A lonely 70-year-old woman takes in an abandoned girl in this heart-wrenching tale of love and loss set in the black communities of southwestern Ontario.
Rush Home Road, a dramatic début novel by an adept storyteller, was compared to John Steinbeck and Alice Munro and is poised to become beloved by readers around the world. While exploring the rich history of the Underground Railroad, whereby fugitive slaves from the United States found freedom in Canada, it also speaks broadly of motherhood, understanding, the importance of goodness and the power of love.
Rusholme, Ontario, is an all-black town born of the Underground Railroad. Its inhabitants farm land cleared by their ancestors who escaped slavery, and are grateful for modest comforts and richness of life; but for the taint of the bootleggers, it is a strong and peaceful community. At fifteen, Addy Shadd has learned to bake a pie crust better than her mother’s, and is happy to pick vegetables in the fields in summer so she can show off her strong, smooth calves to Chester Monk, the young man she hopes to marry one day.
At the annual Strawberry Supper, her dreams go horribly awry. A series of terrible misunderstandings lead to the tragic death of her brother, and blame falls on Addy. Shunned by her family, exiled from the community, she leaves home to find a new life. One refrain fills her head: Rush Home. But she is no longer welcome in Rusholme. Her courageous journey takes her to less-sheltered places, first to Detroit, then Chatham, where she finds a home for a while — until tragedy strikes again. Addy has learned to accept the tribulations life deals her as merely “what is.”
Many years later, in 1978, we meet Addy at 70, living in a trailer park near Lake Erie. She grows flowers and keeps a tidy house, her only company the voice of her little brother Leam, which has stayed with her through the years. Her quiet existence is ruptured suddenly when a neighbour offers to pay Addy to look after her young daughter for the summer. Before Addy can act on her second thoughts, the girl’s mother has disappeared, and odd, mixed-race Sharla Cody is Addy’s responsibility.
It is not the first time Addy has had a five-year-old to care for, and although long-neglected Sharla has much to learn about how to behave, her warm, grateful presence brings back a deluge of memories for Addy, who carries an unwarranted burden of guilt. As we watch a relationship unfold between the aging Addy and the little girl she chooses to care for, we are transported through flashbacks into the harsh life of a strong woman who endured more disasters than triumphs, suffered through racism and prejudice, but still has faith in the redemptive power of love.
With its depictions of human nature at its most despicable and most admirable, Rush Home Road is heartbreaking but optimistic, passionate but funny, intimate and readable, with skillfully drawn characters and compelling plot twists. Although Knopf Canada was the first publisher to buy the manuscript, a U.S. publisher quickly paid a large advance for the remaining rights to this first novel by a Canadian author, and within two months of acquiring the manuscript had sold it in eleven countries. Shortly after the book’s publication, film rights were bought by Whoopi Goldberg, who plans to play the lead role.close this panel
Addy didn’t know where to go. The rain had stopped, but she was still soaked and shivering and her clothes grew stiff in the ill wind. She imagined the child inside her was shivering too, so she wrapped her arms across her stomach, whispering, “We gonna be fine. We gonna be fine,” even though she knew they weren’t. She looked into the black night and was grateful she was bone cold and so hungry she could think of nothing beyond food and shelter.
All but one of the houses in Rusholme were dark and silent. Addy had wandered in circles for a time, then found herself standing in front of the little house on Fowell Street. She could see Laisa sitting in a hardback chair near the window. Her mother’s lamplight flickered, and a dark oil cloud settled above her head. She was mending a good white-collar shirt of her husband’s, ashamed her son had not a good shirt of his own to be buried in. Addy remembered how Laisa’d scolded Leam for the grass stains on his Sunday shirt after the church supper in June when he’d been showing off for Beatrice Brown. Laisa had hated his love for the pretty young girl, believing it was drawn from the same well as his Mama love, and she’d go thirsty if he loved Birdie too much. She’d said, “Fine, you keep your coat on then, Leam, no matter how hot it gets this summer, ’cause them grass stains never coming out them elbows and that teach you about showing off.” But she couldn’t bury her son with grass stains on his elbows, and she was glad to have a chore and to do for him this one last time. Laisa’s hands had stopped shaking when she picked up her needle and thread, and there was comfort in the dance of her fingers and the tiny perfect stitches they made. Addy watched her through the window for some time before she willed her feet to move in the direction of the church.
In the mile between her home and the church, Addy felt the shroud of darkness settle on her shoulders. The rain was hard and lashed her face. The doors to the church would not be locked but Addy could not go inside. It wasn’t God she feared but the fat Pastor and the way his eyes had hated her. The old shed near the graveyard was unlocked and although Addy was afraid of the restless spirits, she opened the door, squatted on the ground, and was glad to be out of the wind. She leaned up against the shovels, telling her teeth to stop chattering and her baby to be still. Then Addy told herself, as she would tell herself all her life, that although she was the cause of what happened, she did not cause what happened.
It was then she thought of the lake and the cliff across the road and how simple to raise her arms like Jesus and spiral down. She imagined what it’d be like under the water, walking on the deep sandy bottom, seeing Chester and Leam swimming there like fish. She thought how they’d wave and say, “Glad you come, Addy. We can all be together now and it ain’t even so bad down here.” But she felt terror at the notion of gulping for air and finding water instead.
Near dawn Addy woke, remembering the horror of the previous day and that it was not a dream and time to go. The gravediggers would be along any time now, and her brother put to rest by sundown. She stood with some effort and opened the shed door to the dark November sky.
The graves of her ancestors were grouped together at the far end of the yard and she went there now, for it’d be Leam’s final home and her last chance to say goodbye. She looked at the gravestones of her father’s people, unknown to her, feeling little for their dead souls. She looked up to Heaven and saw sky. She looked at the ground and saw earth. She closed her eyes and whispered, “Leam? L’il Leam? Are you there?” And because she couldn’t hear him, but was certain he was there, Addy imagined a talk with his ghost, and whispered it out loud to make it feel real.
“When we was children and you got sick and near died, I prayed the Lord take me instead and leave you to grow to a man. Did you know that, Leam?”
“I knew that, Little Sister. I know you loved me well.”
“We never did fight and hate each other like other brothers and sisters. I always felt proud of that.”
“I did too, Addy. You were always my good friend.”
“And I told Birdie Brown all the good things about you and never said how you chewed your fingers and weren’t fond of a bath.”
“I know that too.”
“It weren’t Chester done me wrong, Leam. Do you know that?”
“Chester told me how he loved you. He’s sorry he never got to say so. Don’t worry, Addy. The Lord knows the truth.”
“But if the Lord knows the truth, why am I here in the graveyard instead of shaking you awake for your day’s work? Why can’t the Lord tell Daddy the truth so he can take me back in his house?”
“That’s all a mystery, Addy. It’s just what is.”
“I got to go now before the gravediggers come.”
“I’m not cold.”
“Goodbye, Addy. I’ll be with you.”
Addy opened her eyes, felt the wind whip up around her, and heard a gull scream overhead. She knew the bird was Leam, showing off his new flying spirit, and felt better. The trees were bare but the woods were thick and gave enough cover to hide. Addy couldn’t walk on the road for fear of being seen. She couldn’t stand the shame. Besides, she didn’t yet know where she’d go or what she’d do. She ached from the cold and felt dizzy as she crouched near a fragrant evergreen.
Addy was surprised when she awoke that she’d fallen asleep. She could not feel the tip of her nose. She was poised to come out of the bush when she saw the first of the mourners arrive for her brother’s funeral. She moved through the trees, closer to the church, so she could watch and listen and even join in a hymn. Leam Shadd had been a loved boy and all of Rusholme showed up to send him on his way to the Lord.
Addy shivered, wishing she were inside the big warm church. She imagined the Pastor telling the congregation that the best thing to do was pray for the souls of the sinners, exalt the righteous, and never speak to each other about what had happened. God moves in mysterious ways, Addy knew, and today, she thought, that was true.
Lori Lansens is the author of two bestselling novels, Rush Home Road and The Girls, which was a Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year in 2006 (and sold over 300,000 copies in the UK) and a finalist for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. Born and raised in Chatham, Ontario, Lori Lansens now makes her home in California.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
"I can see Oprah, with a little makeup, playing Addy Shadd in a 5-hankie movie."
—W.P. Kinsella, Books In Canada
"Impressive…. A fascinating story that probably will be unfamiliar to most readers…. This one may leave you weeping into your beach blanket."
"A poignant novel about the power of love and forgiveness."
"Rush Home Road is a neat novel…packaged and presented with all the ends tucked in, not a thread unravelling from the smooth pages…compelling reading."
—Tara Klager, New Brunswick Reader
"Lansens writes her tale with assurance, skillfully drawing rounded characters about whom the reader quickly comes to care….It’s one of those books that ends too soon."
—Red Deer Advocate
"Lansens is a willing storyteller.... As a writer, she desires a particular kind of reader, one who wants above all to be transported--who might sit at her knee, the hearth."
—Noah Richler, National Post
"[A] poignant debut….Addy’s life — her marriage, her children, her journey to Detroit and back to Canada — is the rich core of a novel also laden with history….This is artfully done."
—Publishers Weekly, March 18, 2002
"To read Lansens's Rush Home Road is to read Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women coupled with Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, but as if both novels had been penned by Toni Morrison... In Rush Home Road ... an Ontario almost never imagined, a secret, rural black Ontario, a landscape of tobacco, corn and strawberries and a history of struggle and beauty, is given magnificent, complex reality.... Lansens is a brilliant talent, with a profound, big-hearted comprehension of human flaws and humane possibilities."
—George Elliot Clarke, The Globe and Mail
"Small-town Ontario is evoked like never before in the epic…Rush Home Road….a compulsive page-turner that keeps on chugging while shedding light on a part of Canadian history that’s not chronicled nearly enough."
—Susan G. Cole, NOW magazine (Toronto).
"Lansens proves her potential….Lansens presents us with a time and place as steeped in history as the American south; rich material indeed…..Rush Home Road has a sweetness and a charm about it."
"The characters remain sympathetic even when patience and kindsness fails them. The book contains reversals of fortune, vivid characters and a rich vein of Canadian history rarely mined in contemporary fiction. In Rush Home Road, Lori Lansens creates a teeming, forgotten world linked to our own by one woman’s life, laid down across the twentieth century like a fragile railroad track."
—Annabel Lyon, Vancouver Sun
"Rush Home Road offers an interesting storyline rich with satisfying plot twists that skilfully confute the reader’s expectations. But the novel’s true power comes from Lansens’ authorial voice -- a combinaton of grit and sensuality that exposes the full humanity of characters laid bare against an inconstant sociological landscape. The language flows effortlessly and naturally, dialogue rendered true and authentic through Lansens’ deft handling of vernacular. The author’s deep compassion for her characters evokes writers like John Steinbeck… "
"The magic of Lori Lansens’ writing lies in the way it knows its characters, and the way the characters know each other….Rush Home Road is a major triumph made up of many small, wonderful things. Dickens has written some stuff like this; so have Alice Munro and Raymond Carver, Haruki Murakami and Penelope Fitzgerald, Rohinton Mistry and Roberston Davies. But not on their first try."
"immensely readable and informative about a root beginning in our history that I have not seen plumbed in other Canadian novels — the black experience at the end of the Underground Railroad, principally in southwestern Ontario."
—Noah Richler, National Post
"Lansens’ talent is evident in her ability to move beyond her own experience to recreate the hardship, loves and losses of a black woman in the last century. Her novel is a moving testament to survival."
—Margaret Macpherson, Edmonton Journal
"Rush Home Road is brilliant in its microscopic portrayal of the scent and stench, tears and screams, laughter and joy of black Canadian life in a small southern Ontario town. It draws with pulsating prose the picture of life in the developing ‘Negro’ societies formed by the proliferation of Canadian stations along the Underground Railway."
—Austin Clarke, author of The Question and The Origin of Waves
"This novel? It is the gospel of our history."
—George Elliott Clarke, author of Execution Poems and Beatrice Chancy
"Rush Home Road, the story of a 70 year old woman's journey through the nearly unbearable sorrows of her past, in order to save an abandoned little girl, is a first novel of exquisite power, honesty and conviction. Its portrait of how much has changed, and how little, over nearly a century, in the realms of race, love, hate and loss, is quite nearly without flaws."
—Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean and A Theory of Relativity
"While wonderful novels about the black immigrant experience abound in Canada, few novelists, black or white, have written about the country's long-settled black communities. First-time novelist Lori Lansens ... does so passionately with Rush Home Road ... a compulsively readable book that leaves us feeling we know more about a time and place — and about humankind — than when we opened the cover."
—Quill & Quire advance review