Richards, acclaimed in his native Canada, draws on his grandmother's life to provide emotional resonance for his latest novel (after 2001's Mercy Among the Children), a multigenerational family saga in which some generations are considerably more interesting than others. The narrator's grandmother, Hanna Jane (Janie) McLeary, is born toward the end of the 19th century in a small New Brunswick village. At 20 she marries an older Englishman, George King, who is poor in health as well as purse. They open a small cinema, which outdraws the town's other theater, owned by Joey Elias. When King dies, Janie has a son, Miles, and a daughter on the way-surely she can't also run a theater. Elias cunningly uses her bank's manager and her own father in attempts to gain control of her business, but Janie remains steadfast in the face of whispered scandal and threats of violence. But while she manages to keep her theater, tragedy strikes-her father is killed, and her daughter disappears while in the care of her son. Janie's story is fascinating, but while Richards' depiction of character and place remain consistently strong, the narrative slows as it focuses on her son and grandson. The trials of the family as its members progressively succumb to failure and alcoholism (even as they keep the theater running) are well drawn, but as Janie's descendants learn little from their mistakes, the tale becomes less involving. An unexpected deus ex machina in the last pages forces a rather unlikely happy ending onto a story that had been, until that point, entirely believable if not particularly memorable. Agent, Ann McDermid. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Whether Richards's heroes are poor and downtrodden or rich and misbegotten, misery is usually their lot in life. The author of the Giller Prize-winning Mercy Among the Children now brings us the latest in a distinguished line of noble wrecks: Miles King, the son of Janie King, a character based on Richards's own grandmother. Janie scandalizes her Irish Catholic community by marrying an English Protestant. When he dies young, leaving her with the care of two small children, she makes the fateful decision to continue running his business, a first-run movie theater, in spite of vehement opposition from the ruthless purveyor of the town's only other cinema. By swimming across the Miramichi River to enlist the help of local magnate Lord Beaverbrook, Janie succeeds in keeping her business afloat at a high cost to her family. A legacy of wealth and heartache is passed along to Miles, who suffers from guilt for his part in the family tragedy along with a predisposition to alcoholism. Against a backdrop of 20th-century cinematic history, this rich, intergenerational saga rewards the reader with memorable characters and a story as strong as it is sorrowful. Recommended for all public libraries. Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Kingston, Ont. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
The graves of the Drukens and the McLearys are spread across the Miramichi River valley. If you go there you might find them -- “run across them” is not the exact phrase one might want to use for graves -- in certain villages and towns. I don't think we have hamlets here, but if we do, then in certain hamlets as well.
What is revealing about these graves is their scarcity. The scant way they are impressed upon the soil, dispersed here and there about the river. A river that stretches 250 miles from the heart of our province, a river of lumbering and fish and of forests running tangled to the water's edge. Our ancestors came and founded communities, and over time abandoned them for the greater lumbering towns of Newcastle and Chatham, so that only graves are left. One might go years without stumbling upon one, and when one finally does, an immediate reaction might be to say: “Why in Christ is old Lucy Druken buried way out here?”
I suppose some of the brightest of my relatives have lain forgotten for decades in the woods, forgotten even by their own descendants, in fields that have become orchards or mushroomed into forests again, the descendants having moved on, first to the towns and then west to the cities of Montreal or Toronto, or south to the great and frantic United States. The graves' occupants unremembered. Yet in what love and sorrow might they have been placed?
Two hundred years have passed to find what is left of us still here. Last October I came back from the train station in the debilitating gloom of a rain-soaked autumn day. He had demanded the key that morning, when I said I was leaving.
Hespoke to me in his slightly limey way -- being the only memory he ever retained of his father, and so the thing he held onto, come hell or high water, for a memory gone over sixty years. A limey with a Miramichi brogue.
“Yes -- well, then -- you can just give me the key, can you not -- leave it here” His hand shook as he pointed to the table. “And we will think no more of it; I will not even call you a traitor -- just remember I could not leave people in the lurch -- as much as I wanted to -- if they were lurching I'd stay!” he said turning away at that moment.
I found it hanging upon a string outside the winter door, waiting. I came into our small house, with the broken mirror in the foyer, to find him sitting in his straight-backed chair in the absolute middle of the small den, equidistant from the memorabilia of both British and Irish roots -- the cross of Saint George and a broken Irish bagpipe, staring out at me in perplexity, his hair now thin against his fine head, his tie done up very properly, hankie in his breast pocket, dark high socks and well-polished shoes on his feet. Each shoe tied with a small bowed lace, which never really did anything but make my heart go out to him -- especially when I realized it took upward of fifteen minutes to get each shoe on. He was drinking some mixture of aftershave and vermouth -- a pleasant enough concoction, he said, to starve off his “dearth” of gin gimlet he might on occasion -- at two in the morning, or five in the afternoon–go searching for. I told him I did not have anything on me -- no Scotch or rum.
“Do you know,” he said to me, “you are absolutely right, my lad. I have been thinking of giving it all up.”
“What up?” I say, turning away so he will not see the gin I have tucked in my tweed jacket.
“This place -- this house -- sell it and go away! Is that a gin cap I spy --”
“Where?” I say, looking about the room. Trying to make no sudden moves, I pick up a cushion and hold it against my pocket.
“That cap?” He clears his throat.
“Why, my son, the cap on the gin bottle -- you have glided a cushion over it.”
“Glided a cushion?”
“Is it glided -- I'm not sure --?”
His fingers tremble just slightly. He is looking around for something -- a cigarette, I suppose.
I take the gin out, hold it before me like a newborn infant.
“Yes -- there it is -- you are a saviour -- I always knew you were -- and foolish me in the process of changing my will -- wondering who to leave all of this to” -- he waved his hand abstractly. “You just went out to get me some gin --”
I go into the kitchen, get the glasses and pour out our libation.
“Gin's the drink,” he says, smacking his lips and looking at the two glasses to see if they are perfectly symmetrical. He takes his, shakes just a bit getting it to his lip and, confident his immediate plight is over, downs it in a draught.
“You found the key all right?” he says.
I came back once to find 223 newborn baby chickens in the house. I believe it occurred when he upset a crate of chicks somewhere in his travels. He was imprinted on them and they followed him home. He came in the house, the front door left ajar, picked up the letter opener to open his increasingly oppressive pile of bills, and saw 223 little yellow chicks staring at him. He opened the door and told them to go. They did not. He then tried to hide them in the dresser drawers, and keep this from me when I came in.
“Do not say one damn thing about what you see in this house,” he said.
I found them walking the halls, sitting on his lap, as he pretended not to notice. In fact, he remained until I bundled them up and took them away, ruefully dismissive of us all.
“I will not go,” I say to him after our gin.
“And why not?” he asks. “Why won't you go wherever it is you are wanting to -- go?”
“Because you're my father and someone needs to stay with you.”
“Oh -- well then -- I see -- very noble of you -- Wendell my boy. Lets drink to nobility.”
I guess I can drink to that as much as anyone.
My father Miles King once told me that some are damned by blood, by treason, by chance or circumstance, some even by the stars themselves, or as Shakespeare, denying that, said, by ourselves. This in a way is a journey back in time to see how I was damned.
My name is Wendell King, and I have looked for these forgotten places, and found them in their quietude and hope, and have gone to the archives, reading old tracts, deeds, family history, searching out what I can, to try to dislodge the secrets that have plagued my father's life.