The Cure for Death by Lightning: A Novel

The Cure for Death by Lightning: A Novel

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by Gail Anderson-Dargatz
     
 

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When fifteen-year-old Beth Week’s family is attacked by a grizzly, her father becomes increasingly violent, making him a danger to his neighbors, his family, and especially Beth. Meanwhile, several young children from the nearby Indian reservation have gone missing, and Beth fears that something is pursuing her in the bush. But friendship with an Indian girl

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Overview

When fifteen-year-old Beth Week’s family is attacked by a grizzly, her father becomes increasingly violent, making him a danger to his neighbors, his family, and especially Beth. Meanwhile, several young children from the nearby Indian reservation have gone missing, and Beth fears that something is pursuing her in the bush. But friendship with an Indian girl connects her to a mythology that enriches her landscape; and an unexpected protector shores up her world.
Set on an isolated Canadian farm in the midst of World War II, The Cure for Death by Lightning evokes a life at once harshly demanding and rich in sensory pleasures: the deafening chatter of starlings, the sight of thousands of painted turtles crossing a road, the smell of baking that fills the Weeks’s kitchen. The novel is sprinkled throughout with recipes and remedies from the scrapbook Beth’s mother keeps, a boon to Beth as she learns to face down her demons—and one of many elements that give The Cure for Death by Lightning its enchanting vitality.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Engaging…a rich stew of a book.”–The Observer

“Haunting, stunning…. Anderson-Dargatz creates a multi-layered tale of power and suspense.”–Toronto Star

“Superlative.… Flowers rain from the sky in this book.”–Toronto Globe and Mail

“Brilliant. . . . A wonderful and challenging, truly bewitching novel.” – Edmonton Journal

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The year is 1941. For the Weeks family on their frontier farm in Western Canada, life is brutally hard, with moments of joy few and far between. Fifteen-year-old Beth Weeks narrates this coming-of-age story, which is sprinkled with recipes, home remedies and useful homesteading advice (e.g., how to kill and clean a chicken: keep it calm, since "there's nothing as frustrating as trying to kill a panicked chicken"). Though the inventory of authentic period detail is evocative, make no mistake: this is no warmhearted tale of pioneer life. Forget square dances and barn raisings; think bestiality and incest. Beth's tortured, demanding father, mentally ill following a traumatic bear attack and the lingering effects of a head injury he received in WWI, goes on one rampage after another. Beth, meanwhile, does her best to fight off various sexual predators, finding solace of sorts in a tentative love affair with Nora, a troubled half-Indian girl. But Coyote, a sinister shape-changing spirit, stalks them and others, infusing the plot with a weird mystical aura at odds with the hardscrabble realism of the descriptions of day-to-day life. A dysfunctional Little House on the Prairie, this bleak, violent saga is a disturbing mixture of period minutiae and grim supernatural phenomena. (May) FYI: The Cure for Death by Lightning is based on a short story that won the Canadian Broadcasting Company's literary competition in 1993.
Library Journal
Evil lurks just below the bucolic surface of life on a farm in western Canada in the early days of World War II. Along with the arduous tasks that fill a typical farm day in the Forties are the added stresses of blackouts, rationing, and labor shortages. Fourteen-year-old Beth Weeks also has to contend with an erratic father who, after an encounter in the bush with a grizzly, becomes violent and abusive. She retreats for comfort into an intimate relationship with a girl from the neighboring reserve and into the well-worn pages of her mother's scrapbook, which contains family memorabilia, wonderful recipes (all included here), and folk remedies such as the title cure for death by lightning. Woven into this evocative coming-of-age novel are Indian legends, ghost tales, and mystical happenings in a manner that recalls Louise Erdrich at her best. Powerful and moving, this is highly recommended.-Barbara Love, Kingston P.L., Ontario
School Library Journal
YABeth Weeks turns 15 during the early 1940s, when most of the eligible men in rural British Columbia have enlisted. Her older brother remains to help with the farm and to protect her from their father, who received a head injury in World War I and is a violent and unpredictable man. Beth's mother talks aloud, regularly, with her own long-dead mother. Beth comes of age under great obstacles. Her mother refuses to believe her when she tells how other kids torment her, so she stops going to school. She is sexually innocent but instinctively fears her father, and when he rapes her, she withdraws, knowing she can say nothing to her mother. It is her friendship with Bertha Moses, a Native American, and her extended family that sustains her. The community is wrestling with several problems, and it is Bertha who explains that all the bad things that are happening are caused by Coyote, the notorious shape-shifter, who is present, though disguised, and wreaking havoc. The characters are brilliantly portrayed. The writing is spare and powerful: the rape scene is brief and wrenching; the loneliness of Beth and her mother is painful. The writing is wonderful, and the details are just right, but this book is not easy to read. Mature YAs who seek to challenge and stretch their minds will find this a memorable novel.Judy Sokoll, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Kirkus Reviews
A gritty but homespun debut that renders farm life as a mixed bag of vibrant colors, bad smells, and uncontained sexuality.

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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780385720472
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/08/2002
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
294
Product dimensions:
5.27(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

THE CURE for death by lightning was handwritten in thick, messy blue ink in my mother's scrapbook, under the recipe for my father's favorite oatcakes:

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.

Beside this, some time later, my mother had written Ha! Ha! in black ink. The same page contained a tortoiseshell butterfly, pressed flat beside the cure for death so the wings left smudges of burgundy and blue on the back of the previous page. The bottom of one wing was torn away. My mother said that she'd caught the butterfly and pressed it between the pages of her scrapbook because of this torn wing. "Wonderful," she told me. "That it could still fly. It's a reminder to keep going."

The scrapbook sat on my mother's rocking chair next to the black kitchen stove and was hers just as the rocking chair was hers. I didn't sit in her chair or touch her scrapbook, at least not whe she was in the room. My mother knew where to find a particular recipe or remedy by the page it was written on, because every page was different. She compiled the scrapbook during the Depression and into the Second World War when paper was at first expensive and then impossible to buy, so she copied her recipes on the backs of letters, scraps of wallpaper, bags, and brown wrapping, and on paper she made herself from the pulp of vegetables and flowers. The cover was red, one of the few bits of red that my father allowed in the house, cut from the carboard of a box of crackers. The book was swollen from years of entries. Pages were dusted with flour, stained with spots of tea, and warped frommoisture. Each page had its own scent: almond extract or vanilla, butter or flour, the petals of the rose it was made from, or my mother's perfume, Lily of the Valley.My mother didn't keep the book as a diary. If she kept a diary at all, I never found it. But she wrote brief thoughts along the margins of at the bottom of a page, as footnotes to the recipes and remedies, the cartoons and clippings -- footnotes to the events of the day. She was always adding a new page, and it didn't matter how many times I stole the scrapbook from her chair and pilfered my few minutes with it, there was always some new entry or something I'd missed.

I still have my mother's scrapbook. It sits inside the trunk that was her hope chest. I sometimes take out the scrapbook and sit with it at my kitchen table, by the stove that is electric and white. Even now I find new entries in the scrapbook, things I've never seen before, as if my mother still sits each morning before I wake and copies a recipe, or adds a new page made from the pulp of scarlet flax.

My name is Beth Weeks. My story takes place in the midst of the Second World War, the year I turned fifteen, the year the world fell apart and began to come together again. Much of it will be hard to believe, I know. But the evidence for everything I'm about to tell you is there, in the pages of my mother's scrapbook, in the clippings describing bear attacks and the Swede's barn fire and the children gone missing on the reserve, in the recipe for pound cake I made the night they took my father away, and in the funeral notices of my classmate Sarah Kemp and the others. The scrapbook was my mother's way of setting down the days so they wouldn't be forgotten. This story is my way. No one can tell me these events didn't happen, or that it was all a girl's fantasy. The reminders are there, in that scrapbook, and I remember them all.


Excerpted from The Cure for Death By Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz.

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Meet the Author

Gail Anderson-Dargatz, whose fictional style has been coined as “Pacific Northwest Gothic” by the Boston Globe, has been compared by critics to John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez. Her novels have been published worldwide in English and in many other languages. A Recipe for Bees and The Cure for Death by Lighting were international bestsellers, published worldwide in English and in many other languages, and were both short-listed for the prestigious Giller Prize in Canada. The Cure for Death by Lightning won the UK’s Betty Trask Prize among other awards. A Rhinestone Button was a national bestseller in Canada and her first book, The Miss Hereford Stories, was short-listed for the Leacock Award for humour.

Her mother, who also wrote, instilled literary confidence in Gail, so that by the age of eighteen, Gail knew she wanted to be the next Margaret Laurence, writing about Canadian women in rural settings. "Laurence's interest in them made me feel that their and my experience was important."

In her early twenties, the future author got a job as a reporter for her hometown paper, the Salmon Arm Observer, but continued to enter her fiction in competitions, and she started to win. One submission caught the attention of the writer Jack Hodgins, who encouraged her to enroll in his course at the University of Victoria. She graduated from there with a B.A. in creative writing.

Gail's literary career began to take off when she won first prize in the CBC Literary Competition for a story taken from an early draft of her first novel, The Cure for Death by Lightning. When a Toronto literary agent took her on she already had a short story collection ready to go: The Miss Hereford Stories. Set in the 1960s in the fictional town of Likely, Alberta, ("what you call a half-horse town") the book, with its cast of colourful eccentrics, was published in 1994 and nominated for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. The Cure for Death by Lightning, her first novel, followed two years later.

Saturday Night magazine has said that the inclination to write about rural characters sets Anderson-Dargatz apart from many writers of her generation, who tend towards urban fiction. What does she find so fascinating about small-town and country life? "Once you step off the concrete, life stops being abstract and starts being very real, very immediate, very fundamental and very sensual." On this topic, the Financial Post said, “Anyone who thinks rural characters in Canadian fiction are dull and bland should pick up one of Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s novels. … The only certainty in her world view is that anything can, and very often does, happen.”

Although she is influenced by Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, her mentor Jack Hodgins and favourite writers such as Toni Morrison, she says her inspiration comes “from the people and landscapes around me more than from other books." Her style has been called "Margaret Laurence meets Gabriel García Márquez" because her writing tends towards magic realism, but she says the ghosts and premonitions in her writing arise from family stories of the Thompson-Shuswap region, which she carefully transcribed. "My father passed on the rich stories and legends about the region I grew up in, which he heard from the interior Salish natives he worked with. And my mother told me tales of her own premonitions, and of ghosts, eccentrics and dark deeds that haunted the area."

Gail Anderson-Dargatz has just recently returned home to the Thompson-Shuswap region found in so much of her writing, and she currently teaches advanced novel and advanced fiction in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of British Columbia.

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Cure for Death by Lightning 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.