Karen Hofmann's empathetic and cathartic novel, What is Going to Happen Next, pieces together the lives of five members of the Lund family following their enforced dispersal after the death of the father and the hospitalization of the mother in the remote West Coast community of Butterfly Lake. It explores their self-doubts and aspirations in the ways they cope with their separation and reunion through their work and personal relationships, and reveals the ways in which their past is filtered through memory and desire. It also skillfully exposes a Vancouver class system from the perspectives of diverse socio-economic conditions and lifestyles.
What is Going to Happen Next is character-driven and well-wrought, with a tenderness that propels the reader forward alongside the Lunds who are learning to fuse together as a chosen family.
About the author
Karen Hofmann grew up in the Okanagan Valley and is an Associate Professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia. A first collection of poetry, Water Strider, was published by Frontenac House in 2008 and shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay prize. Her first novel, After Alice, was published by NeWest Press in 2014, and a second novel, What is Going to Happen Next, in 2017. Her short fiction has won the Okanagan Fiction Contest three times, and "The Burgess Shale" was shortlisted at the 2012 CBC Short Fiction Contest. Karen Hofmann is an avid walker, and her writing explores the landscapes, both rural and urban, of British Columbia as well as the personalities and social dynamics of the inhabitants.
- Winner, Best Book Design at the Alberta Book Publishing Awards
Excerpt: What is Going to Happen Next (by (author) Karen Hofmann)
The same cops this time as the ones who came in June, which is a bad thing, she thinks. She imagines them saying to each other, Not those people again/i>. But a good thing, too, because everything doesn't have to be explained all over again. They don't ask, Where's your mom?
She's been trying to say what happened, but Che and Cliff talk at the same time, interrupting, so nothing can be heard. The older cop says, Get those two out of here, okay?
So then it's just her, Cleo, talking. She's holding Bodhi, and they're sitting on some short logs, there for the purpose, in front of the house. It's early; the sun hasn't quite crested the cedars, and the clearing around the house is chill.
The younger, guy cop says, But don't you need a. . . .
Take them away, says the older cop. His uniform is of thick, shiny material, green-grey-blue. Not organic looking. His hair greying like Dadda's but cut short, bristles at the temple and nape.
He doesn't want any of them in the house while the ambulance guys -- the paramedics -- are working.
Cleo didn't know that when you called an ambulance for this, the police came too. Will Mandalay be mad? Maybe she should have waited for Mandalay to get home from school.
But it's Mandalay's fault this happened. So she can't be mad at Cleo.
Anyway, if she, Cleo, had waited until Mandalay got home to call, she might have got into trouble with the police. When she goes to Myrna Pollard's to collect Bodhi, the television is on and it's often a detective show and people get into a lot of trouble if they don't disclose information right away. A police car has been sent to get Mandalay. A squad car, on t v. Dispatched. Cleo wonders if it has arrived yet, if Mandalay is being told, if she is shocked, crying. How long for the squad car to get to the high school, in Port Seymour? She sees Mandalay getting off the bus, the police officer waiting there, saying her name, the other kids turning to look at her. Mandalay pausing, foot still on the lowest stair. But no: Mandalay must have arrived before the call, logically. She changes the picture: The knock on the classroom door, Mandalay called out into the hallway, the rows of orange-painted lockers, the scuffed beige linoleum. Mandalay in the back of the police car, weeping.
She looks over to the squad car parked in their front yard, Che and Cliff wrestling over the steering wheel, the younger cop's face.
The older cop says, Now, walk me through it all again.
Cleo is afraid she will contradict herself. She knows from the detective shows that you can get into trouble for that, too. I went to get Dadda up, she says. It was eight forty-five and we needed to leave for school so I went to wake him up to drive us. She keeps the image in her head now firmly glued to the clock beside her bed -- her clock that she had asked for and got for her birthday, the only clock in the house -- and the boys sitting in a row on the bed, all dressed properly and clean, forbidden to move.
That was the deal. Some mornings Daddy just needed to sleep in. Had a bad night, his back was killing him. Give me ten minutes warning, he said. So Mandalay would leave, running down the driveway to catch the high school bus for Port Seymour and Cleo would get herself and everyone else ready, the boys into their jeans and T-shirts and jackets, and herself into whatever was in the basket, which might not be much if she hasn't done some laundry the day before and if Mandalay has beaten her to it. Mandalay doesn't remember to do laundry and she wears what Cleo was planning to wear. Dadda says, Don't do all of the laundry, let your sister learn the natural consequences of her actions. But he also says, No personal property in the form of clothing. So there isn't much choice.
Get herself dressed in whatever is semi-clean and mended and then wake up Dadda and he would put on his pants and find his glasses and the truck keys. And if Dadda was going to be working that day, Bodhi needed to be dropped off at Myrna's. So all of them climbing into the cab, and Bodhi on Cleo's lap.
But this morning.
A great tiredness washes over her, like sand-warmed waves at the beach. The tide coming in. That feeling, the whole ocean seeping into to the bay, the water warmed and lulling.
So you tried to wake your dad up, the cop prompts. What happened then?
Bodhi wriggles away from Cleo and goes after the cop. She should get those diapers washed out. Dadda does his own and the boy's laundry. Even Bodhi's diapers, usually. He takes the wet clothes out to the line, his height meaning he doesn't have to stand on a stump like Cleo does, and pins them up. He says, hanging out clothes is an art, Cleo. You want to put your attention into it. You want to find the Zen of it.
Come on, Cleo, says the cop, plucking Bodhi up at arm's length, sort of like he's lifting up a muddy dog. I know this isn't fun. But just run through it for me one more time, and we'll be done.
I'm twelve, Cleo says, meaning, don't talk to me like I'm a baby. She sees the cop's face sag, lose some of its resolution.
Twelve. That means Dadda was forty-two when she was born. And Mam twenty. And Mandalay is almost fourteen now, which is four years away from eighteen, what Mam was when Mandalay was born. How much older Dadda is than the rest of them! If you add up Mam's age now and Cleo's and Che's, you get Dadda's age. Or instead of Cleo's and Che's ages you could put in Mandalay's and Cliff's.
Her mind running along on two tasks, then: One playing with the numbers of their ages, like beads on an abacus, and the other replaying, for the cop, what had happened that morning. It is the wrong thing, she knows: She's not paying enough attention. Dadda always reminds them to be mindful. Cleo is getting better at it. But she can't do it now -- her mind skitters around the edge of things, won't look at them, won't let them in.
She says again what she said before, on the phone and to the cops and the ambulance guys when they first arrived, coming in the door and then the younger guy cop bolting out quite quickly to throw up under the red-osier dogwood. The smell, he said, coming back in, but she guessed it wasn't just that, the open bucket of Bodhi's cloth diapers, which were getting a bit rank, but also the bucket of chicken guts and heads, which they hadn't put outside because of the bears, and which she should probably bury pretty quickly.
He didn't wake up. I tried shaking his shoulder and talking real loud. Then Che did. But he didn't open his eyes. So I felt his chest, but nothing.
And then finally she is done and now her mind is quiet and she can ask some questions, which are: Is someone going to tell Mandalay? And, what will happen next? Though not the questions burrowing away inside her, burrowing away at some internal organ like her liver: Did we kill Dadda? Did we?
Mandalay's fault because she didn't wash out Bodhi's diapers like she was supposed to and Dadda pretty near bust a gut when he saw the bucket still in the kitchen, reeking, haloed with flies. Him yelling, his face like bricks except for the birthmark patch on his left cheek that looked like the map of Poland and now pulsed purple. Mandalay was supposed to do it when she got home from school, was supposed to wash out the diapers and hang them on the clothesline. Only the clothesline was gone because Che had taken it down again to tie some branches together for a tepee, so Mandalay had said she wouldn't do it, wouldn't wash the diapers, though she, Cleo, had pointed out reasonably that they could be hung on the fence.
No, Mandalay had said. They won't dry fast enough. Which was dumb because they'd dry faster than not washing them at all, and they were nearly out of clean diapers.
Mandalay's fault for being stubborn. And Che's fault for taking the clothesline again.
And then, no dinner till very late because there was nothing in the freezer to cook and Dadda had to kill a chicken and then he did a few more because it was coming fall and better to get the mess over with. Feathers and guts all over the kitchen, and the dog going crazy. Dadda with the axe and sweat darkening the silver hair at his temples to iron and sitting down suddenly.
What's the matter, Dadda?
Just give me a minute.
Then Che jumping off the dresser, he did that kind of thing, and hitting his head, and Dadda trying to hold him down to see if the cut needed a trip to the doctor.
Just a small one. It'll clot up.
And Che howling, howling, so that the house itself seemed to be pounding with a headache and she burnt the potatoes.
Not her fault, with all of that noise.
Cliff crying too, out of hunger or sympathy, you couldn't get a word out of him when he was like that, and falling asleep before dinner, like Bodhi. And then waking up in the night: Get me a sammich an' some milk, Cleo. And herself pretending to sleep, because she didn't want to be birthed yet out of that warm bed into the cold kitchen, and Dadda getting up to feed Cliff and Bodhi, who was awake, too.
Not her fault, though. She had done everything she was supposed to. She, Cleo, had got herself and Cliff dressed and off to school that morning before, like every morning, with a jam sandwich each, had found Bodhi's shoes and Che's homework and made Cliff wash his hands, had fed and dressed Bodhi while Mandalay only had to get herself ready and run for the high school bus.
Then after school she, Cleo, had made sure Che and Cliff got home, rounding Che up from the playground where he was with a huddle of grade seven boys who were pretending to dribble a soccer ball while passing around a joint.
Hey, Cleo, one of them had said. Want to suck on it?
But she had grabbed Che and found Cliff still in his classroom, trying to finish his day's work -- Cliff worked so slowly, he needed learning assistance, his teacher said, but Dadda had said, he's in first grade, for god's sake, let him learn at his own pace. Only this was Cliff's second time in grade one, and he wasn't keeping up even though she, Cleo, made sure he missed hardly any school now.
Making sure Cliff and Che got going toward home, and going down the road to collect Bodhi from Myrna Pollard's place even though Myrna said, as usual, Are you sure you won't leave him till your dad gets home, Cleo? He's no trouble.
But he was her brother. Her and Mandalay's responsibility. Her job to get him home, and she had done it, carrying him on her hip up the road and down their long driveway, balancing the weight of him against her book bag, which swung against her thighs -- the strap was too long.
And that was the best part of the day, walking up the road from Myrna's, with Cliff -- Che usually went off by himself, got home before them -- with Cliff and Bodhi. Herself, with Cliff and Bodhi, telling Cliff a story to keep his feet moving, singing with him one of the grade one songs, like Five Little Ducks, which he felt confident about, this time around.
She did this, every day, after school. It was her job. She had not let Dadda down.
Not her fault.
What happens next is that the social worker comes. This woman is someone they have not met before. She goes into the house and then comes back out right away, her little gauzy scarf with its splashes of red and pink poppies pressed over her mouth and nose. She has a lot of long curly hair, like Mam, only it's silver-grey, and she's wearing a jean skirt and an embroidered top that Mam would have admired. Cleo feels sad about this, but can't decide why.
The social worker's name is Jean. She speaks more quickly, briskly, than people Cleo knows; Cleo thinks she must be from Vancouver.
Five children? Where are the others? For about a second Cleo hates her, but then Jean picks up Bodhi, dirt and all, and puts him on her hip in a comfortable way.
Lewis is entertaining the two boys in the back of the car, the older cop says. We've sent another car to pick up the oldest from the high school.
Great, Cleo says. Three-quarters of my siblings in squad cars at this moment. Then she blushes, because that was a very non-mindful and also inappropriate thing to say, and the older cop and Jean the social worker look surprised. But the cop only says: We don't call them squad cars in Canada.
She knows that. It was a joke. It was from the police dramas on TV at Myrna Pollard's. She has watched a lot of these. It isn't useful -- they are only reruns and not currency for school conversations. It's Che really who likes to stay and watch -- she just does because the TV is on, and Che likes to see them.
They've never had a social worker but she knows what they're for. Dadda said that they didn't need one, at the hospital when Mam went in. He said he could manage fine on his own. I may be an old hippie, he said, but I can manage fine on my own.
That's what Dadda always called himself: an old hippie. When Che asks, as he does about fifteen times a day, why they can't have a TV, Nintendo, why Dadda doesn't have a job in town, but worked odd shifts at the mill, does odd handyman jobs, Dadda says, I'm an old hippie, as if that explained everything. Which it doesn't. Being an old hippie means you don't need the same rules as everyone else, because you are self-sufficient and smarter. But lots of Dadda's friends, leathery-skinned, grey-haired men and women -- lots of them work at regular jobs and have televisions.
When Mam wants to go to a party or shopping or move into town, Dadda says, God, Crystal -- I'm an old hippie. You knew that when you shacked up with me. And when they make too much noise, the boys ricocheting around the cabin and over the sofa and beds, he says, God, you gang. I'm an old hippie. Can we have a little peace and quiet? You are driving me crazy.
When Mam had gone to the psych ward, Che had asked, on the way home in the old station wagon, Did we drive her crazy? And Dadda had said, No, your mother has an illness. She's in reaction to her own toxic upbringing, and they had all nodded, their heads bouncing up and down just out of rhythm with the bouncing of the car seats over the broken highway, and then when they got home Che had climbed up the shed roof and fallen off and broken his arm.
They'd all gone along to the hospital to see Che's arm put in a cast, because Mandalay was in hysterics and wouldn't stay at the house and Cleo didn't want to, either. At the hospital, Che had asked if it was the same hospital where Mam was, and if they could go visit her, but Daddy had said she would be sleeping.
Now Daddy's going to be in the hospital himself. Will someone tell Mam? Cleo is surprised that they will take him to the hospital, but Jean says that's where the morgue is.
Then she asks Cleo to spell their names for her forms, and give their birthdays.
Mam got to name the girls. Mandalay, because she'd heard On the Road to Mandalay on the way to the hospital when Mandalay was born. Mandalay was supposed to be born at home but after forty hours of labour their neighbours had said Mam had better go to the hospital. Cleo was Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile. That was from an old movie, Mam said. Then Dadda had named Che. What do you expect? he had said. I'm an old hippie. And Cliff: Cliff was named after Dadda's father, who had died, far away in a state called Indiana. They had never met him, not even known they had a grandfather until Dadda told them he was dead. He was ninety years old, Dadda said.
What about Dadda's mother?
She died when I was younger. She was born in 1900.
Indiana is in the United States. That's where Dadda was born.
Then Bodhi. After the Bodhi tree, of course.
Cleo is spelling the names, and remembering the years that they were all born in, and doesn't see them wheel Dadda out, doesn't notice until the ambulance doors shut with two bangs, and then the ambulance leaves, quite quickly, but without any lights or sirens.
Will someone tell Mam?
Then Mandalay is back, and things shift. Mandalay, when the second police car arrives at the house, leaps out and hugs everyone, weeping, and then changes Bodhi's diaper and makes him a bottle, so that it looks like she is the one who takes care of Bodhi, not Cleo. Then Mandalay pulls some chairs out of the kitchen, and sits with the social worker and the older cop and tells them everything, everything Cleo has not. And they decide -- probably right there -- to let Mandalay have Bodhi.
Cleo could have told the social worker things, but she does not. She hears Jean asking things about Mam, and she sees Jean's face, at the replies: It does not go saggy, like the older cop's, but rigid; only the skin around her eyes softens and thins, and her eyes darken, as if she will take in everything that is told her, and nothing will come out of it. But Cleo knows better.
She hears Mandalay telling about the axe, but she doesn't confirm what Mandalay is saying, nor does she spill the beans about the rest. She wants, she wants to have Jean look at her with those dark, absorbing eyes: Not your fault. But she does not say, because of Mandalay taking over the telling, taking over Jean.
Mandalay tells how through January and February Mam had lain in bed smoking and staring out the window at the rain. And about in March and April when Mam constantly took them on adventures, shaking them awake at dawn, come on, come on, let's pack a lunch and hit the road, Mam's eyes and voice full of laughing, and so the younger kids had jumped out of their bed, Yay! We're going on an adventure! And there would be no school that day unless she, Cleo, managed to hide the car keys, though Mandalay doesn't tell this part.
Cleo had used to go along, had used to get caught up in it, but not now. Now, she knew, missing a bunch of school only meant falling behind, getting confused, getting more work to do. And Mam's adventures were exhausting, more than fun.
In April, they had gone hiking on Knucklehead -- Mam driving them up in the old station wagon to the park gate, then leading them out onto the trails, where they had got caught in a late snowfall, and Daddy had come crashing through the bush, twigs in his big grey beard, looking for them, finding them where they were huddled in some fallen logs, where they would have goddamn frozen to death.
Found them only because Cleo had thought to leave a note on the kitchen table: Gone to hike Knucklehead.
After that, Cleo hadn't gone along -- to the mushroom-picking, to the turtle-catching, to the pirate day. And Mandalay hadn't either -- she had by then got a group of friends at the high school, and preferred hanging with them.
Mam had been mad -- not at Mandalay, but at Cleo -- for not joining their expeditions. Oh, get the stick out of your ass! Teacher's pet! Think you're so smart, eh? Think you're better than the rest of us? And she had gone back to bed all of May.
Dadda said Mam's problem was that she thought she was one of the kids. She didn't want to be responsible. Instead of being nurturing, she was in competition.
And then it was June and school nearly over for the year and Mam had got up, all lardy-assed and stringy-haired, and chased Mandalay around the house with an axe. And Mandalay had called the police.
Mandalay's fault, for calling the police, then. Crystal couldn't run nearly as fast as Mandalay.
Mandalay's fault, for telling the social worker all of this. Cleo had not told.
While Mandalay is crying all over the social worker, Cleo takes a shovel and digs a pretty big hole in the garden where the soil is soft enough to dig, and she tips the pail of chicken guts and heads -- the eyes, filmed over and milky, now, but still staring, into the hole, and the pail of diapers, too, and fills it all in. Then she comes back to the house to find Bodhi asleep in the car seat, and Jean the social worker says, Don't touch him. Don't wake him up. As if Bodhi wasn't Cleo's baby brother. As if she didn't take care of him every day of her life.
So Dadda is taken away in the ambulance, dead because they have all worn him out with their fighting and not taking care of chores, but it is not Cleo's fault.
She sits on the short log while Mandalay talks to the social worker. Cleo is so tired, now: She feels that she has been tired for years, and that she will never not feel tired again. She thinks about Dadda: that he is gone, never coming back. She puts her face down in her lap and wraps her arms around her head so that nobody will see her face, and she thinks about that: Dadda is gone. No more. Gone. All of the fact of him, the bulk of him standing between her and the rest of the world, the kindness in his face when he was not tired, the ways he knows Cleo, as nobody else in the world does.
What is she now, without Dadda? She thinks: Mandalay does not understand this, or the little boys either -- that Dadda is gone. And that is the real problem, not what everyone is worried about now, which is what is going to be done with all of them.
What happens next next, as Che would say, is this: Jean the social worker divides them all up. This is a shock to Cleo, who had assumed they would just stay, and neighbours would help out, at least for the present. That they would continue on as before. But no.
Che goes home with Myrna Pollard, who is suddenly in their yard, wringing her hands and sniffling. When Cleo hears this being arranged, she asks, Why not Bodhi too? He's used to Myrna. But Jean says Myrna Pollard's place isn't suitable for a very young child. Cleo can see that. There aren't railings anymore on her second-floor deck -- Myrna's husband Keith took them down a couple of years ago to replace the rotted boards, and hasn't got them up again -- and there's also a large hole in the Pollard's yard where Keith took out the old septic tank.
But Myrna has been babysitting Bodhi since spring. And she's handy, right next door.
What Cleo hasn't thought out, hasn't realized, is that she, Cleo won't be at this house. She wouldn't be near Myrna Pollard's place, even if Bodhi were there.
Then she understands that Mandalay has been nailing the future shut for all of them. Telling her stories, enjoying the attention, not seeing, as Cleo can see, that she is making sure that Crystal will never be able to come back. Cleo can see it in the social worker's expression. Mandalay doesn't get it. She doesn't see that they need Crystal, that without Crystal, they will not be able to live here again, ever.
Jean says that for now Mandalay and Bodhi will stay with the family of a friend of Mandalay's, in town. And Cleo and Cliff will be taken into temporary care: which means, to go live with strangers. This is all being decided by Jean and Mandalay.
Cleo says, Why can't we just stay here? And at that Jean makes a squinchy shape with her mouth and says, No, that wouldn't be possible. Even though Cleo has been taking care of everything already, even though it could be okay if Mandalay would help out more.
Mandalay says, Cleo. How can we take care of everyone, without parents? And then crumples prettily, like someone in movies, into tears again.
There had been temporary arrangements, and then more permanent ones. They had not had much choice in what happened to them, though they had made things worse for themselves, definitely, by what they had done after Dadda's funeral. You've really cooked your goose now, Myrna Pollard had said, that day.
And of course Mandalay hadn't got to keep Bodhi after all. None of them had.
Praise for What is Going to Happen Next:
"An incisive and deeply satisfying novel about the muscle memory of the human heart."
~ Sarah Mian, author of When the Saints
"Karen Hofmann's What is Going to Happen Next is not another gloomy Can-Lit family saga but a familiar portrait of our neighbours and friends--maybe of ourselves--weathering the effects of far distant adversity with the same halting, human grace we all share."
~ Jennifer Quist, author of Sistering
"A compassionate and insightful novel about siblings and the bonds they forge. Hofmann interweaves their stories with assurance, rich detail, and heart."
~ Alice Zorn, author of Five Roses
"It's a novel that's as original as it is ambitious, and it works, resulting in an all-engrossing visceral reading experience, and I'm recommending it to everyone."
~ Kerry Clare, Pickle Me This
"As a family saga, the novel is empathetic, compassionate, and expertly paced."
~ Brenda Johnston, Canadian Literature