Setting Down Roots

  • Luanne Armstrong (Author)
    Going to Ground: Essays on Aging, Chronic Pain and the Healing Power of Nature. Caitlin Press (purchase at
  • Madeline Sonik (Author)
    Queasy: A Wannabe Writer's Bumpy Journey Through England in the 70's. Anvil Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane

Both of these new works of creative non-fiction focus on personal relationship to place: one (Armstrong) is microscopic, while the other (Sonik) is kaleidoscopic. In distinct ways, they each focus on the paradoxical motif of setting down roots and pulling up stakes: moving, leaving, arriving, and ultimately reclaiming homes. They also both challenge clear definitions of genre, with one (Armstrong) subtitled “essays” and the other a “bumpy journey” (Sonik): both are patchwork memoirs, linked by themes, places, and powerful images.


Sonik is the award-winning author of Afflictions and Departures, but she describes herself in the subtitle of this latest book as a “wannabe writer.” The organization of chapters is roughly chronological, but the author alternates deftly between the autobiographical focus on her life in Devon during the 1970s, the political and historical past and present, and the reflection of what happened next. Every chapter is a provocative and often-gritty snapshot of a topic, some profoundly distressing and yet riddled with moments of quirky humour. In Queasy, chapters typically begin with visceral details before the thematic thread is untangled to include socio-political elements. That shift is refreshing, as the occasion for the move to England is personal and familial—the death of her father and her mother’s decision to uproot the family and move back to Devon—but that personal quickly becomes a reflection on the period in history, cultural practices, and the lives of working-class English people with whom she comes in contact. Sonik alternates between her life in Ontario and her experience of three separate jobs: waitress, cleaner in hotels, and “domestic” in a boarding school. Even the most painful encounters have a measure of poignancy and warmth. The characters are almost caricatures—one review identifies these diverse snapshots of people as having a “Dickensian” undertone (Dombrowski).


Similarly, Luanne Armstrong’s “essays” are mostly autobiographical glimpses of her life as an older person—“seventy-two, still on the same land” (11). Going to Ground is described as a reclaiming of her “first love”: the land and farm where she grew up in the Kootenays. After accidents and deaths, she reconnects herself to the spirit of that place, despite the glimpse of others’ perspectives on her choice. Her interactions are both internal and interactional, turning often to the lives of creatures who share the earth with humans. Essays are collected into sections, each a focus for contemplation by the reader.


Thus, while Sonik’s book moves irrevocably from place to place—workplace to workplace—in the social environment, Armstrong explores rootedness. Sonik builds a wild, sometimes-hilarious and sometimes-nauseating ride through encounters and events, while Armstrong resonates with calm, focusing on grounding, and is therefore almost meditational. Her broader theme is rooted in the conviction that awareness of the non-human “will turn our world back towards the light of care and understanding” (12). These are profound and far-reaching goals in any book. Observation is the aim of her work, and in that way Going to Ground shares a similar purpose—but contrasting approach—to Queasy, which also aims to reflect Sonik’s observations of youth from the perspective of age.


One of the most gripping segments in Armstrong’s book is titled “Breaking Summer” and focuses on “a state of such frightening fragmentation where there is both paradisal beach and the black muck of ‘news’” (61). Her prose demonstrates a deep appreciation of language and its power, interweaving metaphors and often ending powerfully with sentence fragments: “Summer. You rip me apart, you really do” (63). She reflects in one section on the contemporary refrain of “self-care” and positivity: “What should I give up? My books? My grandkids? My horse? Reading and thinking? Everything central to my life that gives me meaning and a sense of Self? How does one do that?” (70). The chapters collected in the last section titled “Another Country” are perhaps the most resonant with awareness of mortality and aging.


Sonik’s approach is not unlike Armstrong’s, with each chapter focusing and ruminating on a theme and its variations: beginning with the immediate recollection of an experience, and then unravelling it. She plays with shifts in perspective through phrases such as “I can’t imagine a future . . . where.” Her interpretations of the “strange customs” of British culture in general are deliberately uncomfortable; for instance, she reflects on the distinction between people who put milk in their tea and those who put the milk in first as a signal of social class. The chapter “Blowing Smoke” is a superb example of this intersection of personal experience and sociological observation; the reader learns much about bathing, food, alarm clocks, attitudes towards cigarettes and tea, as well as poisonous messaging in the powerful “Expressions of the Unutterable.” Armstrong’s chapter titled “Give Pain a Voice” is similarly perceptive in its focus on what is not said, and teases out the complexity of the simple question “how are you?” In many ways, then, the snapshots in both books reflect on paradoxes of change and stasis, the organic and ultimately remarkable persistence of life and courage in the face of adversity.


Works Cited

Dombrowski, Theo. “An English Chambermaid.” Review of Queasy: A Wannabe Writer’s Bumpy Journey Through England in the 70’s, by Madeline Sonik, The British Columbia Review, 5 Aug. 2022,

This review “Setting Down Roots” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 23 Feb. 2024. Web.

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