________________ CM . . . . Volume IX Number 4. . . . October 18, 2002

cover Swimming Toward the Light.

Joan Clark.
Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 1990/2002.
235 pp., pbk., $18.99.
ISBN 0-86492-346-5

Subject Heading:
Short stories.

Grades 12 and up / Ages 17 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

***1/2 /4



There were three of them on the beach that morning, walking past the sand dunes and train tracks, gulls wheeling and mewing overhead. Their father carried Races' pitchfork, Ardith a tin bucket. Madge, the youngest, was empty-handed, a privilege fast disappearing now that she was shooting up: already she was past her father's elbow. She skittered beside him in erratic bursts, trying to keep up. Laddie was a big, broad-shouldered man with fair, sunburnt skin. In his shadow, Madge did not feel long-legged and spindly, but compact and petite.

Ahead of them the clam flats spread smooth and shiny as a giant platter, rimmed by a strip of river a thin molasses colour now that it had been emptied of the sea. The outgoing tide had left behind pewter-coloured sand, ribbed like a washboard and strewn with broken shells. Once Madge had seen a seal in the river going out with the tide. Lying on its back, the seal had been rocking gently, coasting along with the water. On the flats were six large gulls, motionless as decoys. They waited until the three people had removed their shoes and socks and were walking across the wet sand before they swung to the air.

It's a family outing, digging for clams on the Nova Scotia seaside. But, the clams aren't for the family: it's wartime, and the clams are for the sailors "off the ships tied up at the docks in Liverpool," (p. 3). Swimming Toward the Light begins in the 1940's, as Madge Murray grows up in wartime Nova Scotia, and, thirteen stories later, comes full circle, as she returns to Liverpool just after her father's death many decades later. It is both a family chronicle and something of a bildungsroman. In the course of Madge's growing up, the family moves around a bit, largely due to Laddie's numerous business failures; Beth, their mother, suffers from depression, and both parents drink too much. A scholarship to Acadia University provides Madge with the opportunity to take an art class, but her ambitions quickly take second place to "sitting around the students' coffee shop listening to Island jokes and becoming Doug [Ogilvy]'s new girlfriend," (p. 87). Her relationship with Doug leads to an early engagement, unplanned pregnancy, and their both dropping out of college. Four children follow in rapid succession, and the marriage soon starts to founder. But, it is also during this time that Madge begins to work seriously as an artist, spending hours with her children "after school, making puppets, papier-mach‚ masks, shoebox dioramas, scenes from asbestos clay," (p. 108). Finally, Doug leaves, and, courageously, Madge packs up the kids and takes the train out west, beginning a new and very independent life as an artist. And, although Swimming Toward the Light is about family and its rivalries, secrets, and understandings, it is also about an individual's slow but sure journey towards an understanding of her own self; in her maturity, Madge realizes that "after years of managing a family, I covet aloneness."(p. 217).

     Swimming Toward the Light is a strong collection of stories, rich in evocative detail, powerful in its depiction of the richness of everyday life. In many ways, it reminded me of Alice Munro's work. And, the comparison with Munro tells me that this is a collection likely to appeal to mature readers in the upper grades of high school, and not simply because of content or language. You have to be a patient reader to enjoy this collection, and patience comes with maturity.


Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364