Random Descent

Random Descent

by Katherine Govier




When Jennifer Beecham decides to call it quits with her philandering husband, she heads south to her grandparents' house, to discover her family's past. Through their memories, Jennifer is able to piece together the story of her ancestors. Beginning with a tale about an exiled Irishman who killed a priest, the history continues with Randall, the gambler who lost the family's fortune, and the rebellious Wilcox who joined the railroad the way another man might have joined the circus. Ambitious in scope, lucid and gripping, Random Descent is not only a history of one family, but also of western Canada.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679310334
Publisher: Random House of Canada, Limited
Publication date: 04/11/2000
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.22(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

Katherine Govier is an acclaimed novelist, short-story writer and journalist, born and raised in Alberta and currently living in Toronto. She is the author of eight novels and three short story collections, and is the editor of two collections of travel essays. She is the winner of the Marian Engel Award (for a woman writer in mid-career) among other honours.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The photograph in its oval frame lies with the old albums in the years-long darkness of an old wooden trunk in the basement. When Jennifer lifts the curved and creaking lid, the face of the old woman under glass takes the light like a yellowed, all-seeing eye. You could tell me, Jennifer says to the eye.

Her great-great-great-grandmother is called Sub-mitta. In her mind it is 1877 and she is starting her task, needlepointing the davenport that would be her monument. Today she would be one hundred and sixty-nine years old. She was the beginning, the rock. She gave away nothing: she knew it all before there were any secrets. Now and then she is tempted to answer the call, to step out and shake off her dust. Her cap lifts with the vines so the hard skull of earth is exposed in the winds preceding winter, her breast rises in the circles of light thrown by the lamp shade, or her needle catches the sun from a park bench in the late afternoon. But what would be the use? she thinks, and minds her own business. Jennifer closes the lid. In the privacy of her trunk, Submitta broods.

Here I am, so old and no one to take care of me. That man Prior took me and rubbed his whiskers all over me and then he died, the fool. It has been so long she can't remember what he was like, except for the facial hair. Submitta jabs her needle into the frame on her knees and purses her lips. Black ribbons like a dog's ears hang down from the tips of her black tulle bonnet and lie flat on the slab of her bosom. Her mouth has disapproved of so much in its time it has retreated into the parentheses of her cheeks. I'll tell you something, she an-nounces to her daughter who is never there to hear, you can have your stock dealer and his big house. It'll come to no good. I remember how he began. He was a huckster. He went from town to town and sold things from two sides of a wagon.

Submitta had lived to see the bad stock of Randall Oliver become part of her family. She had lived to see her daughter in her coffin, an artillery of buttons up her breast. There had been lace against her throat and the tiny curls of fur from baby lambs on the yoke of her dress and a cross on a chain right under her chin. There were alabaster hollows under her cheek bones where she'd sucked in air at her premature death. Poor Submitta had begun to fear that she would outlive her entire family. It was at the age of seventy that she undertook to cover with needlepoint the four-seater davenport in the parlour. It was ambitious, but God never loved an idle woman. If the truth were known, she'd never felt better. She dared Him to take her in the middle of a rose.

The roses were her own idea. Her eyes grew sharper after the first five years of the work, and she became daring. Innovative. She gave up the slender vine, where one rose lay pale behind the next; now blooms grew on a thick, knotted tree. They were large as cabbages and crowded against one another. They turned into the faces of babies, capped in petals. Submitta's remaining children thought she'd gone foolish.

But it wasn't madness. This is age, thought Sub-mitta, this is power. Was it like this for everyone who lived long enough? She was inventing people. She needlepointed the faces of her descendants. First a someday-to-be-born great-granddaughter, Constance. Beside her a boy with blond curls and after him another blond boy, smaller, with an adult's face. At the top of the tree, where a branch forked, she made the twins. And there were others, scattered in the leaves, whose lineage she didn't even try to track.

It took twelve years. By the time she'd finished, Submitta had lost interest in her descendants. But she was proud of her work. She bequeathed the davenport to succeeding generations, the whole lot of silly women the likes of which her grandsons married. She imagined them coveting the thing and keeping it, cleaning and dusting it, airing it, sending it by rail, carting it forever from parlour to attic, afraid to throw it out. Submitta threw back her big head in its scratchy cap with the doleful ribbons and let loose a horse laugh. It hurt of course, because she was a little stiff, but that didn't matter. When she stopped laughing she wiped her eyes with a lace handkerchief. A family is like a fistful of water. The more you try to hold, the less you have, she thought. And yet, without my hand and his, clutching, without the stream running between our fingers back into the sea, what would life become?

When the twins were nine years old their father Oliver woke them in the middle of the night, wrapped the blankets around them, and took them out on the sun-porch roof. Even this far north, at Edmonton, it would pass over, that autumn, 1957.

See it? He leaned over Jennifer's head and held up her chin. See that light moving back, look, straight over the slanted roof, over the tree, right...there. And his finger would obliterate worlds as it pointed.

Jennifer's head was full of dreams, dreams where the house was burning down and she had to get her ballet pictures out, dreams where she was in an army and had to hide from the enemy, dreams where she had gone to school with her apron on and everyone was laughing at her. She could not see Sputnik. She could see a blackness curving over her, like the inside of an umbrella. She looked up and it was like staring into a snowstorm, but the snow was falling upward into nowhere, away from here. Jason said he could see Sputnik, but she knew he was lying.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews