“The scrapbook was my mother’s way of setting down the days so they wouldn’t be forgotten. This story is my way. No one can tell me these events didn’t happen or it was all a girl’s fantasy. The reminders are there, in that scrapbook, and I remember them all.”
During the Second World War, Beth Weeks was 15, living on a farm in British Columbia with her parents and her brother Dan. Her father, John, used to be a gentle man but became unpredictable and paranoid after he went into the forest chasing a bear that had attacked Beth. The Indians from the nearby reservation said he was taken by the spirit of Coyote, who lies in wait for those who are weak.
John’s mood swings have the family living in a constant state of tension. Dan has been threatening to sign up for the war but he doesn’t trust his father with Beth (with good reason, as it turns out). There is an undercurrent of rebellion in the house because of the way John treats Dennis and Billy, the two hired hands from the reservation nearby. Beth is being pursued by an unseen thing—there are sounds of rushing winds like something is running towards her, but she never sees anything. Could it be Coyote, looking for a wife?
Beth’s mother finds solace by turning to her dead mother for comfort and advice. Beth finds hers in the Indians from the reservation, especially in Billy and Nora, a girl her age with a bell necklace. The girls rebuild Nora’s great-grandmother’s underground hut and go there when Beth’s father or Nora’s mother get too much for them.
Beth’s mother records the events around her in her scrapbook: the day when it rained blue flax, covering the earth in flowers, the time when Sarah Kemp is killed by a bear, and the night John set fire to the hut of the Swede, their neighbour, with whom he had a running battle over boundaries.
Gail Anderson-Dargatz has an eye for detail, not just of the landscape but the way people interact with one another. At Sarah’s funeral, her senile grandmother mistakes Beth for her grand-daughter: “The whole crowd was still and staring expectantly, greedily, not shuffling self-consciously as they would if Mrs. Halley would have mistaken one of the pretty Hambrook sisters for Sarah. They watched to see what would happen next. They watched to gossip later.”
The land and the rhythm of the seasons are an intrinsic part of the story. Anderson-Dargatz’s description of living on a farm made me wonder if she was writing from experience—it is so real, you can smell it and hear it. The making of beet wine (there are recipes scattered throughout the book), bringing in the harvest, and the milking of cows every morning, no matter what else is happening in your life. They pick up on your mood, so if you are upset, they can make milking very difficult.
The characters are very well-drawn—no one is entirely good or bad, they’re just regular people with their flaws and strengths. Beth, the centre of the story, is a strong character. She has to deal with a difficult father, bullying in school and a mother who isn’t always there, but somehow manages to get through it. Even John, who is a difficult character to like, has moments of fragility.
And yes, there is a cure for death by lightning, “written in thick, messy blue ink in my mother’s scrapbook, under the recipe for my father’s favorite pancakes:
Dunk the dead by lightning in a cold water bath for two hours and if still dead, add vinegar and soak for an hour more.”
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Read Talking About Books’ interview with Gail Anderson-Dargatz.
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