Christine Higdon's debut novel The Very Marrow Of Our Bones was called "wondrous" by The Toronto Star, a book that "[expands] on the grander mysteries of love and hate, survival and destruction." In this list, Higdon offers a spectacular array of recommended reads.
There’s a story in my family. It’s the late 1950s. My mother is driving from Prince George, BC, to Whalley, where my father has found some work. In the backseat are my three older brothers—five, seven, and nine, regrettably armed with noisy cap guns. In the front seat there’s me, a year and a half old, probably contained in a box or a basket. My exhausted mother is pregnant with her fifth child, a whopper. Her little car shares the narrow cliff-edge road through the Fraser Canyon with big, fin-tailed Chevys and logging trucks. Sometimes she has to back up to let them pass. On the dashboard is her wooden spoon. When the boys get too wild in the cramped backseat, she reaches over her shoulder with the spoon and flails it around, sometimes connecting, steering with one hand.
I was thinking about my mother when I started writing The Very Marrow of Our Bones. There must have been days, like that one, where she might have liked to not be travelling down that particular life path. I was thinking about other women who were young, poor, overwhelmed. We’re not very sympathetic about women who buckle under the pressures of motherhood. This was something I wanted to explore, with compassion.
My book is about mothers and the choices women make around motherhood. It’s about daughters and the impact of loss and unattended grief. About abuse and the ways in which we excuse it or deny it ever happened. It’s also about forgiveness and belonging and hope and faith.
I’m attracted to books that are compassionate hopeful studies of the lives of ordinary people: our complex relationships, the ways in which we experience the natural or political world, and how we try, or don’t try, to overcome the hardships or traumas, big or small, that mark our lives. I’m interested in stories about people who are yearning or fighting for community, acceptance, inclusion, and belonging. I am wildly grateful for the huge number of authors who have so beautifully, with words, taken me on journeys of this kind. There are so many to choose from; these are just a few that come to mind, some going way back.
The Perfection of the Morning: An Apprenticeship in Nature, by Sharon Butala
If we weren’t talking only about Canadian authors here, I’d want to mention Rachel Carson’s incredible Silent Spring. But another book that had a similar impact on me is this one. Butala capitalizes the word Nature. I agree with her about that. When I was 15, my widowed mother drove us, in a Volkswagen van, from Vancouver to Newfoundland and back (she was clearly a glutton for punishment!). Coming through Crowsnest Pass, out of the only landscape I had ever known—lush, forested, mountainous BC—the first sight of the Prairies took my breath away. Ahead were the foothills of the Rockies and farther along, a campsite in Saskatchewan where we slept under the stars and I woke to a round moon the size of a house. Reading Butala’s journey to her own numinous connection with Nature in Saskatchewan resonated deeply with me. In my book, I gave one of my characters, Doris Tenpenny, a reverence for the natural world that parallels the relationship Butala develops with Nature and so evocatively describes in her book.
Fall on Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald
My mother gave me two works of Canadian lesbian fiction—Jane Rule’s The Young in One Another’s Arms (in the 1970s, barely after homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada, Rule introduced us to lesbian, gay, and bi characters as if doing so was unlikely to stir up any resistance) and later, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s award-winning book, Fall on Your Knees. I loved Jane Rule, and, like so many others, I was churned up by MacDonald’s novel, from its fabulous first line—“They’re all dead now”—to its last. She takes us on a sometimes funny, always moving, decades-long journey with a family that seems cursed, and where characters wrestle with secrets, lies, racism, homophobia, sexism, and violence. Then she leaves us with the appearance of a surprise descendant about to discover the story of his “family” for the first time.
Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese
Remembering his arrival at the residential school he is forcibly taken to after his grandmother freezes to death on the railway tracks, Wagamese’s character, Saul Indian Horse, says: “I read once that there are holes in the universe that swallow all light, all bodies. St. Jerome’s took all the light from my world.” Those words alone confirm how deeply wrong the theft of that eight-year-old boy from his family and culture was, but it is only the beginning of the horrors inflicted upon Saul and the other children at “St. Germ’s,” by mind-numbingly cruel people, that Wagamese recounts. The story of Saul’s slow, hard journey to healing is both agonizing and hopeful, and exceptionally powerful. Richard Wagamese died in 2017.
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki
I’m sure I’m not the only one intrigued by things that wash up on shore. After the 2011 tsunami in Japan, the fictional Ruth, a Japanese American writer living on an island on the west coast of British Columbia, finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox in amongst the beach wrack. In it is the diary of a Japanese American teenager, Nao, living in Japan with her suicidal unemployed father and her mother. Bullied, Nao is planning to kill herself, but not until she writes the story of her 104-year-old, feminist great-grandmother, Jiko, who is a Zen Buddhist nun. As Ruth reads the teenager’s diary, she is drawn into Nao’s life, making a deep connection with a girl she never meets. This book is intelligent and challenging. The structure of the novel, its use of the diary, footnotes, appendices, emails, and letters, is clever and intriguing, as is her inclusion of quantum mechanics and Zen Buddhism.
The Break, by Katherena Vermette
In Vermette’s compelling and compassionate book, a 13-year-old girl, Emily, is violently raped in the North End of Winnipeg on an open tract of land known as “the Break.” A woman, Stella, watching from her house that night, witnesses the attack. She calls the police but they don’t take her or the attack seriously. She does not learn until later that the girl is a young relative of hers. The women in Emily’s family—her mother, her aunt, her grandmother and great-grandmother, cousin and friends—bring the power of their love to Emily’s bedside. Their unremitting grief, they share outside the hospital room. We slowly learn that the perpetrator of the crime is someone whose life circumstances have been brutal, filled with pain and loss, someone who hasn’t known the kind of love that Emily receives from the strong and vulnerable women, with heartbreaking stories of their own, who gather around her.
A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes, by Madhur Anand
I didn’t resent having to look up words while reading Madhur Anand’s book of poetry. In fact it made for a deeply engrossing co-meander through her book and the dictionary: Elytral. Haplotype. Aythya. Lignin. Sempiternal. Reading these poems felt like walking in the wilds with someone who could not only identify the flora and fauna there, but who could tell me why things, not just in nature but in life too, work the way they do. It is a poignant voyage through the universe—voids of green, sparrows, mustard, sugar cane, duck fat and profiteroles, silk, Rehtaeh Parsons, differential equations, the trenches of marriage, unread New Yorkers—with a scientist. Which is what Anand is. In her poem “Cantharellus” (a genus of mushrooms—chanterelles—with which one of my own characters has an intimate relationship) she treats us to this beautiful line: “I don’t know birds or bark, but once grasped indifference by the neck.” I wish I could find just one word in the dictionary as evocative as hers to adequately describe this collection.
Sweetland, by Michael Crummey
Crummey’s protagonist, Moses Sweetland, is all that stands between the people of a rugged and remote island in Newfoundland and the government’s resettlement compensation package. The deal is only a deal if everyone signs. In the novel, which takes place years after the Cod Moratorium went into effect, the young have already departed in search of work. But for Moses, the island that has been, for generations, home to his family, is where he belongs and he refuses to sign on. Despite increasing pressure from the “government man” and the locals, Moses is held there by memories, by a sense of duty to the island, by daily habits that are as familiar as friends; not even his sorrows or quiet regrets will sway him, even if it means he will end his days alone. It is Crummey’s depiction of “belonging”—Moses Sweetland’s connection to the land and the remnants of his community—that feels so moving.
Refugium: Poems for the Pacific, edited by Yvonne Blomer
In this collection featuring more than 80 poets, Blomer’s dedication reads: “… and for the tiniest sea creature that we have neither seen nor perceived, but who lives, must live.” The book is a passionate love song to the Pacific—the ocean and, inevitably, its creatures and its coast—with poems that are sometimes joyous and uplifting, sometimes heart-rending. The titles are evocative: “Herring Run (1),” “My Love, the Pacific,” “How I Envy the Jellyfish,” and “Outliers of Industry.” In the foreword, Blomer describes being both despairing and hopeful. She and the poets in this beautiful collection remind us that we’re responsible for the ocean, and those tiny sea creatures, and that the “consequences of remaining silent,” of not speaking up about the health of the oceans, the environment, our world, are “grievous.”
Vanishing and Other Stories, by Deborah Willis
Vanishingis one of my dog-eared, on-the-floor-by-the-bed books. I took it out of the library about 18 times before finally buying a copy. These 14 short stories are achingly insightful. Willis digs into the intense emotions of people—parents, children, men, women—who have been left. Or whose partners might be in love with someone else. Or who have overstepped boundaries and are, as a result, confused or (un)repentant or lost. Willis’s mixed use of tenses, points of view (including second), and the way she plays with time, even within a ten-page story, is instructive and liberating. And the writing is beautiful.
On a miserable November day in 1967, two women disappear from a working-class town on the Fraser River. The community is thrown into panic, with talk of drifters and murderous husbands. But no one can find a trace of Bette Parsons or Alice McFee. Even the egg seller, Doris Tenpenny, a woman to whom everyone tells their secrets, hears nothing.
Ten-year-old Lulu Parsons discovers something, though: a milk-stained note her mother, Bette, left for her father on the kitchen table. Wally, it says, I will not live in a tarpaper shack for the rest of my life...
Lulu tells no one, and months later she buries the note in the woods. At the age of ten, she starts running—and forgetting—lurching through her unraveled life, using the safety of solitude and detachment until, at fifty, she learns that she is not the only one who carries a secret.
Hopeful, lyrical, comedic, and intriguingly and lovingly told, The Very Marrow of Our Bones explores the isolated landscapes and thorny attachments bred by childhood loss and buried secrets.
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