Ragged Islands

Ragged Islands

by Don Hannah

Hardcover

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Overview

“Dark, nothing but darkness, thick and deep, and it wasn’t home, she could sense that, it was somewhere else. Susan Ann was trying to think, trying to remember the last thing she remembered — what day was this?” (p. 2)

It is September 11, 2001, and eighty-five-year-old Susan Ann Roberts is coming to the end of her life. In and out of consciousness, she is bedridden in a Toronto hospital, confused as to what has brought her to this place. Her daughter, Lorraine, and beloved granddaughter, Meg, are by her side but they seem unable (or unwilling) to take her home.

Susan Ann isn’t exactly sure where home is anymore. Lorraine had insisted her mother move to Toronto, worried about her living alone in the big house back east. Ever since, Susan Ann has been trapped—stuck in an unfamiliar city in a too-small apartment where things are so cramped that the dresser drawers in her bedroom open only partway.

Susan Ann resolves that she will return home to the Maritimes one last time. Her journey begins at the bottom of the laneway of the New Brunswick farm where she spent her summers, and takes her to the town where she grew up, and then across the ponds and rivers of the Tantramar Marshes, all the way to Nova Scotia and Ragged Islands, where she had made her home with her devoted husband and children.

As she travels on foot along old roads and visits the lost houses of her memory, Susan Ann is kept company by a dog from her distant past. Her unlikely guide propels Susan Ann forward, leading her ever closer to the place where she hopes to reunite with her husband. Along the way, they meet various people from Susan Ann’s life: a neighbour who died in a fire with her four siblings; the man who was her brother in all the most important ways; and a young woman who may hold the key to one of the great mysteries of Susan Ann’s life: why did her mother give her away to relatives to raise, despite the fact that she kept children who were born both before and after her?

Meanwhile, Susan Ann’s son, Carl, is at his mother’s Toronto apartment sorting through her belongings. He comes across an envelope labelled TO BE SAVED. In it, he discovers assorted papers, letters, and pictures that reveal his mother’s life as a woman and a wife, not just a mother. Old wounds are opened, unanswerable questions are asked, and mysteries are both solved and created.

In Ragged Islands, Don Hannah has given us a moving, witty, and tender portrait of a remarkably modern old woman at the end of a life bound by tradition and family secrets, blessed with great love, and rocked by events in the outside world. Coloured with intimate portraits of a family that seems almost familiar, Susan Ann’s journey suggests an answer to the question of what happens to the soul when the body begins to die. The final pages lead us to question what parts of a life remain behind for others to discover, how a family remembers those who have died, and where life’s final journey will take us.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780676977912
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Publication date: 01/28/2007
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 1.50(h) x 9.50(d)

About the Author

Don Hannah is the author of The Wise and Foolish Virgins, a novel, and Shoreline, a collection of plays. In 2006, he was named the Lee Playwright in Residence at the University of Alberta. Born and raised in New Brunswick, he now divides his time between the south shore of Nova Scotia and everywhere else.

Read an Excerpt

Carl found the package when he stripped the bed. A huge padded envelope, dog-eared, wrinkled with time and use, and worn so ­soft –­ somehow it had worked its way down between the sheets and come to rest at the bottom, where it lay lodged between the mattress and the footboard like some forgotten nighttime comfort, a hot water bottle or a ­doll.

The envelope had originally been sent to his mother in Ragged Islands. In the upper ­left-­hand corner, where the return address label had been torn away, there was a square of exposed bubble lining, a small translucent window through which he could almost see the ­inside.

When he turned it over, he saw the words she had printed across the back in a wide black marker: TO BE SAVED

1

She was in the dark ­darkness.

Where’s this? she said. Where am ­I?

Dark, nothing but darkness, thick and deep, and it wasn’t home, she could sense that, it was somewhere else. Susan Ann was trying to think, trying to remember the last thing she ­remembered–­what day was ­this?

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday Monday Tues

She didn’t have a clue. Had she wandered off into a strange room? She’d better take a ­look-­go-­see and–

My feet!

There was nothing down ­below –­ she couldn’t feel the far end of her at all!

Where’re my ­feet?

It was ­empty-­feeling down there. Up above, the darkness was pressing against her all ­around –­ heavy upon her chest, her head, holding her ­fast.

Calm down, calm now, ­think.

She must’ve had another episode, yes, and somehow she’d managed to lose her feet this ­time.

But where was this dark place? Had she gone somewhere to visit? Where was this, ­where?

Lorraine, dammit!

Yes, that damn Lorraine!

Susan Ann had been stupid enough to listen to her ­kids –­ that was what this was, that was why this was happening. She should never’ve listened, never’ve let them talk her into coming ­here.

Lorraine thought she was so ­smart –­ and Carl, on the phone, “Mum, you know it’s for the best.” What could he possibly know from out there? He hadn’t seen Ragged Islands since his father’s funeral, he stayed out there in the West and let his sister run things. Her own son had no idea of what was really going on, no idea at ­all.

Lorraine, the last summer back home, out in the yard–“The apartments in that building are nice and big, Mum.” Susan Ann would find out all too soon that the only big things there were the fibs her daughter ­told.

That bedroom’s so small if you want to make the bed properly you need to be able to fly!

“Mum, you know it’s for the best. We worry about you all alone in the house. And you’ve made it very clear that you won’t go to Surf Side Manor.”

Yes, because then no one would ever come see her, she’d never see her own grandchildren ­again–­there’d be nowhere for them to visit and stay. She’d be stuck in the TV room all day long, stuck in there with a bunch of nosy old people she’d never cared for all ­yak-­yak-­yakking, and there was nothing but crap on the old box nowadays ­anyway –­ young people parading their private lives about like fools–

You should never’ve left Ragged Islands, should never’ve let that house be ­sold–­Jamie’s house, Jamie’s house, Jamie’s–

Don’t, now don’t go and get all upset, it won’t get you anywhere so just calm ­down.

But Jamie’s house, I let them talk me into selling Jamie’s ­house.

That’s a while ago, that’s ancient history, just–

But it was Jamie’s house!

And that apartment Lorraine shoved her in–

Kitchen cupboards were so narrow that she couldn’t put a plate in ­them –­ there wasn’t enough counter space to chop an onion, and no window at ­all –­ at Ragged Islands there were the beautiful new cupboards Jamie had put in, and while she washed the dishes she could look out and see the islands themselves, just offshore, and the back harbour and the edge of town – almost an island itself – in the distance. But no window in that damn apartment kitchen or the ­bathroom –­ and even an outhouse has a window. Up at the farm the outhouse had two ­windows –­ two! But oh no, not that “nice big apartment.” Not a foot of decent woodwork anywhere, the doors all thin as cardboard, and that miserable ­wall-­to-­wall rug. There was no satisfaction in cleaning a place like that, none at all. At nighttime, the street outside was so bright and noisy that she had to keep the windows closed and the drapes shut or she’d never sleep a wink. The full moon could come and go time and again, but she’d never know, oh no, not in there. And stars, she could just forget about wanting to see any of them ever again!

It’s no fair!

“–restless?”

What?

Who’s that? Is someone ­there?

Hello?

She thought she heard someone say something. She was still as could be, ­listening. . . .

Not moving a muscle, quiet as a ­mouse. . . .

Listening. . . .

Hssssssssss. . . .

What was that? What was that sound? Take a ­look-­go-­see and–

How in the name of God could a person lose her own ­feet?

They must be down there somewhere, but she couldn’t feel a thing, nothing seemed to be going on down there at all. And in this light, without her glasses, she couldn’t see worth a ­damn.

If she tried to take a step, what would ­happen?

My feet, my poor old ­feet.

Were they ashamed of themselves and hiding? Who could blame them? But ­where?

Jamie would be shocked to see those old feet of hers now. When was the last time she’d touched ­them?

Putting on my ­slippers.

No, touched them closer than that, took a real good look at them. How long had it been since she’d trimmed her own toenails? Months and months, oh, ages and ages ago. Her granddaughter did that these days, cut her toenails when she came to visit. It was an awful thing to ask a young person to do. Susan Ann couldn’t watch; she hated the sight of those tough old things, all ancient and gnarled, and an awful dirty yellow colour, like claws. Poor Jamie would be shocked to see them. She used to have such nice ­feet.

Reading Group Guide

1. For the most part, Susan Ann and her family have lived unremarkable lives. How does Hannah engage you with these characters and keep you reading their stories?

2. Why is Murd the first person Susan Ann encounters when she makes her way back to Mum and Dad Wellman’s place? The other people she encounters along the way speak with Susan Ann, but she has a different experience with Murd. Why do you think this is? What does this tell you about the ways in which we remember people we love?

3. Given the influential role Mum Wellman played in Susan Ann’s life, why do you think she is not one of the people Susan Ann meets when she is walking from Shediac to Ragged Islands? Why does Susan Ann encounter the people she does, including Martha Leaman, a woman she never met?

4. The author begins the book with a quotation from Dante’s Purgatorio when the poet and his guide reach the fourth terrace of the Mount of Purgatory. This terrace represents a slothful or deficient love for God. Faith does not figure prominently in Susan Ann’s journey back home, her remembrances, or her semi-conscious moments in hospital. Do you think Hannah is suggesting that Susan Ann is like the souls on the fourth terrace? Does she substitute a love for God for a love of family and home? What sins do you think Susan Ann would seek redemption for, if any?

5. Are you satisfied with Susan Ann’s encounter with the young Sadie Milford? Did her conversation with her birth mother give you any insight into why Susan Ann was sent to live with Mum and Dad Wellman? What do you think accounts for Mumma Mac’s hostility towards her daughter?

6. While Susan Ann is inhospital her son Carl is back at her apartment sorting through his mother’s things. After discovering his father’s discharge papers from the army, Carl believes he has found “the evidence of his father’s disgrace” and his “earliest humiliation” (p. 98). What do you think accounts for Carl’s troubled relationship with his father? Does he discover anything in the papers that alters his perception of his father?

7. For much of her journey, Susan Ann’s guide is her beloved childhood dog, Sally. As time passes, Susan Ann’s perception of the dog begins to change and she finds Sally’s behaviour increasingly disturbing. Why do you think this is? Why does Sally ultimately leave her? Susan Ann believes it was Sally who was following her during the first part of her journey. Do you agree?

8. The events of September 11, 2001, appear in confused fragments in Susan Ann’s consciousness. Why do you think Hannah chose to include 9/11? What other major historical events figured into Susan Ann’s life and the lives of her family? What was their impact?

9. Susan Ann kept a secret from her husband after Queenie died. Why do you believe she chose to do this? Do you think Jamie knew the secret of his Uncle Carl?

10. In many ways, Susan Ann is not what you would expect of someone her age. She has a number of very progressive ideas, particularly when it comes to women. Where do you think this comes from? Why does she choose to help Bernice in the way she does? Do you believe she has betrayed her son?

11. What do you think accounts for Susan Ann’s close relationships with Tommy and Meg? Why do you believe she has a more fractured relationship with her own children?

12. What do Susan Ann’s discovery of Queenie’s secret and Carl’s reading of his mother’s papers reveal about their relationships with those people? What does it tell us about Hannah’s concept of parent-child dynamics? Do those dynamics mirror your own family life in any way?

13. In the 21st century, we are no longer intimately involved with death. Gone are the days that Susan Ann describes of tending to our family members and helping them to die. What was your reaction to Ragged Islands? Is Hannah’s concept of dying similar to your own? Do you find Susan Ann’s story reassuring or unsettling? Why?

14. Is there a part of Ragged Islands that you can’t leave behind? Is there a character you fell in love with? What is it about that character that appealed to you the most?

Foreword

1. For the most part, Susan Ann and her family have lived unremarkable lives. How does Hannah engage you with these characters and keep you reading their stories?

2. Why is Murd the first person Susan Ann encounters when she makes her way back to Mum and Dad Wellman’s place? The other people she encounters along the way speak with Susan Ann, but she has a different experience with Murd. Why do you think this is? What does this tell you about the ways in which we remember people we love?

3. Given the influential role Mum Wellman played in Susan Ann’s life, why do you think she is not one of the people Susan Ann meets when she is walking from Shediac to Ragged Islands? Why does Susan Ann encounter the people she does, including Martha Leaman, a woman she never met?

4. The author begins the book with a quotation from Dante’s Purgatorio when the poet and his guide reach the fourth terrace of the Mount of Purgatory. This terrace represents a slothful or deficient love for God. Faith does not figure prominently in Susan Ann’s journey back home, her remembrances, or her semi-conscious moments in hospital. Do you think Hannah is suggesting that Susan Ann is like the souls on the fourth terrace? Does she substitute a love for God for a love of family and home? What sins do you think Susan Ann would seek redemption for, if any?

5. Are you satisfied with Susan Ann’s encounter with the young Sadie Milford? Did her conversation with her birth mother give you any insight into why Susan Ann was sent to live with Mum and Dad Wellman? What do you think accounts for Mumma Mac’s hostility towards her daughter?

6. While Susan Annis in hospital her son Carl is back at her apartment sorting through his mother’s things. After discovering his father’s discharge papers from the army, Carl believes he has found “the evidence of his father’s disgrace” and his “earliest humiliation” (p. 98). What do you think accounts for Carl’s troubled relationship with his father? Does he discover anything in the papers that alters his perception of his father?

7. For much of her journey, Susan Ann’s guide is her beloved childhood dog, Sally. As time passes, Susan Ann’s perception of the dog begins to change and she finds Sally’s behaviour increasingly disturbing. Why do you think this is? Why does Sally ultimately leave her? Susan Ann believes it was Sally who was following her during the first part of her journey. Do you agree?

8. The events of September 11, 2001, appear in confused fragments in Susan Ann’s consciousness. Why do you think Hannah chose to include 9/11? What other major historical events figured into Susan Ann’s life and the lives of her family? What was their impact?

9. Susan Ann kept a secret from her husband after Queenie died. Why do you believe she chose to do this? Do you think Jamie knew the secret of his Uncle Carl?

10. In many ways, Susan Ann is not what you would expect of someone her age. She has a number of very progressive ideas, particularly when it comes to women. Where do you think this comes from? Why does she choose to help Bernice in the way she does? Do you believe she has betrayed her son?

11. What do you think accounts for Susan Ann’s close relationships with Tommy and Meg? Why do you believe she has a more fractured relationship with her own children?

12. What do Susan Ann’s discovery of Queenie’s secret and Carl’s reading of his mother’s papers reveal about their relationships with those people? What does it tell us about Hannah’s concept of parent-child dynamics? Do those dynamics mirror your own family life in any way?

13. In the 21st century, we are no longer intimately involved with death. Gone are the days that Susan Ann describes of tending to our family members and helping them to die. What was your reaction to Ragged Islands? Is Hannah’s concept of dying similar to your own? Do you find Susan Ann’s story reassuring or unsettling? Why?

14. Is there a part of Ragged Islands that you can’t leave behind? Is there a character you fell in love with? What is it about that character that appealed to you the most?

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