Fifteen-year-old Gale is desperate to get out of Whitehorse, a fact that is immediately clear to counsellor Helen Cotillard when Gale walks into her office with her reluctant stepmother. It's 1995, and one counselling agency for kids and families serves all of the Yukon. Gale has been having anxiety attacks, the last one so severe it landed her in the hospital.
Helen soon begins to realize that Gale's distress at being separated from her little sister Buddie too closely parallels a calamity from her own past. This tragic similarity leaves Helen uneasy about her profession and her ability to help her clients. When Gale does escape back to her home in Cobalt, Ontario, to protect Buddie from their brutal mother, she risks her own future.
Through arresting, compelling images, Jill Frayne shows both the fierce beauty of the Yukon, and the damaged, enduring landscapes of two human hearts.
About the author
Jill Frayne worked for many years as a family counsellor in Toronto and Central Ontario. Following a solo journey to Canada's West Coast and Yukon Territory, her GG-nominated travel memoir, Starting Out In the Afternoon, was published by Random House. Since then, her outdoor adventure articles have appeared in several Canadian publications: The Walrus, Explore Magazine, Up Here, Canadian Geographic, to name a few. She divides her time between a maple woods in Central Ontario and the mountains around Atlin, BC. Why I'm Here is her first novel.
Excerpt: Why I'm Here (by (author) Jill Frayne)
Chapter 1 Excerpt
"You're here, what, two years now? Where were you before?"
"Cobalt. Down south."
Helen liked this. She was a southerner herself. "Silver-mining town, right? Broken-up roads, head frames from the mining days on every corner. I grew up in Ontario too, south of there."
Gale gave her a goody-for-you look.
"Is your mom still there? Who else is back home?"
Gale frowned. "I thought I was here because of nearly passing out at school."
"I ask because it's your family," Helen said mildly. "You probably think about them all the time. I don't know if it's relevant or not."
Gale sighed. "We have a farm. It's my stepdad's. There's me, my sister and my mom."
"What's your sister's name?"
"Bernice. We call her Buddie."
"And your name? It has an unusual spelling."
"There was a big storm when I was born."
Helen smiled. "A gale. How old is Buddie?"
"And the farm you live on? A working farm?"
"We raise sled dogs. There's about seventeen now, maybe more since I left."
"How do the four of you get along?"
Gale looked over at Sandy and frowned.
"Go ahead, Gale," Sandy prodded. "No point saying fine if it isn't fine."
Gale sighed, not dramatizing, as far as Helen could tell, genuinely aggrieved. "They fight a lot. My mom drinks."
"What happens when she's drinking?" Gale shook her head. "They get going."
"Get going. You mean fight?" Gale nodded. "Words or fists?" "Both."
"What do you and your sister do when they're fighting?" "Clear out. I take Buddie upstairs."
"Does your step-dad ever hit you or your sister?" Gale frowned. "Neil's her father. He doesn't hit us."
"What about your mother?"
Gale snorted. "She doesn't have to."
"How do you mean?" "You mind my mother."
Sandy drummed her fingers. Helen turned to her.
"Sandy, there're always strains taking on a kid who's half grown, eh?
You've probably read the same stuff I have that says: Don't even try it if the kid is older than ten. Older than ten, they belong to the first family and will never sign on to a second. What do you think? How's it going for you?"
"We're doing pretty good," Sandy said staunchly. "Did you ever suppose you'd have Gale full time?"
Sandy drew herself up. Helen had the impression this was the question she'd come to answer. "Dan and I have been trying to get Gale up here since day one. I helped him get custody--which meant zero to Gale's mother. Court orders don't impress Mindy. Then it suited her to send Gale to us, and Gale started coming up every summer--our ticket, of course. That went on for ... how long Gale? Years. It made me sick to send her back." She stirred herself fussily, narrowed her eyes at Helen. "I have to tell you, Gale's mother is a piece of work. She's violent. She has a problem with violence. There have been I don't know how many assault charges against her. Police in the house time and again. I've seen what it's done to Gale." She looked pointedly at Gale who was gazing at the floor. "But we all had to go along. Mindy's little power trip."
She hadn't finished. Helen sat still.
"Ever hear of the reign of terror? Gale's mother is a violent drunk who has to run everything. Everybody walks on eggs, starting with Gale's father. You should have seen him when I met him. Talk about conflict-avoidant. And he's not much better now." She straightened her back. "As for Neil, Gale's stepfather, Neil runs sled dogs and when he isn't doing that, he shears sheep. It takes a very strong man to wrangle a two-hundred-pound ram, or get a team of trail dogs to do what you want. Last time I talked to Neil, he sounded like he'd have trouble lifting a Chihuahua." She took a long breath. "Mindy breaks people."
Helen looked at Gale. She appeared to have tuned out. "What do you think about what Sandy is saying, Gale?"
Gale didn't respond.
Sandy burst out, "Gale, for the love of Pete. This is about Mindy. There's no way you losing your breath isn't connected to her; what she did."
Gale came alive. She said furiously, "That was a caper. She pulled that shit all the time. It has nothing with to do with my ... whatever."
Sandy turned fully to Gale, blew out her breath with exasperation. "You could have died. You know how close it was. Do you think that doesn't register somewhere, doesn't have an effect on you!"
"No!" said Gale, jumping up, glaring at Sandy. "We aren't talking about this! We had a deal and now the deal's over." She clutched up her blazer and flung out of the room.
A wake of silence followed her exit. Helen sighed. "Better go after her, Sandy; otherwise she'll think you're in here telling me everything and I'll never see her again."
Sandy scooped up her belongings, her expression grim. "She needs to be here. I'm telling you."
A minute later, Helen heard her bang down the fire escape.
Praise for Why I'm Here:
"Why I'm Here is a brave novel about how families define people's lives and destinies."
~ Jeremiah Rood, Foreword Reviews
"From the boreal forests of the Yukon to Canadian Shield country in Ontario, Frayne writes with graceful, devastating power about the hold of place and family on people, and the way love runs strange and wayward and deep through both. The result is a novel with all the clean lines and stark beauty of a glacier, revealing the crevasses that tear lives apart but also, despite everything, link them together."
~ Kate Harris, author of Lands of Lost Borders
"I loved reading this exquisite portrait of a therapist's relationship to a teenage girl whose violent past has followed her to the Yukon, where the landscape can both wound and heal. Jill Frayne writes about the far North with the same wisdom and tenderness she brings to the lives of her unforgettable characters."
~ Marni Jackson, author of Don't I Know You?
"The 'here' in the title is the clue: Why I'm Here is about place. To those in the South, Yukon is landscape. To those who live there, it's a tough, beautiful, and ultimately forgiving embrace. The challenges Frayne's characters face in this tough, beautiful and forgiving novel don't come from the land, but from their own inability to leave their pasts behind."
~ Wayne Grady, author of The Good Father
"What a perfect title Jill Frayne chose for her wonderful novel. The 'here' of Why I'm Here first suggests physical places, and Frayne's descriptions of Whitehorse and Atlin, BC, are irresistibly seductive. She is a master of inner weather as well as outer: 'here' is also home, a safe place, a place where you are important. More than one daughter in this book searches for home, and Frayne skillfully unspools the complicated relationship between a troubled girl and her counsellor. As for the revelatory ending, it is one of the most surprising and satisfying conclusions I have read in years."
~ Katherine Ashenburg, author of Sofie & Cecilia and Her Turn
"Frayne is masterful in weaving together the internal and external worlds. She builds them with equal beauty and complexity using language as clear and fresh as the northern landscapes she describes. Why I'm Here is vivid, powerful, and a skilled reflection on life itself. Frayne shows us our own fallibility--and pathways through it--with careful attention."
~ Jennifer Kingsley, author of Paddlenorth: Adventure, Resilience, and Renewal in the Arctic Wild