Sixteen-year-old Winnie is a creature of habit, a lover of ritual and stability. If she had her way, not much would change. But when a new family moves to town, Winnie and her three best friends—all boys—find themselves changing quickly and dramatically to impress Caleb, their strange and charismatic new companion. Under Caleb's influence, Winnie and her friends test boundaries, flirt with danger, and in the end, illuminate darkness within each other and themselves.
Following a before and after structure that pivots around a mysterious and devastating fire at a local winery, Throw Down Your Shadows is a compelling exploration of the contours of young friendship and the development of powerful new appetites.
Reminiscent of The Girls by Emma Cline and Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler, this literary coming-of-age story feeds a growing demand in adult fiction for candid portrayals of the young female experience as complex and provocative, and announces a bold new voice in Canadian fiction.
About the author
Deborah Hemming lives and writes in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. She holds an MA in English from McGill University, a BA in English from the University of King's College, and an MLIS from Dalhousie University. Throw Down Your Shadows is her first novel.
Excerpt: Throw Down Your Shadows (by (author) Deborah Hemming)
Though we had never met, he waved at us like he knew us. An open palm raised above his head. Bewitching grey eyes under dark, curly hair.
What is a wave, really? It is recognition. It is I see you. But it's not always a gesture of welcome. Sometimes a wave means caution. I see you (stay back). I see you (I'm busy). I see you (please, not now). His palm was raised, demanding our attention, letting us know we had appeared in his world. But his hand stayed frozen, inert. He didn't move it from side to side, like you do with those you're happy to see.
His hand was a stop sign but we mistook it for a green light.
There is a moment when I first open my eyes. Not even a moment. It's gone before it begins. The night before, all its destruction, the fire, a dream. Something imagined. Confusing and irrational. I blink hard, but my eyes can't unsee. All that smoke, the heat. Don't fool yourself, Winnie. It happened.
I contemplate never leaving my room. Staying in bed with my hands clamped between my knees, turned towards the wall forever. What does the morning after look like? Not knowing makes me squirm.
I wonder if Ruth will do the regular things. Make coffee, serve it up hot. Did she bother to put on pajamas last night? I slept in a T-shirt, no underwear. I felt the need to let my whole body breathe.
Toast. She always makes toast. But who will eat it? And what about Mac? I don't think he came home last night. I didn't hear him. He tends to stomp up the stairs and across the hall. I would have heard the stomping and the opening and closing of doors. I would have heard them talking. Or maybe there was nothing to say.
I slide out of bed and into sweatpants. I listen before I open the door. Nothing. My hand hovers above the doorknob and I wait for a sign of what comes next. There's a strong chance everything will be different today, the old ways of doing and being no longer suitable. This is not a place that changes much but even those who are stuck and stubborn can't ignore such a profound disruption.
I finally turn the knob. I tiptoe downstairs, past the closed door of Ruth's bedroom. The house is unusually quiet. Dark corners and the echo of a clock hand. It's the end of October and the cold haunts my bare feet. I continue past the living room, the dining room. Everything quiet and empty and cold.
I nearly jump out of my skin when I find Ruth at the kitchen table. She's wearing pajamas.
"You scared me," I whisper. "Your door was closed."
She points upwards and I understand. Mac is sleeping.
She made coffee but no toast. She pours me a cup and we sink into silence. We wait.
Mona warned me. It was the only future she ever accurately predicted, our local psychic who couldn't see rain rolling in from the other end of the valley. I didn't believe in fortune-telling or astrology or anything like that, but Mona was my mother's best friend and my best friend Jake's mother. If she wanted to read my future, I wouldn't stop her.
"Hi, Mone," I said, opening the door of her tiny office.
"Winnie, come in." Her voice was low and hushed.
I sat down on the empty chair, the only clear space in the small room. Her office was tucked into the east corner of their farmhouse. A room with an unusually low ceiling, jam-packed with junk. There were crystal balls and heavy curtains and charts of the night sky, dirty teacups everywhere. But there were also used batteries and too many stray pens, milk crates full of old electronics. Radios and VCRs, a broken toaster.
"I'll need a moment," she said, gathering herself, eyes closed. A big bowl of water sat between us on her desk.
Mona was not a small woman. She was tall and broad, like her son Jake. They both had the same blonde hair, the colour of wheat, though Mona's was long and stringy, reaching down past her sagging breasts. She didn't dress like a psychic. No glittering scarves or gaudy jewelry. That wouldn't be practical on the farm. Mona dressed like every other farmer. Jeans with plaid, roomy shirts she didn't mind tearing on the pasture fence. The only difference between farm Mona and psychic Mona was her hair. When she was working on the farm, she wore it tied back in a long braid. During readings, it hung long and free.
I breathed in deeply. The room, like Mona, smelled of sweet beeswax and hay. They kept hives on the farm and she used the wax to make candles. She sold them out of her kitchen. The hay was just something that followed you around where we lived. She opened her eyes. It seemed she was ready.
"I asked you to come in for a reading, Winnie, because I had a dream about you two nights ago. I don't usually dream about people I know. My dreams are full of strangers, faces I don't recognize." She tilted her head to the side, considering. "The dead, perhaps. I've always thought I might also be a medium."
I nodded. I was used to this. Mona and my mother, Ruth, had been close friends for as long as I could remember. On the surface, they seemed like very different people but they shared an unconventional sensibility, an eccentric way of moving and being in the world. Mona as a psychic, Ruth as an artist.
"But the other night, I dreamt of you, Winnie. You as a grown woman. You looked different, more like your mother. But it was you, undeniably. Red hair. Same dark brown eyes. You were living somewhere far away. A foreign place that looked a bit like home. Rolling fields, a river. You were happy there. I thought we could try to conjure it, that place. You, there. I thought if I could see it more clearly, we could locate it. See where you're headed in this life."
I wondered how she knew the place was necessarily elsewhere. Looked a bit like home. Sounded like home to me.
"It's been a while since you've done a reading. I'll remind you that I ask you to remain silent throughout the process. When I am done, you are free to ask one question. I will let you know when you can speak. Until that time, please try to sit still to ensure the reading is as accurate as possible."
I suppressed a small laugh as she waved her hands over the bowl of water. This was how she did her readings, how she mined the invented futures of our most gullible neighbours: the recently divorced, the grieving. She claimed to interpret energy as it bounced off the surface of the liquid. As a child, I'd sat for many readings. When I was eleven, Mona told me I would attend eight funerals in the next five years, that I would need a passport by the time I turned fourteen, and that I had been a Salem witch in a past life. The predictions didn't come true and the third claim just seemed absurd. I stopped doing the readings when I realized it was all a hoax. It had been a while and I'd forgotten how seriously she took it.
After several minutes of hand-waving, Mona stopped, stared at the bowl, and frowned. "I'm not seeing that place today," she said. "I'm just seeing home. The valley. You in the valley."
I wanted to say, maybe it was always the valley. Maybe your dream was just like any other dream, a messy pastiche of memory and imagination, snapshots of life cut through with nonsensical intrusions and nothing more.
She continued to wave her hands once again and I realized I needed to pee. Gazing at the bowl of water, unable to move.
"Ah, here's something." Mona brought her hands to her chest and looked at me, suddenly intent. "I'm getting change from you, Winnie. Dramatic change. Everything is going to change for you this summer. You will become a woman. The woman you're meant to be."
She let the words sink in for a few long moments and then continued. "Also, you should avoid anything hot. Definitely don't take up smoking. No bonfires or fireworks, Winnie. I smell smoke in your future."
When the reading was finished, she told me I could ask my question.
I yawned, looking around. "What do you keep in that locked cabinet in the corner?"
Mona turned to face the cabinet behind her and then back at me. Her green eyes were large and blinking. I wasn't doing this right.
"That's all you want to know?"
I shrugged. "I've always wondered."
I'd forgotten about the cabinet, which I had tried to break into as a child. We didn't have locked cabinets or drawers in my house and so it fascinated me, this mysterious space, off limits to anyone who didn't have a key. Mona's son Jake and I took turns guessing what might be inside. I imagined important documents or shiny, expensive jewelry. Maybe even stacks of money. It was fun to think Mona might have another life, exotic and confidential, the evidence hidden behind the cupboard doors. Could she be a spy? A criminal? Nothing about her life or personality suggested this was the case but it was fun to indulge in the fantasy. I liked reading books about people with secret lives—double agents, assassins—and it was thrilling to pretend I might know someone living a life in disguise.
I became obsessed with the locked cabinet. I wanted to open it. I felt entitled to know the truth. On many occasions, Jake looked on, quiet and nervous, while I unsuccessfully stuck a bobby pin in the lock, jiggling and listening for a click, like I had seen people do on TV. Eventually, unsuccessful, I let it go. Of course Mona wasn't a spy. I didn't think she was even a real psychic.
"Winnie, come on. You have nothing else to ask? You only get one question, remember."
I crossed my arms. "Nope."
"In her compelling debut, Deborah Hemming has written a haunting and moving story alight with memorable characters. Compulsively readable right to the shocking conclusion, I was completely enthralled with this novel." —Nina Berkhout, author of The Mosaic
"Throw Down Your Shadows is a compulsive, intoxicating read. I cared for these characters, felt entranced and betrayed by them, as if they were my own friends. As the narration weaves between past and future, orbiting nearer to the black hole at its centre, Hemming proves herself to be a masterful storyteller. I lost sleep over this book, mostly because I couldn't put it down." —Eliza Roberston, author of Demi-Gods
"Throw Down Your Shadows captures smalltown adolescence with unwavering veracity. Hemming's gracefully restrained prose gives us an intimate view of what it's like to come of age in the expansive lusciousness of rural Nova Scotia, amongst complicated relationships forged in a tight-knit, intergenerational community." —Evan Crocker, award-winning author of Barrelling Forward and All I Ask
"Throw Down Your Shadows blends psychological depth and menace to create a story that is both propulsive and thoughtful: a rich, character-driven novel with touches of the weird and the regional particularities of the Annapolis Valley. Hemming upends the conventions of coming-of-age novels while demonstrating that unique stories of adolescence crashing into adulthood can have universal resonance." —Naben Ruthnum, author (as Nathan Ripley) of Find You in the Dark