My memories are so like that hat full of butterflies, some already deteriorating the moment they are collected, some breathed back to life now and again, for a brief moment, by the scent on a passing wind–the smell of an orange, perhaps, or a whiff of brown-sugar fudge–before drifting away, just out of my reach. How much of myself flits away with each of these tattered memories? How much of myself have I already lost? (Turtle Valley, p. 289)
Kat has returned with her disabled husband and young son to her family’s homestead in Turtle Valley, in British Columbia’s Shuswap-Thompson area. Fire is sweeping through the valley in a ruthless progression toward the farm and they have come to help her frail parents pack up their belongings. Kat’s mother, Beth, (the now elderly protagonist of Anderson-Dargatz’s first novel, the award-winning The Cure for Death by Lightning) is weighed down by her ailing husband, Gus, and by generations of accumulated detritus. But there is something else weighing her down, a secret she has guarded all her life. Kat is determined to get to its source before fire eats up all that is left of the family’s memories.
Kat has her own burdens. Her father is dying, and the family has chosen to keep him home as long as possible in defiance of the approaching flames. Beth is showing signs of early dementia. And her husband, Ezra, is a husk of his former self, stolen from her years ago by a stroke and now battling frightening mood swings and a trick memory. Once filled with passion and hope, their relationship has become more like that of nursemaid and invalid.
Now thrust into contact with her parents’ neighbour Jude, her lover before Ezra, Kat finds his strength attractive, as well as his ongoing passion for her. As she considers her choices in love, Kat discovers that her grandmother, Maud, to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance, was once faced with a similar dilemma when forced to choose between the capricious violence of her shell-shocked husband, John Weeks, and the rugged constancy of their neighbour Valentine Svensson. Leafing through Maud’s scrapbooks and long-hidden love letters, Kat begins to unravel the mystery of her grandfather’s disappearance in the mountains. She is to find that like most family secrets, this one is tangled amidst generations of grief.
As sparks rain down upon them, Kat tries to hold her family together, soothing Ezra’s rages, comforting their son, Jeremy, tending to her mother’s fragile mental state and striving to keep her father at home and comfortable as he nears death. Masses of ladybugs swarm through the house and panicked birds smash windows. Shadowy ghosts flit in and out of the encroaching smoke. All around them the landscape burns and terrible choices must be made. What can be salvaged? What will survive after Turtle Valley has burned?
Turtle Valley is a novel of reconciliation and hope in the midst of terrible loss. Part ghost story, part mystery, part romance, the novel transcends these genres and carries its readers into new territories of forgiveness and acceptance of the difficult choices we all must make in finding our way through life and love.
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.”
“Exquisite. . . . Anderson-Dargatz creates a strong sense of the complexity of ordinary life.” —The Globe and Mail
“Turtle Valley lives up to [Anderson-Dargatz’s] gothic reputation, with ghosts dashing out from behind the farmhouses, mysterious flocks of ladybugs clinging to the ceilings, stoves leaping to life at strange hours and horrible secrets hiding in the family well. . . . It’s a tense, passionate story of family and memory, haunting and history.” —Vancouver Courier
“Ghosts weave in and out of the smoke, decades-old passions are re-examined, life-changing options present themselves, life and loss continue, unabated. It’s both haunting and haunted (as it’s both a romance-mystery and a ghost story) and it carries powerful magic all its own.” —The Hamilton Spectator
“Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s latest is part mystery, part memory story, part eco-conscious tale, but a rare take on illness in the context of a marriage is what makes Turtle Valley a winner. . . . Along with the passion, there’s suspense, too. The raging fires just keep getting closer. This is a haunting novel with emotionally haunted characters. Gripping.” —NOW (Toronto)
“In Turtle Valley, her fourth novel, Gail Anderson-Dargatz captures place with her trademark exquisite sensory detail. . . . Anderson-Dargatz creates a strong sense of the complexity of ordinary life. Her use of the concrete gives rise to the power of feeling through the stark juxtaposition of thing and idea. . . . the author is skilled at peeling back the layers of love, commitment and confusion that most families experience.” —The Globe and Mail
“Undeniably gripping.” —The Calgary Herald
“Kat’s point of view is established with such force and intensity that we feel her conflicts, ambivalences, doubts, and share her experiences as viscerally as if they were our own; Anderson-Dargatz places readers so masterfully inside her consciousness. Kat is a force to be reckoned with: passionate, fierce, and sharply self-aware, with few illusions about herself and others. She and every character and relationship are depicted with piercing frankness, and yet tenderness. There are no one-note emotions or motivations here—every feeling, impulse, is in flux, tangled and bleeding in each other, love the most complicated emotion of all.” —Ottawa Citizen
“After the shining success of her first three novels, Gail Anderson-Dargatz has inspired book critics to make extravagant comparisons to such luminaries as Carol Shields, Margaret Laurence, and even Gabriel Garcia Marquez. . . . There is no doubt that Anderson-Dargatz has inherited the storytelling mantle from these writers, particularly in their tendency to gaze into the shadows of the past. And as with most celebrated fiction in this country, a sense of place is as important as the characters. . . . There is a homespun, nineteenth-century quality to Anderson-Dargatz’s work.” —Edmonton Journal
“Turtle Valley has all the hallmarks of the author’s previous bestsellers, like The Cure for Death and A Recipe for Bees (1996 and 1998, both nominated for the Giller Prize). It zooms into the heart of rural life, with its family ties and rivalries, while ripping open the doors of family closets and letting the insecurities, eccentricities and dark secrets pour out. . . . Written in Anderson-Dargatz’s vivid journalistic style, with interesting and memorable flawed characters who could be found in any rural Canadian backyard, Turtle Valley is another suspenseful page-turner. It’s even more compelling as a sequel to The Cure for Death, serving up dollops of charm while revisiting the anguish Beth felt when growing up abused and tormented in Turtle Valley.” —The Vancouver Sun
“In this apocalyptic tale, the author of The Cure for Death by Lightning returns to form with her gift for decoding ephemera—recipes, gadgets, clippings—to expose their numinous secrets. . . . Passion, jealousy and death haunt the valley as the devouring fire advances toward the farm. Anderson-Dargatz takes many of her own treasured heirlooms—the text is illustrated with photographs by Mitch Krupp—and folds them into this mix of fact and fiction as smoothly as previous generations of farm women have whipped up pans of penuche, the brown sugar fudge that sweetens their difficult lives.” —Toronto Star
“Anderson-Dargatz’s descriptions of the landscape and the minutiae of farm life are ones that any city dweller will find engaging. And the desperate confusion Kat spirals into while trying to care for her mentally damaged husband and being confronted by a former lover, is something many women will empathize with. Anderson-Dargatz’s clean, simple prose doesn’t call attention to itself, and the photographs of inanimate objects that begin each chapter are enigmatic enough to have you flipping back through the pages trying to understand what they mean. . . . the story unwinds at an even keel without any loud or ostentatious moments . . . [Turtle Valley is] a beautifully written and satisfying tale.” —Winnipeg Free Press
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
“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.” —Calgary Herald
“Anderson-Dargatz’s characters are vulnerable yet valiant as they thrust at the encroaching darkness. A rich blend of magic realism and brooding poetry, 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