"The cure for death by lightning was handwritten in thick, messy blue ink in my mother’s scrapbook, under the recipe for my father’s favourite oatcakes: 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."
So begins Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s extraordinary first novel, a seductive and thrilling book that captures the heart and imagination, as filled with the magic and mystery of life as it is with its lurking evils and gut-wrenching hardships. The Cure for Death by Lightning sold more than a staggering 100,000 copies in Canada alone and became a bestseller in Great Britain, later to be published in the United States and Europe. It was nominated for the Giller Prize, the richest fiction prize in Canada, and received a Betty Trask Award in the U.K.
The Cure for Death by Lightning takes place in the poor, isolated farming community of Turtle Valley, British Columbia, in the shadow of the Second World War. The fifteenth summer of Beth Weeks’s life is full of strange happenings: a classmate is mauled to death; children go missing on the nearby reserve; an unseen predator pursues Beth. She is surrounded by unusual characters, including Nora, the sensual half-Native girl whose friendship provides refuge; Filthy Billy, the hired hand with Tourette’s Syndrome; and Nora’s mother, who has a man’s voice and an extra little finger. Then there’s the darkness within her own family: her domineering, shell-shocked father has fits of madness, and her mother frequently talks to the dead. Beth, meanwhile, must wrestle with her newfound sexuality in a harsh world where nylons, perfume and affection have no place. Then, in a violent storm, she is struck by lightning in her arm, and nothing is quite the same again. She decides to explore the dangers of the bush.
Beth is a strong, honest, and compassionate heroine, bringing hope and joy into an environment that is often cruel. The character of Beth’s haunted mother infuses the book with life by means of her scrapbook of recipes scattered throughout, with luscious descriptions of food, gardening, and remedies, both practical and bizarre. Seen through Beth’s eyes, the West Coast landscape is full of beauty and mysteries, with its forests and rivers, and its rich native culture.
The Globe and Mail commented that The Cure for Death by Lightning was "Canadian to the core," with hints of Susannah Moodie and Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. Anderson-Dargatz’s vision of rural life has drawn comparisons with William Faulkner and John Steinbeck. A magic realism reminiscent of Latin American literature is also present, as flowers rain from the sky, and men turn into animals. Yet the style of The Cure for Death by Lightning, which the Boston Globe called "Pacific Northwest Gothic," is wholly original. Launched in a year with more than the usual number of excellent first novels (1996 was also the year of Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald and Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels), this book with its assured voice heralds a worthy successor to Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro.
About the author
Gail Anderson-Dargatz, whose fictional style has been coined as "Pacific Northwest Gothic" by the Boston Globe, has been published worldwide in English and in many other languages. A Recipe for Bees and The Cure For Death By Lightning were international bestsellers, and were both finalists for the prestigious Giller Prize in Canada. The Cure For Death By Lightning won the UK’s Betty Trask Prize among other awards. A Rhinestone Button was a national bestseller in Canada and her first book, The Miss Hereford Stories, was short-listed for the Leacock Award for humour. Her most recent novel, The Spawning Grounds, released in fall 2016, was again a bestseller. After nearly a decade of teaching within the Optional-Residency MFA program in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, Gail now mentors writers around the world through her own on-line forums. She lives in the Shuswap, the landscape found in so much of her writing.
- Winner, BC Book Prize's Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
- Winner, VanCity Book Prize
- Short-listed, Scotiabank Giller Prize
- Nominated, Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award
Excerpt: The Cure For Death By Lightning (by (author) Gail Anderson-Dargatz)
THE CURE for death by lightning was handwritten in thick, messy blue ink in my mother's scrapbook, under the recipe for my father's favorite oatcakes:
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.
Beside this, some time later, my mother had written Ha! Ha! in black ink. The same page contained a tortoiseshell butterfly, pressed flat beside the cure for death so the wings left smudges of burgundy and blue on the back of the previous page. The bottom of one wing was torn away. My mother said that she'd caught the butterfly and pressed it between the pages of her scrapbook because of this torn wing. "Wonderful," she told me. "That it could still fly. It's a reminder to keep going."
The scrapbook sat on my mother's rocking chair next to the black kitchen stove and was hers just as the rocking chair was hers. I didn't sit in her chair or touch her scrapbook, at least not whe she was in the room. My mother knew where to find a particular recipe or remedy by the page it was written on, because every page was different. She compiled the scrapbook during the Depression and into the Second World War when paper was at first expensive and then impossible to buy, so she copied her recipes on the backs of letters, scraps of wallpaper, bags, and brown wrapping, and on paper she made herself from the pulp of vegetables and flowers. The cover was red, one of the few bits of red that my father allowed in the house, cut from the carboard of a box of crackers. The book was swollen from years of entries. Pages were dusted with flour, stained with spots of tea, and warped from moisture. Each page had its own scent: almond extract or vanilla, butter or flour, the petals of the rose it was made from, or my mother's perfume, Lily of the Valley.My mother didn't keep the book as a diary. If she kept a diary at all, I never found it. But she wrote brief thoughts along the margins of at the bottom of a page, as footnotes to the recipes and remedies, the cartoons and clippings -- footnotes to the events of the day. She was always adding a new page, and it didn't matter how many times I stole the scrapbook from her chair and pilfered my few minutes with it, there was always some new entry or something I'd missed.
I still have my mother's scrapbook. It sits inside the trunk that was her hope chest. I sometimes take out the scrapbook and sit with it at my kitchen table, by the stove that is electric and white. Even now I find new entries in the scrapbook, things I've never seen before, as if my mother still sits each morning before I wake and copies a recipe, or adds a new page made from the pulp of scarlet flax.
My name is Beth Weeks. My story takes place in the midst of the Second World War, the year I turned fifteen, the year the world fell apart and began to come together again. Much of it will be hard to believe, I know. But the evidence for everything I'm about to tell you is there, in the pages of my mother's scrapbook, in the clippings describing bear attacks and the Swede's barn fire and the children gone missing on the reserve, in the recipe for pound cake I made the night they took my father away, and in the funeral notices of my classmate Sarah Kemp and the others. 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 that it was all a girl's fantasy. The reminders are there, in that scrapbook, and I remember them all.
Excerpted from The Cure for Death By Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz.
"Superlative … A coming-of-age story like no other, by turns charming, funny and terrifying … Anderson-Dargatz’s prose is lyrical, precise and infused with offbeat humour; she magically – and realistically – paints the details of rural life in wartime British Columbia. Beth Weeks – strong, confused, abused, touched by magic and blasted by lightning – is simply one of the most engaging young heroines in years."
—The Globe and Mail
"This is a haunting, stunning debut … overlapping the mundane with the extraordinary, Anderson-Dargatz creates a multi-layered tale of considerable power and suspense."
—The Toronto Star
"Some first novelists tiptoe. Not Gail Anderson-Dargatz. She makes her debut in full stride, confidently breaking the rules to create a fictional style we might call Pacific Northwest Gothic. Its spookiness doesn’t settle like a Southern miasma; it breaks like thunder from a calm sky and rolls invisibly away."
—Boston Sunday Globe
"Gail Anderson-Dargatz has a noticing eye, a voice as unique as the countryside she writes about, and a heart large enough to love her entire cast of distinct and memorable characters. In The Cure for Death by Lightning she fashions an irresistible song out of the joys and dangers of growing up, the mysteries and wonders of life on a farm, the thrilling terror of trying to outrun the awful unseen force that pursues a growing girl. This novel opens a door to a shining, surprising world."
"Those who go hunting for ‘the next Margaret Laurence’ or ‘the next Alice Munro’ might find themselves perusing Gail Anderson-Dargatz … If Margaret Laurence were alive today, she’d be looking over her shoulder – not with worry, but anticipation. Anderson-Dargatz is the real thing."
—The Calgary Herald
"… As beautiful as it is uplifting. The struggle to find love in such an emotionally barren landscape, and Beth’s dignity in the face of massive dysfunction, make her a remarkable heroine. The novel has culled the best from many fictional worlds – including Márquez’s magical realism, Faulkner’s Gothic claustrophobia, Ondaatje’s lyricism, and Flannery O’Connor’s engaging outcasts – to create a work that is startlingly original."
—Quill & Quire
"A robust but richly observed coming-of-age story of a complex young woman whose growth and resilience are celebrated without an iota of sentimentality."
"I loved it from the first page. She is fluent and graceful and there’s a passion there, a tension, in fact all I want from a novel. The writing is so powerful and yet holds back, showing a restraint that tightens the whole atmosphere. I was gripped."
"Like lightning in the distance, Anderson-Dargatz’s novel signals a strong force on the literary horizon."
"Brilliant.... A wonderful and challenging, truly bewitching novel, a unique work by an original voice....[Anderson-Dargatz] gives full reign to an amazing imagination and a compelling sense of time and place.... Like all powerful works of imagination, The Cure for Death by Lightning must be inhabited to be appreciated."
"Unusual and stimulating...Intriguing.... The dialogue is excellent, the characters well-drawn. The novel has real depth and integrity of voice. Its world is compelling, unusual and emotionally haunting."
—Books in Canada
"A truly realized, completely gripping personal reconstruction of history, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children meets Like Water for Chocolate in this bold addition to the Canadian cannon."