inside, and into each other’s arms.

Later, when the storm had passed, Brian looked at her with a stricken face. “How did you know I wasn’t a danger to you? You could be killed bringing a complete stranger home like this.”

She shrugged. “I just knew. And I was right, wasn’t I? You said it was meant to be.”

He’d stared at her long and hard, and she was afraid that he’d find enough to send him away. Know that this wasn’t the first time she’d taken a stranger home. But it would be the last.

They went back the next day to the spot where Brian had been standing. There was no sign of the mileage post, and a mountain of rubble stood on the other side of the highway where there’d been a warehouse. Gulls circled in a cloudless sky.

Two months later, they were married in a quick civil ceremony with Brian’s foreman and his wife as their witnesses. Jess drove cab for the three years it took Brian to earn his electrician’s papers, then he bullied her into registering at the University of Alberta.

“You want to drive a taxi for the rest of your life?” They were in bed on a Sunday morning, and likely to stay there until afternoon.

“Of course not, but now that you’re working I thought I’d look around for something else. And who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll get pregnant.”

“I’ve been thinking we might be trying too hard, you know. People always say that if you want to have a kid, just take out a big mortgage or plan something that’ll take up the next five years of your life, and that’ll do it. Jess, you’re the smartest person I know. You said yourself you never did a bit of work in school, and you breezed through. Here’s a chance to kick back and get what you deserve. If you get pregnant, all the better. You can take night classes and I’ll look after the baby.”

There’d been no need for night classes. She earned her Education degree in three years, taking winter, spring and summer sessions with just a quick break for the trip to New Brunswick at the end of each summer.

She’s been teaching high school math for four years now, hoping at the beginning of every term that she won’t be there for the end. It looks as though she’ll stay forever.  Come back here to the farm each summer with empty arms, and Brian will have to settle for teaching his nephew to sail.  Or Priscilla’s three.


All this storm of memory, of what’s yet to be pounds through Jess’s head as she flies across Charlie’s pasture, and then the neighbour’s, and finally scrambles down the last rocky slope. When she arrives gasping on the dunes, there are gulls pitching like sailboats on the black ceiling of cloud. A dog runs pell mell along the beach, yelping at the waves. With her face pulled deep into the collar of the blue nylon windbreaker, Brian’s musky smell ripples around her.

Suddenly, Jess’s gaze captures a triangle of white. She fumbles in the jacket pocket for Brian’s binoculars, but behind the lenses, she loses the boat. Her long scrutiny of the rise and fall of the waves leaves her queasy. She closes her eyes, breathes deeply and feels her heart begin to calm.

When she looks out at the sea again, she stares hard at the patch of white and digs her heels into the sand, bracing against the wind.

She welcomes the intrusion of Charlie’s voice when he tramps across the dunes toward her. “Did you find him? You should have waited. I’d have driven you. You didn’t hear me calling after you?”

She’s never heard him speak so many sentences at once. She points, but for a moment a swirl of mist obliterates even the shoreline. “He’s out there. I think… I hope it’s him.”

Charlie’s breathing hard, and fumbles in his pocket for cigarettes. It’s just six months since Brian quit smoking, Jess trying hard not to nag. The corners of Charlie’s mouth turn up at her stern expression. “Oh, now don’t you be giving me grief about the weeds. I get enough from the rest of them.” His forehead wrinkles. “Don’t look so worried, Jess, he’s coming in. The boy’s had lots of practice with storms.”

“But he pushes his luck. I know he makes a joke of it, and I know someone else would have picked him up, but when I met him he was standing smack dab in the path of a tornado.” The splash of white is visible again. She raises the glasses to her eyes, then lowers them quickly. “It’s him. I can see the red stripes on his shirt.” She tries to blink away what this time is unmistakable — a flash of emerald green beside the red — and glances at Charlie who is watching the progress of the boat impassively, smoke curling around the brim of his sweat-stained cap. “Do you ever sail, Charlie?” she asks, trying to fill the silence.

He purses his lips, the cigarette clamped and bobbing in one corner. “Nah.”

“You don’t fish either, do you?”


“Or swim?”

“Christ, no.”

“Why? You’ve lived a stone’s throw from the bay all your life.”

“I’m a farmer. Don’t like the water. Like you, I guess.”

“Me?” She begins to methodically snap the metal buttons on the jacket. “I’m scared to death of the ocean.”

“That’s because you’re not used to it. Guess we’re all scared of what we don’t know.” He grinds the cigarette butt into the coarse sand with the heel of his boot.

She takes a deep breath, tastes the salt in her lungs. “Did you know my brother killed someone?” He nods. “Did Brian tell anyone else?”


“Charlie?” She feels a stinging on the backs of her eyes where the tangy breeze could not have touched. “Do you think I’ll ever really fit into this family?”

He takes a quick step toward her and, in an awkward stiff-armed motion, circles her shoulder to pull her face against the coarse flannel of his shirt. Then, as abruptly, he releases her. “Aw, Jess, you’re ours, just like Brian and Louanne.”

With the memory of the old man’s chest still warm on her face, she squints at the horizon, then reaches for his hand. Between her own smooth palms, it feels as coarse and dry as the ridges of sand under her feet. “Louis’s all I’ve got for family. I haven’t seen the rest of them in almost twenty years. And what Brian has here just blows me away. Sometimes I feel like I’m from another planet.”

“Well, I guess family is like ocean. If you’re not used to it, it scares you.” He holds out his hand for the binoculars. She hesitates, tracing a circle in the sand with her toe before she relinquishes the glasses. While he scans the sea, focuses and watches the bobbing sail, she rams her hands into the deep pockets, fingers the handful of change Brian always carries, and bites her lip.

When Charlie lowers the binoculars, he loops the strap around his neck and lets them dangle against his suspenders. He hands her a ring of keys. “Here now, it’s a long walk back and the rain’s coming any minute. You take my car and I’ll wait and come back with Brian in the truck.”

“I can handle a bit of rain. I’ll wait.” She sets her jaw, fixes her eyes on the sea.

“Serves no purpose. You pulled him out of one storm, but he wouldn’t want you doing it twice. Now you go on, and tell Marie we’ll be wet and wanting tea.”

“Could you see him?”

“Yup.” He looks away from her, his eyes intent on the boat.

Even without the glasses she can see that the ocean has begun to roll, whitecaps foaming around the pitching sail. The wind plasters Charlie’s wide khaki pants to his legs. “It’s picking up. Are you sure he’s coming in?”


“Well, then I guess I’ll let you bring him safely home.” She catches her writhing hair and tucks it into the collar of the jacket. “Charlie,” she says “you don’t have to tell him I was here.” When he nods, she turns to leave.

“Jess?” She stops a few feet away. “That brother of yours, the one who made the bad choice. Do you love him less now than you did before?”

He’s like a rock, his solid presence standing between her and the sea. “No,” she says, “I have to love him more.”

On the walk back to the car, the wind flattens Brian’s jacket to Jess like a second skin.

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.



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.



The Top of Toy Mountain (1999)



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.)