Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, by Kate Beaton

I knew of Kate Beaton as a Nova Scotia artist who was the genius mind behind the weird and brilliant historical and literary comics Hark! a vagrant. I was excited to see she was coming out with a memoir in the format of a literary novel, even knowing it would be something very, very different from Vagrant.

The subject matter is familiar to anyone who’s grown up in Atlantic Canada: having just graduated with a liberal-arts degree, young Katie Beaton can’t find a job in her field or in her area of study (Cape Breton; history) that will even come close to helping her dig out of her massive student-loan hole, so she heads to Alberta like so many East Coasters, picking up one of the plentiful jobs in the oil sands. There, she makes the promised money, but also sees first-hand all the things that make life in that place so hard: the isolation, the loneliness (especially when she moves from living in Fort Mac to working in one of the camps), the rampant sexism (and worse) experienced by the handful of women who live and work among these men who are so far from home. The toll on the environment; the toll on human mental health. All these things are depicted unsparingly, but so are the acts of kindness, the humanity, the fragile sense of community she encountered among the many men and few other women that she worked alongside there. Ducks is a coming-of-age memoir that also paints an unforgettable portrait of life in the industry that makes our world both possible and doomed, an industry we rely on and often revile but are generally glad (if we don’t work in it ourselves) to know as little as possible about. It’s that perfect balance of a deeply personal story set against the backdrop of a huge, complex, and very relevant story that impacts us all, and Kate Beaton’s words and pictures — which are inseparable from each other; I can’t imagine this book as a straight prose memoir — brings it all to awkward, uncomfortable, touching life.

Missed Connections: A Memoir in Letters Never Sent, by Brian Francis

I stumbled across this book in a most old-fashioned away — seeing it on the shelf at the bookstores — and that seems appropriate, because it’s about an old-fashioned experience. Brian Francis writes about the time that, as a young gay man in the early 1990s, barely out of the closet, he placed a personal ad in the newspaper. None of the replies he got panned out into a lifelong love, though he did meet up with a few of the respondents. He also held on to several letters he never answered, and now, as an older man, he goes back to those letters and writes what he would like to say to those men all these years later. It’s an intriguing way to structure a memoir about coming out, growing up, and re-evaluating the person you were and the person you’ve become. This was a wonderful, quick read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Undersong, by Kathleen Winter

I’ve read most of Kathleen Winter’s fiction, and I think Undersong might be my favourite of her books. It’s beautifully written and very engaging. At first I thought it was an odd and maybe unfortunate choice to tell the story of 19th century writer Dorothy Wordsworth — a woman always overshadowed by her famous brother, the poet William Wordsworth — through the eyes of yet another man, rather than bringing the reader into Dorothy’s own perspective. But WInter’s chosen narrator — a fictional, rather than a historical, character named James Dixon — proves to be an inspired choice. Dixon is a servant/handyman to the Wordsworths with a deep connection to Dorothy — not a romantic connection, and not entirely that of a servant for a respected employer either, but rather a connection rooted in their shared passion for the natural world. Dixon’s story of Dorothy, and of his own life in the shadow of the Wordsworth family and their brilliant, eccentric friends, unfolds through the folk practice of “telling the bees” when someone has died — he confides his story in the bees whose hives are in his care. The writing is lovely, poetic, and sometimes devastating — most devastating, to me, in the scenes that occur just slightly off the main stage, when we see how insignificant the lives of poor people like Dixon and his family are to well-meaning rich people like the Wordsworths. There were times I wanted this theme developed a little more — I needed a bit more of the story of Dixon’s mother and especially his sister — but Winter is the kind of writer to give the readers a little less, rather than too much, of what we want, leaving us to fill in gaps with our own imagination and reflections. I really enjoyed reading this book.

Daughters of the Deer, by Danielle Daniel

In my own process of researching and writing a book series about early English colonization, one thing I’ve said several times is that I wish there was more historical fiction exploring that period written by Indigenous writers, telling the story from the point of view of the colonized rather than the colonizers. I don’t know a whole lot about writer Danielle Daniel, for example whether she is a member of any First Nation, but I do know that she claims both French and Indigenous ancestry and the story she tells in Daughters of the Deer is drawn from her own family history in those early decades of French colonization in Canada, so it is definitely the kind of thing I’ve been wanting to read. It focuses on Marie, and Algonquin woman, who is pressured by her community into marrying a Frenchman, Pierre, and raising their children as French Catholics. Marie tries to keep some of her own religion and culture alive in herself and in her children, but when her daughter grows up to fall in love with another woman — something that was accepted in Marie’s own community, but deeply taboo in Catholic New France — a clash of cultures is inevitable. I was glad to find this book and would love to read more historical fiction written from an Indigenous perspective.

The Voyage of Freydis, by Tamara Goranson

The Voyage of Freydis takes the tale of Freydis Eriksdottir, a minor character who is mentioned in a brief but enignmatic fragment of the sagas about Greenlanders making their way to the place they called Vinland — now presumed to be the Norse settlement site at L’anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland — in the 11th century. Because women are so often nameless and absent in these types of historical accounts, it’s almost irresistible for historical fiction writers to try to build a story around the rare woman who does have a name and is depicted as doing something. Tamara Goranson is not the first writer to take on Freydis’s story; in fact, I read Joan Clark’s novel Eriksdottir, also about Freydis. However, that book came out in 1994 and I probably read it then or within a few years afterwards, so I sadly can’t remember anything about Clark’s take on the story.

The details that are captured about Freydis (a sister of the famous explorer Leif “the Lucky” Erikson) in the sagas are hard to make a sympathetic story out of, as she is depicted as ruthlessly murdering a bunch of fellow explorers. A good novelist will tell the story so that her actions makes sense in context; a good novelist will also be aware that what comes down to us in sagas and historical records is not always an accurate reflection of how real people might have behaved.

In this novel, Goranson has given us a believable and sympathetic Freydis trapped in an abusive marriage to a brutal man. The lengths she goes to to get free and stay free from her husband are what drive the novel’s action. There were times when the language, especially in dialogue, did not draw me into the story as much as I’d hoped, and a few possible anachronisms that pulled me out of the story. But as a reader and writers who is always interested in the erased or mistold stories of women in history, I was very interested in this take on the Viking story.

Constant Nobody, by Michelle Butler Hallett

It’s hard to believe I haven’t already posted a review of this wonderful novel, which recently won Atlantic Canada’s most prestigious literary prize: the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. I had already read it, but, as is often the case with those of us who live in a small and close-knit literary community, I read it in manuscript form and offered some critique to the author, who is a friend. However, reading the finished book was such a completely different and much more overwhelming experience.

At its most basic level, Constant Nobody is a literary spy story that begins against the background of the Spanish Civil War, when British spy Temerity West has a chance encounter with Russian spy Kostya Nikto. Months later, when Kostya is back home in Moscow, they meet again. Temerity is now living the exceptionally dangerous life of a British agent undercover in Stalin’s USSR when Kostya finds her and (maybe) saves her life. For long, agonizing weeks, as Temerity hides out in Kostya’s apartment, the two are bound together by secrets, lies, intrigue, attraction, and danger.

It’s a love story, of course, but it’s so much more than that: these two people are drawn together, and owe much to each other, but can never come close to trusting each other. In fact, they can trust nobody: one of the things this novel does most strikingly is recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere of Moscow under Stalin’s purges. Kostya is a respected KGB officer, yet neither he nor any of his fellow officers can feel any sense of security, nor can any of them trust each other. Kostya’s privileged life is almost as precarious as Temerity’s illicit presence in the city; the dreaded knock could come on anyone’s door, at any moment.

This is a beautifully-written and tightly constructed novel of intrigue, suspense, and thoughtful reflection all interwoven into the story of two unforgettable characters.

Scratching River, by Michelle Porter

Scratching River is an appropriate follow-up to Porter’s Approaching Fire, though there is more prose than poetry in the current book. As with Approaching Fire, reflections on the natural landscape — in this case, the geography of rivers rather than fire — are interspersed with, and serve as metaphors for, a family memoir. The story centres around the narrator’s brother, who lives with both schizophrenia and autism, and the horrific abuse he suffered in a care facility. This intimate story is set against the broader background of a Metis community dealing with intergenerational trauma and connection to history and land. As always, Porter’s work is beautifully written and thought-provoking.

When We Lost Our Heads, by Heather O’Neill

It’s hard to know quite how to categorize this book. At first glance into its pages, it’s a story of two exceptional young girls group up in late 19th-century Montreal, whose intense friendship is blown apart by a horrible act of (semi) accidental violence. Marie and Sadie both go on to live larger-than-life lives, and when those lives intersect, there is passion, decadence, and more violence. The writing is crisp, direct, and sparse, and the story explores, on many different levels, the idea of women’s power and what a revolution of women might look like.

I say it can be categorized as historical fiction — a specific historical place and time is indicated in the earliest chapters — and yet the book feels unmoored from history. Indeed, it might almost be described as an alternative history, for as the story unrolls we realize that while it might nominally be set in 1880s Montreal, it’s not really tied to the events or people of that place and time; huge events happen in the story that never happened in the real Montreal, and many of the characters’ names, personalities, and fates, are deliberate echoes of the French revolution a century earlier — as, of course, is the title of the novel. The novel’s momentum builds towards a second French (Canadian) revolution: one concerned as much with sex as with social class, yet one that ultimately feels smaller and more personal, less earth-shattering, than the real Revolution that inspires it.

At times this novel feels like a dark comedy; at other times like an alternative history; at other times like an allegory. It’s always compelling and thought-provoking, even if it can be hard to pin down.

This Is How We Love, by Lisa Moore

This new novel by Lisa Moore, arguably Newfoundland’s best known contemporary fiction writer, is (at least on one level) a story about a young man who is the victim of a violent crime, and the mother who makes her way through the snowstorm of a century to be by his side in hospital.

It’s much more than that, of course: most of the story unfolds through flashbacks, though the viewpoints of three main characters: Jules, the mother, Xavier, her son, and Trinity, a girl who grew up in their neighbourhood who was briefly a childhood friend of Xavier’s and re-appears unexpectedly in his life as a young adult.

Stories and scenes from their past, not unfolding chronologically, are layered over one another with the densely detailed sensory images that any reader of Moore’s fiction is familiar with. These memories and scenes, laid next to and sometimes overlapping one another like collage, do exactly what the title promises: explore the ways we love the ones we love. What love is like in families, in blended families, in chosen families, in wildly dysfunctional families — all these variations and permutations are on display here.

I think this is my favourite Lisa Moore book partly because it felt so close to my own experience and concerns. Moore and I are the same age and live in the same city, and she creates a lovingly detailed St. John’s in this novel, entirely recognizable to anyone who lives here (it’s just my nit-picky brain that has to chime in, whenever a local author does this, to notice the few details that have been changed for the author’s own reasons: no other sensible reader would break the stride of this story to say “But why are Xavier and Trinity at Mary Queen of Peace for elementary school? They’re not zoned for there, are they?” although to be fair I have had St. John’s readers ask me the same kinds of questions about choices I’ve made in my own books, so maybe it’s not just me).

Apart from the broader details of life in downtown St. John’s during the span of decades covered by this novel, all of which were recognizable, there’s the extremely specific detail of Snowmageddon, the January 2020 storm that, for residents of the St. John’s area, put us into “state of emergency” mode two months before the pandemic started. The closed airport, the snow-clogged streets, the power outages, the locked hospital doors — it’s all familiar, and rendered in that beautifully specific detail that makes a great story come alive.

The specific pull of love between a mother and a young-adult son — the worry you feel, the boundaries you observe or violate — is also very close to my own concerns and something I’ve written about recently, so this book hit home for me on that level too, as I imagine it would for many parents of young adults. If it’s really important to you to have a story unfold in a straight-forward, linear fashion, or if you don’t like writers who linger for a long time on loving, detailed descriptions of sensory images or moments from a scene, then this novel might not be for you — and that’s fair; no novel is for everybody. But if you’re willing to travel with a skilled writer like Moore along the winding path that leads up to a single, life-changing incident, and along the way experience a thousand vivid images of how we love — then I recommend this novel, which I found completely absorbing.