Massacres and Floods
- Sandra Birdsell (Author)
Children of the Day. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Michael Crummy (Author)
The Wreckage. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Barbara Pell
Sandra Birdsell, who has published six novels and short story collections, including the Giller-nominated The Russlander, returns in her most recent novel to the story rooted in her own family background: the tension between two dispossessed peoples—the Métis and the Mennonites—in the history of Manitoba. Children of the Day narrates one day in June 1953 in the life of the Vandal family: Métis father, Mennonite mother—both alienated from their families because of their —and ten children. The novel is effectively told from multiple narrative viewpoints, interweaving and overlapping individual stories against the larger canvas of historical injustices and personal failings. Some of the hapless Vandal children function as centres of consciousness, but the plot focuses on the parents, who have effectively abandoned them this day. Sara spends the whole day in bed, afraid that she is pregnant again and that her husband will desert her for his French and childhood sweetheart (whose snobbish family would not let her marry a “half-breed”); Oliver wanders the countryside, brooding over the loss of his job as hotel manager and the loss of his people’s land and heritage. At the climax, Oliver finally comes home to affirm his present loves and responsibilities over his past losses, and Sara emerges from the bedroom to realize the traumatic legacy of her past as a child survivor of the 1917 Mennonite massacre narrated in The Russlander. The violent confrontation between Oliver’s brother and Sara’s brother-in-law ironically illustrates the tragedies of the two displaced peoples as Romeo accuses Kornelius of taking over the land, lost after Batoche, that rightfully belongs to the Vandal family. In the end then, Kornelius buys land for a new home for Oliver’s family “because he understands from his old-country experience what it means to have land pulled out from under your feet and claimed by others.”
Despite the historical tragedies and family curses that haunt the Vandals, Birdsell gives them a satisfying resolution full of love, grace, and new beginnings. The novel’s fragmented narrative smoothly connects the past with its present consequences and the individuals with their family future.
Michael Crummey’s first novel, River Thieves, was also a Giller nominee, a brilliant historical rendition of nineteenth century Newfoundland and the destruction of the native Beothuks. The Wreckage moves into more recent history—the first two sections are set in 1940 and 1945—but also deals with the complexities and ambiguities of love, hate, and self-knowledge. Or, as Crummey says, “the book is about this human impulse to try and create meaning out of what falls into our lives . . . wreckage, complete happenstance.”
In 1940 Wish Furey (his name indicating the conflicting poles of his nature) is a rootless young Catholic from the Avalon Peninsula who falls in love with Mercedes (Sadie) Parsons in a remote Protestant Newfoundland outport as he travels around showing Hollywood movies. Driven from her by the violent prejudice of Sadie’s family (particularly her mother, who, as Sadie much later discovers, ironically was herself a Catholic embittered by discrimination), Wish returns to St. John’s and immediately enlists in the British Army. In the Far East, he is eventually imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp and tormented by a sadistically anti-Canadian officer, Nishino. Meanwhile, Sadie courageously goes to St. John’s in search of Wish, corresponds with him until he is captured, and faithfully waits for him until she hears of his death. Only then does she marry the American officer who has wooed her and moves to the States, where she raises a family, and bravely endures her own tragedies, for the next forty-nine years.
In the third section, set in 1994, Sadie returns to St. John’s with her husband’s ashes and unexpectedly encounters Wish. The reader now learns that he has been so traumatized by his sense of guilt after the bombing of Nagasaki and his own violent (and, he realizes, racist) revenge against the Japanese officer that he has deceived Sadie and has wandered around the States and finally home in an alcohol-and-sex-fuelled agony of atonement. At the end, Sadie offers to rekindle their love, but Wish repudiates her and tries to destroy her idealism about their relationship. Nevertheless, when his crazy Aunt Lilly, who fancies herself a priest, “marries” them at the end, Wish has the grace to cry, as Mercedes (whose name means “Mercy”) says “Amen.”
The wreckage of Wish’s life began when a tidal wave washed away his home and family. His relationship with Sadie was “a kind of penance,” an attempt to “erase his own sense of guilt,” his original sin in a life in which “everything that had ever happened to [him] seemed part of some mad joke designed to be the end of him.” He says, “It’s a good life if you don’t weaken,” but he does weaken; he doesn’t have Sadie’s courage to redeem the accidents of life with the faithfulness of love. Instead, “he’d nailed himself to the cross of that denial [of their love] long ago and had been faithful to it all his life”—a life of aimless, self-deluded, drunken wandering. Crummey deftly delineates the moral complexities and fanatical loyalties of characters adrift on a sea of fate, sorting through the flotsam of life—good and evil—searching for redemption. The plot surprises, though occasionally contrived, usually illustrate the themes of life’s happenstance and human fallibility. However, the subplot of Nishino somewhat weakens the novel, which begins with a sympathetic portrait of the officer that suggests he will play a more prominent part in the main plot than he does. Moreover, while there is some motivation given in his background in Vancouver for his hatred of Canadians (thereby implicating the reader in the theme of racial intolerance), it is not sufficient to explain his sadism. Therefore, his character threatens to become a monstrous racial stereotype of the kind Crummey condemns.
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MLA: Pell, Barbara. Massacres and Floods. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #191 (Winter 2006). (pg. 167 - 168)
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