Patience & Perseverance & Integrity
- David Adams Richards (Author)
Lines on the Water: A Fisherman's Life on the Miramichi. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- David Adams Richards (Author)
Mercy Among the Children. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- David Adams Richards (Author)
The Bay of Love and Sorrows. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gordon Fisher
"Patience and Perseverance and Integrity" is the name of a fishing lure used by a fisherman in Lines on the Water: A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi. It appears in an anecdote which illustrates these virtues, not in terms of public acclaim, but as the key to individual dignity and peace in a confused and troubled world. These virtues, along with monumental unfairness, unrelenting torment, and moral uncertainty, are at the heart of David Adams Richards’ two novels, The Bay of Love and Sorrows and Mercy among the Children.
Lines on the Water: A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi is a meandering account of the author’s fishing experiences. He writes of childhood memories and adult adventures; he describes friends and acquaintances for whom the Miramichi is home. Only rarely does he refer to the "sports," the wealthy outsiders who hire the local people as guides, luxuriate in the catered comfort of their fishing camps, and take their memories home to distant cities. Unlike many fishing writers, Richards does not go into the details of lures (flies), but he does describe the topography of favourite rapids and pools, and the various fishing techniques appropriate to different rivers and fish. His style is anecdotal, not pedantic, and his tone reflects his obvious love for the region and the people who live and work there. Mindful of the knowledge and experience of those people, he is modest about his own successes and unabashed by his failures.
Richards won the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction in 1998 for Lines on the Water, but its appeal is not immediately apparent to a non-fisherman. Despite his careful delineation of the distinct features of the rivers that form the Miramichi system, the rivers and pools blur into one after a while. Writing about fishing can often lead to quasi-mystical rhapsodizing about sparkling rivers and dark forests, the far-flung sweep of a salmon’s life, and the cosmic connection between the fisherman and his prey—concepts that are almost never adequately captured by words on a page— but while Richards does reflect an awareness of these unfathomable mysteries, there isn’t much rhapsodizing in Lines on the Water. Instead, Richards puts it all in perspective on the last page, with a touch as light and precise as a fly touching the water above a lurking trout. After he has recounted the anecdote about Patience and Perseverance and Integrity to a longtime fishing companion, his listener responds:
David. Don’t let anyone else hear you talking like that.
I can take it—because I know you.Well,I said, finishing my tea,tomorrow is another day—
Tomorrow is a long time coming for many of the characters in The Bay of Love and Sorrows and Mercy Among the Children. In these novels, the picture postcard view of the Miramichi is darker and clouded by something like an invisible mist, noxious and stifling, that touches almost everyone and every relationship, and dampens all but the most strenuous effort to escape its coils.
In The Bay of Love and Sorrows, this invisible mist is a form of moral uncertainty and inertia that holds people back from taking the actions they know to be sensible or right. The first half of the novel is largely occupied by the events of the summer of 1974. Michael Skid, a young man from a wealthy family, alienated by a dispute with an old friend, Tom Donnerel, gets involved with some new friends and a manipulative ex-convict, Everette Huch, who embroils him in a scheme to make money by selling drugs. Imbued with a vague sense of rebellion against his family values and an equally unfocused drift towards excitement and adventure, Michael is unable to recognize or resist the malevolence he encounters as the drug scheme gets more serious. His new friends look to him for leadership, but he fails to give them the help they need to escape the physical abuse and crushing poverty that circumscribes their lives. Tom Donnerel, painfully shy, inarticulate, but with a fierce integrity, cannot bring himself to put the past aside and renew the friendship with Michael when the opportunity arises. He suffers in self-imposed isolation as his girlfriend Karrie is drawn away, in her innocence and romantic optimism.and unknowingly becomes part of the drug scheme herself. Like the proverbial butterfly whose wingbeats in Beijing set in motion a train of atmospheric events that lead to a thunderstorm, a cruel Fate determines that individual actions of the summer give rise to consequences far beyond any reasonable expectations. The first half of the novel culminates with a murder.
How individuals and the community as a whole reacts to that murder is the focus of the second half of the novel. The murder leads to the accidental death of a retarded man; further misunderstandings turn the local community against an innocent man. In the face of such hostility, and racked by his own pain, the man refuses to defend himself and is sent to jail. A determined police officer continues to investigate the murder; new evidence comes to light. Guilt begins to haunt those linked to the murder. But there is no dramatic dénouement as in mystery novels where the detective confronts the villain and ties up all the loose ends in a brilliant summary of the case. Bit by bit, the truth is revealed. By the end of the novel, three more people have died, and many lives have been changed in the aftermath. Richards takes the reader deep into the lives of Michael, Tom, and Karrie, revealing their hopes, their fears, and their uncertainties, and their ignorance. The reader learns more about Everette Hutch than Michael and Karrie ever know, and in this case, it is ignorance that is tragic, not self-knowledge. Other characters are treated sympathetically for the most part, and one of the most poignant aspects of the novel is the reader’s awareness of the pain that most of the characters feel: their desperation, their suffering, and their awareness of being trapped by poverty—and their pasts.
Where The Bay of Love and Sorrows is a meticulously drafted watercolour, Mercy Among the Children is a large oil on canvas. Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 2000, co-winner of the Giller Prize for Fiction in 2000, and winner of the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award for Fiction Book of the Year in 2001, Mercy Among the Children is remarkably similar to The Bay of Love and Sorrows, not just in the Miramichi setting, but in a wide range of details. It is almost as if the earlier novel, written in 1998, was a trial run for the later one. Mercy Among the Children spans a longer period of time, from the 1960s to the 1990s, but the action develops as slowly and deliberately as in the earlier novel. From the very start, the central character, Sydney Henderson, is victimized by a cruel and unrelentingly malign Fate that had almost destroyed his father. The narrator, Sydney’s son Lyle, describes how well-meaning actions are taken at exactly the wrong time: events are easily misinterpreted and motives meanly twisted; injustice piles on injustice. A crime is committed, a young man is killed. Sydney Henderson, with good—or defensible—reasons for acting the way he does, is pathologically unwilling to defend himself from charges of murder and the lynch-mob mentality of the local community. His wife and children suffer cruelly as a result. As in The Bay of Love and Sorrows a retarded man is involved in the crucial events. Again, a beautiful, promiscuous young woman plays a prominent role in those events. A university professor is shown to be shallow and unhelpful in The Bay of Love and Sorrows ; in Mercy Among the Children, a university professor, reputed to be a defender of the poor and downtrodden, proves to be arrogantly dismissive when asked for help. The person who is responsible for the death is violent, deceitful, and manipulative. The police officer who appeared in The Bay of Love and Sorrows investigates this murder after everyone else considers the case closed. In the end, the guilty parties are punished, not so much by the justice system as by their own awareness of what they’ve done. But along the way, good people die and lives are broken.
The parallels are not exact. In Mercy Among the Children, the story has more threads, the cast is larger, and the issues are broader. We learn more about the past history of Sydney and his father, about the people who have maligned and abused him; we get a fuller sense of the economic and social power structures of the community. The relationships between the characters are more convoluted, and many important connections are not revealed until late in the story. An environmental issue—the belated impact of careless use and disposal of toxic herbicides—underlies a large part of the story. The power of the local millowner, the hypocrisy of the local priest, the slyness of a local lawyer all affect the course of events in both predictable and unpredicted ways. In Mercy Among the Children , extreme poverty is the miasma that envelopes protagonists and antagonists alike. Without the sense of self-worth that comes from fulfilling a traditional role of provider for, and protector of, a family, men seem to turn unthinkingly to the only power they have: the ability to hand out physical punishment. Abusive fathers and beaten women and children form the social background of the poorest families. No wonder that their struggle is for self-respect as well as for simple survival.
Both novels present a bleak picture of the world. There is little happiness in these novels. For most people, rich and poor alike, happiness is a something small and temporary. Chance and coincidence play a large role, and while random theory would indicate that both good and bad things happen by chance, ill-fate looms much larger than good luck in the lives of most characters. There are not many admirable characters, and only a few are fully devel oped; we don’t know much about why they are strong or loyal or how they remain unswayed by the dark currents of hostility and intolerance that swirl around them. Worst of all, they are not exempt from the vagaries of Fate. For some, tomorrow never comes; for most, their lives continue with little improvement over the past. A better tomorrow is still a long way off. Yet the major strength of both novels is Richards’ awareness of the human condition. He knows that people are not perfect; he portrays strength alongside weakness, compassion alongside callousness. Bad things do happen to good people, and there are "good" reasons why some people are "bad." Reading these novels, moved almost to tears by concern for the characters, by the depth of suffering and pain, one wants to cry out "Don’t do it!" or "Speak up!" or "Defend yourself!" just as a pantomime audience warns the hero or heroine of the villain’s approach. But the poor know that speaking up, while important, is not enough, and in Mercy Among the Children, in particular, Richards presents a moving indictment of the social forces that still make it hard for people to escape the stigma of their pasts and find the dignity that every individual deserves
Are patience and perseverance the answer? Although they seem to be positive aspects of several characters in both novels, they also seem to destroy Tom Donnerel and Sydney Henderson, and bring torment to Sydney’s family. They also seem to be inherent traits, not ones that can be learned and adopted from the outside world, and they don’t serve to change the world, or one’s position in it. Or do they? Perhaps that is the question that Richards is addressing in these novels. Readers will have to provide their own answers.
- Toronto Translated by Ralph Sarkonak
Books reviewed: Journal de Cabbagetown - Été 67 à Toronto by Michel Albert and Jean Butler and Notes from Exile by Yannick Portebois, Dorothy E. Speirs, Dorothy E. Speirs, and Émile Zola
- A Swing and a Miss by Tony Griffiths
Books reviewed: Baseballissimo by Dave Bidini
- Emerging Edge by Teresa McWhirter
Books reviewed: Dirtbags by Teresa McWhirter, Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittal, and Indigenous Beasts by Nathan Sellyn
- Recent Canadian Shakespeares by Wes Folkerth
Books reviewed: Shakespeare and Canada: Essays on Production, Translation, and Adaptation by Ric Knowles, Free Will by Harold Rhenisch, and Shakespeare's Dog by Leon Rooke
- First Words by Ruth Panofsky
Books reviewed: Keel Kissing Bottom by Elizabeth de Freitas and Crazy Sorrow by Susan Bowes
MLA: Fisher, Gordon. Patience & Perseverance & Integrity. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #177 (Summer 2003), (Duncan, Wiebe, Jameson, Thérault, Martel). (pg. 171 - 174)
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