Gail Anderson-Dargatz, the acclaimed and bestselling author of The Cure for Death by Lightning and A Recipe for Bees, brings readers once again into the heart of rural Canada with A Rhinestone Button. As funny as it is tender, it is a novel full of true-to-life characters, natural wonder, and sweet surprises.
Despite growing up in the small farming town of Godsfinger, Alberta, Job Sunstrum was always a bit of an outsider. A thin young man with blond, curly hair, he loved baking and cooking, and certainly did not fit in with the rough-and-tumble farmboys around town. There wasn’t much understanding to be had at home on the family farm, either, where his domineering father and bully of a brother ran roughshod over his life. But even when Job takes over the farm after his father’s death and his brother’s departure to train as a pastor, his community remains his animals, and perhaps the church women with whom he shares his baking on Sundays. Lonely beyond belief, overwhelmed by religious guilt, and taut with fear at the thought of what life might have in store for him, Job can only turn to God and hope that someday, things will turn around: he will find a nice Christian woman to marry, and settle down to the farming life, as his father had before him. Only his synesthesia — his ability to see sounds as colours, and feel vibrations as solid forms — provides him with passing moments of solace, but it also reaffirms for him that he experiences the world in a way the other people of Godsfinger could not possibly understand. And that there is some sort of knowledge that everyone else shares, a certainty, that must have skipped him by.
Then one year, Job’s “tightly coiled” life begins to fall apart, and even the small sureties that got him through the days are torn away from him. His brother Jacob and his family return to live on the farm, pushing Job out of his home and into the hired hand’s cabin. His neighbour Will, the closest thing he has to a friend, is exposed to the town as gay and Job is consumed with guilt by association. The colours even disappear from sounds. Faced with change on every level and not knowing how to live outside the world he was brought up in, Job allows himself to be caught up in the Pentecostal drive of a preacher named Jack Divine, in hopes that clinging to his beliefs, proving his faith, and doing what others expect of him will make everything all right. But when his new-found religious fervour only accelerates his despair and his world continues to crumble, Job is surprised to find that true faith can be found in earthly experiences, and come from the most unlikely of sources. That a world without the familiar colours and shapes of sound is not half-heard, as he feared, but freed to break out in song.
Like Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s previous novels, A Rhinestone Button is a loving and magical portrait of small-town life that makes us question what we believe is real, and true. Just as sounds leap to Job’s eyes in vivid explosions of colour, the words on these pages are landmines of image and meaning, bringing the people and the landscape of Godsfinger to life in our own minds. We can hear the whistle of ducks’ wings as they fly overhead, and smell the warm grassy breath of curious cows as they cluster around our chairs. Characters break through the molds of what’s expected by their neighbours, and by us, and populate the towns of our imaginings. There’s Dithy Spitzer, the town oddball who patrols the streets with her water pistol and lectures people on safety, yet has an oracle’s ability to speak the truth; Darren, a messed-up, adultering husband haunted by the ghost of his father, whose past makes one wonder how he survived at all; Ed, Will’s ex-lover, who helps Job understand that being a good man is about more than who you have sex with; and of course Liv, a hippie waitress who doesn’t believe in God, but does believe, and ultimately leads Job to a new level of faith. And Gail Anderson-Dargatz brings her readers right along with him, on a synesthetic journey that reaffirms our faith in great stories, and great art.
Turtle Valley is the fifth book to come from talented Canadian author Gail Anderson-Dargatz, whose novels have been published in several languages worldwide. Her first novel The Cure For Death By Lightning met with terrific acclaim and garnered her the UK’s Betty Trask Award and a nomination for Canada’s Giller Prize. A Recipe For Bees soon followed with nominations for the Giller and the IMPAC Dublin Award. A Rhinestone Button was a national bestseller in Canada and her first book, The Miss Hereford Stories, was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.
Her style has been called “Margaret Laurence meets Gabriel García Márquez” because her writing tends towards magic realism, but Anderson-Dargatz says the ghosts and premonitions in her novels arise from her family’s stories of the Shuswap-Thompson area, which she carefully transcribed. “My father passed on the rich stories and legends about the region I grew up in, which he heard from the interior Salish natives he worked with,” she explains. “And my mother told me tales of her own premonitions, and of ghosts, eccentrics and dark deeds that haunted the area.”
Anderson-Dargatz has recently moved home to British Columbia’s Shuswap-Thompson area, that landscape found in so much of her writing. She is married to photographer Mitch Krupp, who took the beautiful photos that are reproduced throughout Turtle Valley. Now at work on her next novel, she is an adjunct professor in the creative writing optional-residency MFA program at the University of British Columbia.
Of her inspiration for Turtle Valley, Anderson-Dargatz writes, “It all started back in 1998 when I helped evacuate my parents from the Salmon Arm fire. Almost the whole city was evacuated, in what was the largest peacetime evacuation in the history of BC up to that time. It was both terrifying and visually beautiful, as fire quite literally rained down on the Salmon River Valley. Even as we went through it, I knew I would write of it someday, and I did, in Turtle Valley.”
“Finely crafted…funny and insightful…. The folk who inhabit Godsfinger are a delightful crew of nosy-parkers, pulpit thumpers, main chancers, dirt farmers, romantic hopefuls and busybody charismatics.” -- The Hamilton Spectator
“Anderson-Dargatz has done [for Alberta] what Margaret Laurence and and Sinclair Ross have done for small-town Manitoba and Saskatchewan…. Exquisite.” -- The Edmonton Journal
“Few contemporary Canadian novelists can match [Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s] ability to capture those moments of acutely observed rural life that conjure mood and a way of life.” -- The Globe and Mail
“Funny, sharp [and] very satisfying.” -- The Gazette (Montreal)
“It’s Anderson-Dargatz’s particular genius to understand that most rural people don’t travel far from home, and that their communities can provide health and salvation as well as angst and isolation. It’s all a question of who you hang out with and how you look at things. Job’s journey from loneliness and the weirdness of synesthesia to love and self-acceptance only takes him a couple of kilometres from the family farm, but it’s as expansive and adventure-laden as Homer’s Odyssey…. The dangers of farm life are here in abundance [and] there’s a whole slew of enticing, comforting, subversive and wayward women. [And] as in her other novels, the eccentricities of Canadian rural life are incorporated seemlessly and hilariously into Anderson-Dargatz’s narrative.” -- Bronwyn Drainie, Quill & Quire
Praise for Gail Anderson-Dargatz:
“Anderson-Dargatz has something that no amount of craft can give a writer: she is hopelessly in love with and attentive to her subject, the physical world and all its gifts.” -- The Globe and Mail
“Anyone who thinks rural characters in Canadian fiction are dull and bland should pick up one of Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s novels.” -- The Financial Post
“Anderson-Dargatz writes with a terrible beauty. [Her] writing is by turns warm and chilling, tempered to the mysteries of nurturing and nature. Her command of imagery and dialogue is nothing less than remarkable.” -- Georgia Straight
“[A Recipe for Bees] is heady blend of earthy realism and romantic exoticism. This is a bravura work.” -- The Times Literary Supplement