Ladies on Literature

Get Set for Summer

Summer is around the corner when the trails surrounding my mountain home turn from wet and soggy, to soft and springy. So long, rubber boots! Hello, hikers!

Recently, as I began the arduous tramp to the top of a particularly steep pitch, I was rewarded with another sure sign. Sparkling Okanagan Lake lay before me, diamonds of light dancing across its sun-splashed surface. I had to pause and give thanks. After a long winter and a short spring, who isn’t ready for boating, beaches, and BBQ’s? Warm evenings wearing sundresses and sandals, sipping our valley’s bounty from stemmed glasses, yes, please!

As you embrace the coming heat, here’s a look at what the Ladies on Literature read this spring. These books were penned by outstanding Canadian authors. Don’t be afraid of the dark nature of their subject matter; both are generously sprinkled with light humor to match this sunny season.

Lost in September

By Kathleen Winter

Nominated for the Governor General’s award and named a Globe and Mail Best Book, Lost in September is Kathleen Winter’s second novel.

The story follows Jimmy, a homeless soldier suffering from PTSD after armed combat in the Middle East. He’s unable to reconcile his conflicted history, including the atrocities of war with his love of poetry; his birth mother’s neglect with his foster mother’s love; his engagement to a woman with his romantic love for another man.

Aware that his duty to country is never truly understood or appreciated by society, Jimmy morphs into a reincarnation of James Wolfe, the decorated British general credited with Britain’s victory over France on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. Jimmy shares more than initials and physical attributes with Wolfe. He has studied the general so intimately, he becomes convinced he is in fact that man, destined to wander the streets of Montreal in search of leave the British army owed him, eleven days in September.

Helping Jimmy in his quest are some colourful characters who often provide much needed comic relief. Sophie is an older woman with a wicked mouth, who works as a janitor in a homeless shelter when she’s not living in a tent in Mont Royal. Then there’s the yellow man, (aka Harold, the blind man), a compassionate friend with a wonderful guide dog who helps Jimmy to see some uncomfortable truths.

Impeccably researched, I learned a great deal about James Wolfe from this book. I was moved by Winter’s connection to the homeless plight and her compassion for the mentally ill, yet I also found it difficult to suspend disbelief and just go with Jimmy/James as one.

Sadly, I wasn’t overly empathetic toward the tortured man, perhaps because he seemed so removed from himself. While his recollections of war and his insights to modern life were sometimes poignant and often funny, I found myself wishing Winter would get to the point. That said, my copy is full of passages I found so profound, I had to highlight them in yellow pen.

Ultimately, I think the Quill and Quire nailed it with this sentiment:

A fine sentence and the occasional well-turned scene render Winter’s story tender, yet the book’s vitality and believability suffocate under too many writerly flourishes.

3.75 Cheers!

Women Talking

By Miriam Toews

A finalist for the Governor General’s award, Women Talking is the eighth novel by the award-winning Miriam Toews. The book is a fictionalized account of what happens after a horrific real-life event. Between the years of 2005 and 2009, in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia, a group of men routinely drugged then raped, the colony’s girls and women.

At first, as the victims awoke bruised and battered, they kept their conditions to themselves. Were demons at work? Were the women and girls being punished for their sins? It wasn’t until they began talking amongst themselves that they realized they were not alone: the terror was widespread throughout the colony.

Many men, particularly religious leaders, did not believe the women, even suggesting they must have imagined the events, but when two men were caught breaking into houses in the night, the truth slowly came out.

Raised in a Mennonite colony in Manitoba, Canada, Toews says she was compelled to write this book because she could have been one of the victims. The author doesn’t dwell on the harsh, unthinkable rapes, but rather begins her story after the accused have been arrested and jailed in a nearby town.

As the victims gather in a hayloft to recount their stories, the only man in attendance is August, the colony’s teacher. He’s there to officially record minutes of the meeting, not only because he can read and write, but importantly, the women feel they can trust him with their truths. They are illiterate but smart and articulate. They want a record of their outrage, confusion, betrayal, and desperate attempts to reconcile their religious upbringing with their new manifesto: to tell the truth in the name of God in order to protect women and children.

August tells the women’s stories with utmost respect and genuine caring, infusing his minutes with their personalities and capturing the intimacy between them. Despite the horrific circumstances, there is healing and humor up there in the hayloft.

The women must decide if they should stay and do nothing; stay and fight; or run away and begin a new life for themselves.

Enlightening, and well-written, sadly the conversations in this book become repetitious, the arguments tiring, as the women debate the meaning of Biblical passages and the fall-out of their limited options. Still, their bravery and the honor Toews brings to them, is worth the sometimes tedious read.

3.5 Cheers!

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