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