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It's 1941, and 15-year-old Beth's days—between milking cows, shoveling manure, and rambling through the menacing wilderness near her family's dairy farm in western Canada—are very full. Her father is a tyrant who's both sexually and physically abusive. Her mother, a healer and a wonderful cook, seems badly cowed: Her attempts to protect her daughter are ineffectual, and she'd rather deny than confront the fact that Beth's muscular beauty is setting everyone in the vicinity on edge. Two young farmhands from the nearby Indian reservation harbor crushes, and a schoolmate's interest culminates in a violent assault. Nora, a young half-Indian woman, also lusts after Beth, and the pair's sex-tinged friendship allows Beth access to the reservation world that is usually off- limits to outsiders. The playmate/lovers listen to the ominous warnings of Nora's grandmother about a murderous coyote spirit that may be behind several mysterious deaths. Finally, Beth's father carries one of his vendettas too far and is carted off to an institution. Her mother, meantime, buckles down and copes, while Beth taps into the power of her anger and confronts a malignant stranger (or is he a coyote spirit?) head on. Atmospherics are the real strength here: There's lots of raw down-on-the-farm unpleasantness, such as a bloody, bungled operation on a cow. Nature weighs in with showy effects. And there's a bracing vision of female strength: Kitchen wizardry (recipes are included) is complemented by less traditional virtues, such as the ability to clean the barn, patch up quarrels, and use a firm clear voice to challenge and scare off potential assailants.
A robust but richly observed coming-of-age story, then, of a complex young woman whose growth and resilience are celebrated without an iota of sentimentality.
"Gail Anderson-Dargatz has a noticing eye, a voice as unique as the countryside she writes about, and a heart large enough to love her entire cast of distinct and memorable characters. In The Cure for Death by Lightning she fashions an irresistible song out of the joys and dangers of growing up, the mysteries and wonders of life on a farm, the thrilling terror of trying to outrun the awful unseen force that pursues a growing girl. This novel opens a door to a shining, surprising world."
"Those who go hunting for ‘the next Margaret Laurence’ or ‘the next Alice Munro’ might find themselves perusing Gail Anderson-Dargatz … If Margaret Laurence were alive today, she’d be looking over her shoulder – not with worry, but anticipation. Anderson-Dargatz is the real thing."
—The Calgary Herald
"… As beautiful as it is uplifting. The struggle to find love in such an emotionally barren landscape, and Beth’s dignity in the face of massive dysfunction, make her a remarkable heroine. The novel has culled the best from many fictional worlds – including Márquez’s magical realism, Faulkner’s Gothic claustrophobia, Ondaatje’s lyricism, and Flannery O’Connor’s engaging outcasts – to create a work that is startlingly original."
—Quill & Quire
"A robust but richly observed coming-of-age story of a complex young woman whose growth and resilience are celebrated without an iota of sentimentality."
"I loved it from the first page. She is fluent and graceful and there’s a passion there, a tension, in fact all I want from a novel. The writing is so powerful and yet holds back, showing a restraint that tightens the whole atmosphere. I was gripped."
"Like lightning in the distance, Anderson-Dargatz’s novel signals a strong force on the literary horizon."
"Brilliant.... A wonderful and challenging, truly bewitching novel, a unique work by an original voice....[Anderson-Dargatz] gives full reign to an amazing imagination and a compelling sense of time and place.... Like all powerful works of imagination, The Cure for Death by Lightning must be inhabited to be appreciated."
"Unusual and stimulating...Intriguing.... The dialogue is excellent, the characters well-drawn. The novel has real depth and integrity of voice. Its world is compelling, unusual and emotionally haunting."
—Books in Canada
"A truly realized, completely gripping personal reconstruction of history, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children meets Like Water for Chocolate in this bold addition to the Canadian cannon."
1. “Dunk the dead by lightning in a cold water bath for two hours and if still dead, add vinegar and soak for an hour more.” (p. 1) In this opening passage, how is Beth’s mother revealed through her scrapbook, through her gallows humour and her rather brutal method of remembering the fragile determination of a butterfly? What does it say about the circumstances of Beth’s childhood?
2. “The scrapbook was my mother’s way of setting down the days so they wouldn’t be forgotten. This story is my way.” (p. 2) How is Beth’s approach to memory-keeping different from her mother’s?
3. “When it came looking for me I was in the hollow stump by Turtle Creek . . .” (p. 3). What is this “it,” also variously referred to by Beth as “the thing,” or as Coyote? How does Beth’s attitude to “it”/Coyote change through the course of her story? Who ultimately wins, and how?
4. In this threatening landscape, women and livestock are closely guarded from dangers both real and perceived. Bells are tied around the necks of the livestock to keep track of them. Bells are given as love tokens. And Nora, too, wears bells. When Beth hears the bells tinkle, what does it often mean? What is their association for her?
5. Bertha describes Coyote as a complex devil figure, linked to the madness of world events. “Of course the old men here wouldn’t agree with that,” she says. (p. 170) Consider Bertha’s description of Coyote, of the mix of good and evil that he brings and of his sorrow and regret. What does this say about her worldview? Do you see this version ofCoyote reflected in any of the characters in the novel?
6. Beth’s mother remains generally distant, only revealing herself through the pages of her scrapbook, which she guards from Beth, and in her mutterings to her own dead mother. She appears to have a wish to protect Beth, yet continually places her in jeopardy, and it’s unclear if she’s aware of the extremity of Beth’s trauma. What is Beth’s perspective on her mother? Do you think she will forgive her? Could you?
7. The colour red – the colour of berries, of beet wine, of lipstick and of blood – carries great significance in the novel. Do you see a pattern in its associations, for example with sexuality, with violence, with nature and with the lives of women?
8. When Bertha hears of Beth’s lightning arm, she tells Beth the story of Lightning and Mosquito who were both attracted to the sweet blood of a young girl. (p. 171) What do you think the lightning strike means to Beth in light of Bertha’s narrative?
9. Beth feels pulled by the desire coming from Dennis, from Nora and from Billy. How do the three differ in who they are and what they want from Beth? How are they similar? What is it about each of them that attracts Beth?
10. Men do not have the fear of Coyote that women, children and livestock share. The only exception is Billy. Why is he pursued by Coyote? What is their relationship?
11. Why doesn’t Beth leave? What is really keeping her on the farm?
12. Some characters have totem animals associated with them; for instance Coyote Jack and Bertha with the birds. Do you see any other totem animals in the novel? What do they mean to Beth?
13. There are many recipes and anecdotes from Mrs. Weeks’ scrapbook reproduced in Beth’s story. What do they lend to the narrative? Will you try any of the recipes? Are there any scrapbooks or recipes passed down through your family? What do they mean to you?
1. Beth writes, "The scrapbook was my mother's way of setting down the days so they wouldn't be forgotten" [p. 2]. In what ways does Mrs. Weeks' odd collection of clippings, recipes, and remedies fit the conventional definition of a journal or diary? What does it provide that even the most detailed written records lack? How does its form reflect Mrs. Weeks' character and the life she leads? Beyond the specific entries and handwritten notes, what other details does Anderson-Dargatz include to evoke the atmosphere of Beth's childhood home?
2. Beth first senses something "coming for" her when she uses the illicit treasures she has hidden in the woods [pp. 3-4]. How does this scene capture not just the material realities Beth associates with growing up, but the emotional changes, including an awakening sensuality, that she has not yet acknowledged? How does the language used to describe the setting enhance this?
3. Why is Beth's father obsessed with reclaiming the land he contends the Swede has stolen from him [p. 33]? Is it merely a sign of his "craziness" or does it reveal something about how he defines himself and perceives the world? Why is the battle between the two men conducted in silence in the middle of the night? What other incidents shed light on John's character and the things that are important to him? Why, for instance, does he insist that the porcupine he catches for dinner is a chicken [p. 13]? Why is he able to accept and feel compassion for Goat, who is mocked by the rest of the community [p. 59]?
4. Mrs. Weeks was the same age as Beth when she became the "woman of the house, making the meals . . . and looking afterher two younger sisters . . . became her father's escort to plays and concerts . . . his favorite of the three daughters" [p. 17]. How have the roles she assumed as a teenager shaped her behavior as a wife and as a mother? Does her experience as a teenager explain her inability to discuss intimate matters with Beth? In reserving her thoughts and feelings for her scrapbook and conversations with her dead mother, is she intentionally protecting Beth from her own pain, or is she guilty of evading her responsibilities as a parent? Despite her reticence, do you think she helps Beth understand the pleasures, strengths, and satisfactions of womanhood, as well as its trials?
5. Bertha Moses and her family are the Weekses' only regular visitors. What is the significance of fact that Bertha's family is a "house of women" [p. 9]? Beyond offering friendship, what role does Bertha serve in Mrs. Weeks' life? What does she represent to Beth's father? How do Bertha's heritage, as well as her experiences with men, influence the advice and comfort she provides for both Mrs. Weeks and Beth? Do you think that her opinions and attitudes are intended to represent a feminist point of view?
6. In describing Beth's encounter with Dennis [pp. 30-31], Anderson-Dargatz creates an atmosphere charged with fear, violence, and sexual tension. How does she achieve this? What insight does the incident, including her confrontation with her father, offer into Beth's understanding of and feelings about the changes that she is undergoing? To what extent are the emotions that Beth experiences "normal, " common to any young girl's sexual awakening? In what ways do they reflect the confusion and disruption that have become part of her everyday life?
7. Caught in a sudden storm, Beth sees lighting roll towards her "like a snake all knotted up, evolving and transforming as I watched . . . and coming right for me, as if meant for me . . . I felt it, shooting through my right arm [p. 79]." Is Beth's perception a product of her imagination, or do you think the author is suggesting that a supernatural force is at play? What impact does the incident have on Beth's attitudes and behavior? How does it relate to the title of the novel? In what sense, if any, does it represent death?
8. Why is Beth attracted to Nora? Which qualities does Nora possess that Beth admires or envies? At what point do you become aware of the sexual undercurrent in their relationship? At what point does Beth? What might explain the disparity between the two? What do you think Beth is feelings when she says, "[Nora] smiled at me under those strange two-woman eyes and watched for my every need, in the way my mother now served my father [p. 117]"? Is she comforted or unsettled by the parallels she sees? What do you think underlies Nora's interest in Beth? Does she feel a genuine love for her, or is the attraction only physical? What other motivations might Nora have for initiating an affair with Beth?
9. What role does Filthy Billy play in Beth's coming-of-age? Why do you think Anderson-Dargatz made him a victim of Tourette's syndrome, which forces him to choose between remaining silent and swearing uncontrollably? Why does she stress his unquestioning acceptance of Indian folklore and its rules and rituals? In what ways does Billy embody the intersection of the two different worlds depicted in the novel? What do Beth's feelings about him at the end of the novel show about her own maturity and self-acceptance?
10. Beth is offered the two explanations of the presence of evil in the world. "Mrs. Bell said all dirt was evil, and it was a Christian woman's duty to scrub evil away . . . Evil was what crept into your night dreams and made a sinner of you. . . . A woman must guard against the evil men brought into the house on their boots" [p. 16]. Bertha describes Coyote as "not a bad guy exactly. . . . But he's a clown, a scary little clown, like that Hitler. . . . Always beating his women. Stealing women. Killing women. . . . He doesn't know about shame, not until the end" [p. 170]. What parallels are there between these two points of view? How is each of them relevant to the questions and fears Beth has about her own sexuality?
11. Images of blood recur throughout the novel, most strikingly in the description of the smashed bodies of turtles along Blood Road [pp. 46-47]. Beth later says, "The storm had carried the red dust of Blood Road to our farm and rained it down . . . covering everything with the blood of turtles, the blood of our recklessness. The blood of a war a thousand miles away" [p. 63]. What else does blood (and the color red) symbolize in the novel?
12. What impact does the war in Europe have on this remote farming village in British Columbia? How has the departure of most of the young men for the army or for factory jobs in the city, as well as the imposition of rationing, affected the social structure of the community and the way people treat each other? In addition to the confrontation between John Weeks and Morley Boulee [p. 10], what other events in the novel reflect behavior that can be attributed to a wartime mentality? Does the picture Anderson-Dargatz draws of life on the home front conform to impressions you have formed about this period from other books or movies?
13. Myths, magic, and the surreal are mixed in with realistic descriptions of the landscape and graphic depictions of the harshness of life on the farm. How do the attitudes of Filthy Billy, Bertha, and the other Native Americans toward natural and supernatural events differ from those of the white characters? What evidence is there that Beth and her mother are more comfortable with the rhythms of the natural world--as well as the surprises it visits upon them--than John and Daniel are? Does this reflect their passive acceptance of their circumstances, or does it represent a spirituality that is lacking in the men?
14. The Cure for Death by Lightning explores many disturbing topics, including physical and psychological abuse, incest, mysterious deaths and disappearance of children, and bestiality. Did you feel that they were essential to the portrait of life Anderson-Dargatz wanted to convey or did you think that her depiction of hardships and horrors excessive? How does the style in which the novel is written, the humor with which many incidents are recounted, and the inclusion of homey recipes counteract its grim atmosphere?
Posted April 16, 2003
I was 16 and I was searching through my mother's boyfriend's garage in hope to find something to hit a baseball with. Instead I found this book, and after I had removed the dust on the cover I instantly started reading it. Don't know why exactly, but I felt as if I had to. Today, I can't explain how fortunate I was to do just that, read it, over and over again. This book means more to me than life itself sometimes, I get this feeling I can't explain, like a secret love. If you could fall in love with a book and it's lyrics, this is definitely an example. Amazing.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 22, 2000
The book unfolds in a fashion that leaves you pondering...not only where the story will take you, but where it has taken you already. The story envelops the reader in the Native folklore that is haunting Beth Weeks town, and forces you to decide the difference between lore and reality in the retelling.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.