CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 20 . . . .May 25, 2007
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2007.
208 pp., pbk., $14.95.
Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.
Review by Joan Marshall.
Reviewed from Advance Pages.
Sometimes when I can't stand being the responsible one, I give Mom and Janelle and Sarah the slip. Before they can miss me or call me back to them I'm gone, into the hills that rise above Mistik Lake. Up the shouldering sides, where prairie grasses are speckled with bergamot and pasture sage as soft as feathers and wolf willow bushes and black-eyed Susan and purple blazing star. Where I can sit down and feel as if I'm sinking into the heart of the earth. In the blasting heat, far above the beach, I see Mom below sipping coolers as she watches my tanned sisters splash around in the lake.
I watch over them all - but by myself. Free of everything for an hour or so. Free to wait for copper-coloured dragonflies, rustling wings spread, to soar around me in the pale sky, or sometimes, when the magic is right, to land like angels on my bare shoulders. In the winter, back in the city, I can see those summer hills behind my closed eyes.
This stunning, many layered story of grief, loss and joyous loves circles gently around and over the small Manitoba resort town of Mistik Lake where generations of Icelandic pioneers have infused the air with their resilience and fierce determination to survive in the face of accidents, illness and alienation.
Two main stories overlap: that of Odella, coping with the divorce of her parents, her mother's death and her younger sisters' grief; and Gloria, the girls' great aunt, a closeted lesbian whose knowledge of the Mistik Lake community and whose steadfast support of Odella's family help everyone hold it all together.
Odella, the quintessential observer, the typical responsible oldest child, grows slowly into the bittersweet understanding of her mother's unhappiness as she gradually takes on the maternal role in the family. We see Gloria emerge from a young girl to an older woman, always wise, and finally content. The linchpin in her family, Gloria supports not only her niece, Sally, Odella's mother, but also Daniel, Sally's husband, and Odella and her sisters. The secondary characters are equally strong. Jimmy, an aspiring journalist and Odella's love, is nurtured by his grandparents who raised him, visits his mother, a victim of schizophrenia, and glories in Odella's family. Gerald Isfeld, Mistik Lake's butcher, the essence of reticent rural life, remembers Sally as a young teen and helps Odella to clarify and settle her mother's story even as he transforms Odella's life utterly. Both of Odella's sisters, her father and even her mother, come alive on the page as individuals with their own personalities. Most satisfying is the loving strength of some of the adults - Gloria, Daniel and Gerald - real people who connect with the young adults instead of alienating them.
The dialogue among the characters is authentic and lively, advancing the plot well. The reader can picture each scene, all of which seem to overlap each other in a well orchestrated jazz dance of language. Although parts of the novel proceed in chronological order, brief dated scenes from the past are dropped in to clarify. The shocking first paragraph will grip readers' imagination and draw them in instantly. Brooks cleverly brings together all the plot lines and family secrets in the final pages.
The ambiance of the cottage at Mistik Lake is the centre of this novel, the place where the girls grew up, where Odella meets Jimmy and where the past comes into focus for the entire family. Manitobans will recognize their Icelandic heritage, their cottage life, the frigidity and loneliness of the city of Winnipeg, and the glowing prairie light.
There are calm, joyful moments in this novel. However, it is the overall pain of loss and grief that seeps into readers' souls, reminding them of the difficulty of persevering through life's tension and despair even though others weave their love into the strands of imperfect lives. Brooks captures perfectly the excruciating pain of divorce for children, the ache of older adolescence, the loss of childhood, and the centrality of family love.
A must-read on its way to many awards.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg bookseller who can hardly wait to get out to the lake.
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