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Books to Read When Sick (by Marina Endicott)
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Books to Read When Sick (by Marina Endicott)

By 49thShelf
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"Books are the best prescription when someone you love is ailing, or when you are under the weather yourself. The ailment need not be physical: you might be sick of your own life, or of working, or of the endless cold rain that is summer in Edmonton. As opposed to the endless arctic wasteland that is winter in Edmonton… not that I don’t love the city madly. And I love these books, too. They will give you the only true remedies for illness: transport, delight, distraction, and a soupçon of schadenfreude." Marina Endicott's second novel, Good to a Fault, won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, Canada/Caribbean region and was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her new novel, The Little Shadows, about a sister vaudeville act touring the prairies in 1912, will be published by Doubleday this fall.
A Fool And Forty Acres

A Fool And Forty Acres

Conjuring A Vineyard Three Thousand Miles From Burgundy
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“There’s a fair!”

“Yeah, there is a fair!”

Or so my two elder daughters squealed when the car pulled into the farm to pick me up. Their younger sister echoed their excitement. And I guess it does look like a fair. Bright yellow balloons hang over the Pinot Noir, and metallic red and silver tape flashes brilliantly in the sunlight. It all lends an undeniably festive air. Though mildly disappointed there wasn’t a fair at their farm, they still seemed pleased with the idea that it looked an awful lot like one.

I have been tying together the sections of bird-netting that I have finally hauled out. The outer rows of the Pinot Noir have been picked pretty clean. If I am going to take complete advantage of the glorious ripening weather we’ve finally been enjoying and get the potentially excellent sugars and flavours out of the grapes, I have no other choice. The yellow scare-eye beach balls and the tape deterred the birds from trial maraudings, but now that the sugars were 18 Brix, the siren call of the berries overwhelms natural caution and fear.

Crows caterwaul to each other in the hedgerow as I work, telling their comrades to wait but a few minutes until I am gone. Cleverly out of sight, too. Following the string of calls down the trees, I finally spot one crow, sitting atop the highest maple. That is the only one I can see.

The next morning, I finish covering the Pinot Noir with the netting I purchased last year, along with more sections bought this fall to cover the new fruit-bearing rows. It’s a nice, light black plastic mesh that doesn’t break down in sunlight.

I have also bought my own affordable refractometer from Watson’s Barrels & Winemaking Supplies in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s not a toy. It’s a fairly costly piece of equipment that’s invaluable out in the vinerows right now. It looks like a small collapsed telescope, with a little hinged lid at the end opposite the eyepiece. By squeezing a drop or two of juice from a berry on a glass plate and closing the lid, a system of prisms and temperature compensation devices calibrate the sugar of the sample in degrees Brix. Looking in the eyepiece in the direction of the sun shows one the reading on the Brix scale. It’s an amazing, easy-to-use tool. Last year, Phil Mathewson lent me his expensive, older, French model. This year it was definitely time to get my own, and, luckily, cheaper ones made in China are suddenly everywhere.

The refractometer is a good teaching aid. As in all things, constant repetition, in this case plucking, squeezing, tasting, and then looking at the reading, helps train the taste buds to recognize the sugar percentage. Most of the time I find I’m within a few tenths of a degree Brix. The next phase of tasting comes only with more experience: the ability to recognize whether the acid is in good balance with the sugars, and whether the skins and the grape taste “right.” Even with good sugars, a grape can still taste green and underripe if it comes from a vine that is too vigorous and out of balance. That kind of judgement may take quite a few harvests to develop.

At this point the samples in the refractometer are reading 20 or 21 Brix, and the grapes ripen fast in the intense sunshine and 30 to 31 degrees Celsius heat we enjoy for a few key days after the rain. The nights drop quickly into the teens, which helps keep the grapes from losing too much acidity.

The voles have started to help themselves. Some ravaged and even undamaged clusters show the signs of nocturnal visits: mud on the berries. The cool nights have caused very heavy mists and dews to settle all around Hillier for the past few weeks. The moisture on the fruit turns the dirt on the fur and paws of the voles to mud as they clamber over them, and so each morning there are streaks of dry clay on the berries. It ruins that wonderful heavy grey-white waxy bloom on the blue-black Pinot Noir. And it’s just plain annoying, like waking up to find graffiti tagged on your house or store.

Do I have the character to let our Pinot Noir hang for another week or so, to get the raw material I need to make the wine I tell people I want to make?

I debate that each morning when the weather turns wet once more. Grey days and steady drizzle from the remains of a hurricane have kept the ground and fruit sodden. So far the Pinot Noir is free of disease. Their thinner skins and tight clusters make Pinot susceptible to botrytis, or grey rot, which leads the disease parade now with the rains and the mists and heavy dews. Our grapes are healthy, the skins tough. Unfortunately, I’m not the only creature that has noticed.

Every night the ripest clusters, with berries around 21 to 23 Brix, disappear. Or they are obliterated, left nearly naked on the stems, with a paving of plucked but forgotten berries around the vine trunks. The voles mock me not only with what they take, but with what they leave carelessly strewn about.

That little detail is bothersome. The voles, it seems to me, have to work too hard to abandon fruit without taking the seeds. Also, some of the windup traps I put out to thin the population have been batted about, even after I weighted them with chunks of limestone.

I decide I’d better make a surprise night visit to the vineyard. What I find is a patrol of raccoons stalking the edges of the netting. One, an immensely fat creature, is leaning against the netting, helping himself to grapes from the outer row.

I scream and yell like a madman, and they slowly waddle to the hedgerow. I pull the netting away from the clusters where the giant raccoon has pushed in, and add more stones to anchor it. My heart sinks, and I know that the share taken by voles and birds is nothing compared to what I now recognize as the worst thieves.

The next night I come to spend all the hours until dawn guarding the fruit. I have a gun — an air rifle, because, after all, this is Canada, and I haven’t done the paperwork that would allow me to own a shotgun or proper rifle. It will at least get their attention. And I have a few good clubs as backup.

These are some of the hardest hours I’ve put in among those rows. I patrol, then crouch down and wait for half an hour or so to set up an ambush. The cool evening temperature, so good at holding acidity in the ripening fruit, forces me every hour or so into a lawn chair to drain more of the tea and coffee I’ve brought, and to fume about wasting my time.

Not a single raccoon shows up.

When the darkness gradually begins to lift, I walk towards the car. The sound makes me jump: the fenceline is suddenly filled with clicking, the strange tcchk-tcchk-tcchk raccoons make. The damned things have been watching all night, waiting for me to leave so they could get down to work. I just shrug, and when I get to the car, my sense of defeat is complete. I’ve locked the keys inside. I’ll have to wait another three hours before I can knock on the Van Lunes’ door to use the phone.

I stop by to check things again, after some breakfast and a shower, and startle two raccoons at work. They turn, and without much haste make their way down the unnetted young rows, where they have been helping themselves to the odd cluster that wasn’t worth protecting. The only signs of their displeasure are the purple turds of skins and seeds they leave, either to hasten their taunting, sauntering escape, or to let me know they didn’t much enjoy being put off their schedule last night. I have the air rifle with me, but of course the tin of lead pellets is in the trunk. I peel to the car, but by the time I run back the raccoons are nowhere to be seen. I scream in frustration, and ping off a few shots into the trees like a fool.

There are only three things to do. The first is to ensure that next year I put up electric fencing around the perimeter. The second and third are to hope for a return to fashion of coonskin coats and a worldwide Davy Crockett revival. Roadkill for me is now one less mouth to feed. I have not hit a raccoon myself yet, but cheer whenever I spot the good civic work performed by another driver. The turkey vultures can have all they want.

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Why it's on the list ...
When Pinot Noir master Geoff Heinricks recognized in the limestone-pebbled soil of Ontario’s Prince Edward County a terroir as perfect for grapes as Burgundy’s, he packed his patient wife and children off to create a vineyard on an acreage just large enough to break their hearts—but their hearts are good strong muscles, and the prose is so lovely that I’m dipping through the book again with great pleasure and taking too long with this introduction. This book embodies Rilke’s “You must change your life.” But you are too sick right now to change your life; just read the fascinating story of how Heinricks changed his.
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Short Journey Upriver toward Oishida

The willows are thinking again about thickness,
slowness, lizard skin on hot rock,
and day by day this imaging transforms them
into what we see: dragons in leaf, draped scales
alongside the river of harried, spring-stirred silt.
The magpie recites Scriabin in early morning as a mating song,
and home is just a place you started out,
the only place you still know how to think from,
so that that place is mated to this
by necessity as well as choice,
though now you have to start again from here,
and it isn’t home. Venus rising in the early evening
beside the Travelodge, as wayward and causal as
will, or beauty, or as once we willed beauty to be —
though this was in retrospect, and only practice
for some other life. Do you still love poetry?
Below the willows, in the dry winter reeds,
banjo frogs begin a disconcerting raga,
one note each, the rustling blades grow green —
and it tires, the lichen-spotted tin canteen
suspended in the river weeds like a turtle
up for air: such a curious tiredness de?ected there.
And what would you give up,
what would you give up, in the beautiful
false logic of math, or Greek? In the sum
of the possible, long ago in the summer grass …
Here beside the river I close my eyes: there
the little girls lean continuously across a rusted
sign that says Don’t Feed The Swans
and feed the swans. The swans are reasoning beings;
the young cygnets, hatched from pins
and old mattress stuffing, bright-eyed, learning
what has bread, and what doesn’t. What doesn’t
have to do with this is all the rest:
one more chance to blow out the candles and wish
for things we wished for
that wouldn’t happen unless we closed our eyes.
Not the gingko or the level gaze, or the speaking voice
beneath the pillow, or the waking in the morning
with a name. But cloud — or grief, when grief
is loneliness and you close your eyes. Speech,
when speech is loneliness, and you close your eyes.

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Why it's on the list ...
A spare, peace-bestowing book. Roo Borson takes us (and Basho) along on the short journey upriver. Poetry is always good for an invalid: you have time to think as you read, and are spared distraction; the deep intensities of life and death are close. And these clear-eyed, unpretentious poems do not give in to despair. My favourite of the collection looks down into the river on a Japanese new year’s eve: ‘we can see the black water, / the city in the river. / That’s where all our life is, / beyond the grief and failure, / the wake among the reeds. / Down there / down there…’
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also available: Paperback eBook
tagged : canadian
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Why it's on the list ...
You’re already feeling terrible: now’s just the time to visit Ashland, Gil Adamson’s recently re-issued book of poetry. Preceding her bestseller The Outlander, it holds the dire kernels of that novel, or the concentrated essence of it, like camp coffee. Adamson is a brilliant novelist, but she’s not allowed to spend all her time writing novels, because she’s one of the best poets we’ve got. “It's a mad day to run away from home, brother. /Trees fall drunk in the orchard, heads swarming with bees.” Isn’t that just how your head swarms right this minute? Revel in, and suffer with, other people’s pain. “Down in the city, women shoot darts, fed up with their lives, / or so we’re told. They drown men, sleep in movie theatres, / sing the same song over and over until someone gets murderous.”
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The Last Crossing
Why it's on the list ...
I think this is the best Canadian novel ever written. (Sorry, everybody else.) Even if you have already read it, it is very good to re-read when bedridden—sweeping adventure, transport, and a strengthening dose of long-ago misery, including the Civil War and infected feet “like loaves of black bread.” The harrowing glimpses of 19th century medicine alone will make you feel much better, and much luckier. I was tempted to suggest Vanderhaeghe’s Homesick, a sad treatise on the impossibility of family, but you’re already weak, and that’s a book that requires a strong constitution.
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The Antagonist
Why it's on the list ...
Okay, I read this during the experimental drug trial (the blurb process), but it will be on the shelves in September for general use. Recommended for those needing a dose of anguish once-removed, particularly if interested in the moral dilemma of fiction: shallow literary exploitation of the author’s acquaintance v. the self laid bare. Hockey thug Rankin takes violent exception to his fictional portrait in a friend’s novel, and turns his life inside out to prove his humanity. Lynn Coady plays uber-modern with the epistolary form to create a perfect screenshot of Rank's damaged soul. As are all of her novels, The Antagonist is scary, bleak, intelligent—and as her writing always is, both painful and very funny.
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Better Living Through Plastic Explosives
Why it's on the list ...
A homeopathic cure for ennui. Paracelsus, the 16th century physician and alchemist, preached that small doses of what makes a man ill also cures him—Gartner’s short stories are just what the doctor ordered. They deliver delight, fright, and wild, gangling weirdness to match your fevered post-modern malaise. If taken regularly they cause your brain to re-shape slightly inside your head, thus solving sinus trouble. Also full of useful advice in case of apocalypse.
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The Blue Castle
Why it's on the list ...
Truly helpless? Ugly with weeping? Old and tired, and nobody really loves you? This book is the tonic. Who knows what state of sadness Montgomery was in when she wrote this one—from the sheer cascading wish-fulfillment of the plot, it must have been a doozy. No matter how forlorn the invalid, this book will cheer her up. I say her, because it is relentlessly girly. Prim old Valancy Stirling is a classic pinned-down spinster until she is told that she has very little time left to live. So she might as well do what she wants! She kicks over the traces and finally gains a life on the wild side of town, where every desire of her heart comes true. Like Mary Oliver, you really have to say “I think this is the prettiest world, so long as you don’t mind a little dying…”
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Irma Voth

Irma Voth

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Jorge said he wasn’t coming back until I learned how to be a better wife. He said it’s okay to touch him with my arm or my leg or my foot, if it’s clean, when we’re sleeping but not to smother him like a second skin. I asked him how could that be, I hardly saw him any more and he said that’s a good thing for you. He said people always lie about their reasons for leaving and what difference does it make? I blocked the doorway so he wouldn’t leave and I begged him not to go. He put his hands on my shoulders and then he rubbed my arms like he was trying to warm me up and I put my hands on his waist.
I asked him how I was supposed to develop the skills to be a wife if I didn’t have a husband to practise with and he said that was the type of question that contributed to my loneliness. I asked him why he was trying to blindside me with answers that attempted only to categorize my questions and I asked him why he was acting so strange lately and where his problem with the way I slept with my leg over his leg had come from and why he kept going away and why he was trying so hard to be a tough guy instead of just Jorge and then he pulled me close to him and he asked me to please stop talking, to stop shivering, to stop blocking the door, to stop crying and to stop loving him.
I asked him how I was supposed to do that and he said no, Irma, we’re not kids anymore, don’t say anything else. I wanted to ask him what loving him had to do with being childish but I did what he told me to do and I kept my mouth shut. He looked so sad, his eyes were empty, they were half closed, and he kissed me and he left. But before he drove off he gave me a new flashlight with triple C batteries and I’m grateful for it because this is a very dark, pitch-black part of the world.
The first time I met Jorge was at the rodeo in Rubio. He wasn’t a cowboy or a roper, he was just a guy watching in the stands. We weren’t allowed to go to rodeos normally but my father was away from home, visiting another colony in Belize, and my mother told my sister Aggie and me that we could take the truck and go to the rodeo for the day if we took the boys with us so she could rest. She might have been pregnant. Or maybe she had just lost the baby. I’m not sure.
But she didn’t care about rules that afternoon so, miraculously, we found ourselves at a rodeo. Maybe it was the pure adrenalin rush of being away from the farm that made me feel bold but I noticed Jorge sitting there by himself, watching intently, and kind of moving his body subtly in a way that matched the movements of the real cowboys, and I thought it was funny, and so I decided to go up to him and say hello.
Are you pretending to be a cowboy? I asked him in Spanish.
He smiled, he was a little embarrassed, I think. Are you pretending to be a Mennonitzcha? he said.
No, I really am, I said.
He asked me if I wanted to sit next to him and I said yes, but only for a minute because I had to get back to Aggie and the boys.
We had a conversation in broken English and Spanish but it wasn’t much of one because as soon as I sat down beside him my boldness evaporated and my knees started to shake from nervousness. I was worried that somebody would see me talking to a Mexican boy and tell my father. Jorge told me he was in town buying something, I can’t remember what, for his mother who lived in Chihuahua city. He told me that he had a job delivering cars over the U.S. border from Juárez to El Paso and that he got paid forty American dollars a car and he didn’t ask questions.
Questions about what? I asked him.
Anything, he said.
But about what? I said.
About what’s in the cars or who’s paying me or when or just anything. I don’t ask, he said. He seemed a little nervous, so we both looked around at the people in the stands for a minute without saying much.
Some people are staring at us, he said.
No they’re not, I said.
Well, actually they are. Look at that guy over there. He was about to lift his arm and point but I said no, please, don’t.
He told me he thought it was strange that a Mennonite girl was at a rodeo and I told him that yeah it was. I tried to explain the rules my father had but that he was out of town and my mother was tired and all that and then we started talking about mothers and fathers and eventually he told me this story about his dad.
All I really understood was that his father had left his mother when he was a little boy and that one day his mother had told him he was going to meet him for the first time and he better look sharp and behave himself. She said she was going to drop him off on this corner by their house and his dad would be there waiting for him and then they could have a conversation, maybe get a meal together, and then the dad would drop him back off on that corner when they were done. So Jorge, he was five years old, decided he had better clean up his sneakers, especially if he wanted to look sharp for his dad. He washed them in the bathtub with shampoo and then he put them in the sun to dry. When it was time to go, his mom dropped him off at the corner and said goodbye and left and Jorge stood there for a long time, waiting. The sky got darker and darker. Finally it started to rain and Jorge started to worry. Where was his dad? Some men in cars drove past him but nobody stopped to pick him up. It started to rain harder. Then Jorge looked down at his shoes and noticed that they were foaming. Bubbles were floating around by his shoes and he didn’t know what was going on. He was too young to understand that he hadn’t rinsed his sneakers when he washed them with shampoo and now the rain was rinsing them for him and the soap was bubbling out of them and making them foam. Jorge felt like a fool. Like a clown. He was mortified. He was just about to take them off and rub them in the dirt on the sidewalk to try to make them stop foaming when a car pulled up and a man got out and introduced himself to Jorge as his father. He asked Jorge what was going on with his sneakers and Jorge told him that he didn’t know. That they had just strangely started foaming like that and his father looked at him and told him that shoes didn’t normally do that. Jorge had wanted to tell him that he had only been trying to look good and clean for his dad but he didn’t really know how to say that and so he just started crying out of shame.
And then what happened? I asked Jorge.
My father told me that he loved my shoes that way, that they were great, that he wanted a pair just like them, said Jorge. That made me feel a lot better. And then we went and had some shrimp cocktail. Afterwards he dropped me back off at the corner and I never saw him again.
Oh, I said. Where did he go?
I don’t know, said Jorge. But I was sure it was because of my stupid shoes that he never came back. I realized that he had lied to me. Obviously he didn’t want a pair of shoes that foamed up. Who would want that? So eventually I made this decision not to act like an idiot in life.
But you weren’t trying to be a clown, I said. You just wanted to have clean shoes to meet your dad. Your mom had told you to.
I know, he said, maybe it’s not rational. But after that I decided I would try to be a cooler boy and not try so hard for things.
I told Jorge that I was sorry about that but that I had to get back to Aggie and the boys.
I guess I’ll never see you again either, he said. He was smiling. He told me it was nice meeting me and I said he could visit me in our field, maybe, beside the broken cropduster that had crashed in it, and I gave him directions and told him to wait there later that evening.
Make sure you look sharp and behave yourself, I told him. But I didn’t really say it correctly in Spanish so he didn’t get the little joke which wasn’t funny anyway and he just nodded and said he’d wait all night and all year if he had to. And I wasn’t used to that kind of romantic speaking so I said no, it wouldn’t take that long. I wanted to tell him that I had tried most of my life to do things that would make people stay too, and that none of them had worked out, but then I thought that if I said that our relationship would always be defined by failure.
Jorge came to visit me a few times, secretly, on his way between El Paso and Chihuahua city. We would lie in the back of his truck and count the number of seconds it took for jet streams to evaporate. If you happened to fly over this place you’d see three houses in a row and nothing else for miles but cornfields and desert. Mine and Jorge’s in the middle and on one side of us my parents’ house and on the other side an empty house where my cousins used to live, the space between them approximately the size of a soccer pitch or a cemetery. On a clear day I can see the Sierra Madre mountains way off in the west, and sometimes I talk to them. I compliment them on their strength and solidity, and by hearing myself talk that way I am reminded that those words exist for a reason, that they’re applicable from time to time. It’s comforting. There are a few little villages around here. Some are Mexican and some are Mennonite, we’re sorted like buttons, and we’re expected to stay where we’re put.
If Jorge visited in the evening he and I would lie in the back of his truck and stare at the stars and trace the shapes of various constellations and touch each other’s bodies very gently like we were burn victims. Jorge told me that I didn’t have to be so nervous. Don’t you want to leave this place? he said.
I think so, I said.
So even if your father finds out about us the worst thing that can happen is we go away.
I know, but, I said. But then we can’t come back, really.
So, he said. Why would you want to?
Well, I said. I would miss my mother and my sister and— But Irma, he said, you could visit them secretly just like what we’re doing right now.
I don’t know, I said.
But you and I are in love, he said. We’re eighteen now. We don’t need our mothers so much.
He told me that it was like a star museum out here, there were so many of them, every different kind from all the ages, stored right here in my campo for safekeeping. He said I could be the curator of the star museum.
I’d rather not.
I was just saying stuff.
I know, I said, but I’m not good at keeping things safe.
I know, he said, I didn’t mean it for real, it was just a thing to say.
I know, I said, but I can’t be the curator of anything.
Okay, Irma. I understand. You don’t have to take care of the stars, okay? That was just stuff to say. It was stupid. I had meant to tell him, again, that I wasn’t good at keeping promises or secrets or people from leaving. I kept meaning to tell Jorge things.
On our wedding day nobody came except the justice of the peace from the Registro Civil in Cuauhtémoc, who finished the ceremony in under a minute. He got lost trying to follow Jorge’s directions to our campo and it was dark by the time he finally showed up. Jorge had brought a candle with him and he lit it and put it next to the piece of paper we had to sign and when I leaned over to write my name, Irma Voth, my veil caught on fire and Jorge pulled it off my head and threw it onto the ground and stomped the fire out. We were in a sheltered grove near my parents’ farm. The justice of the peace told me I was a lucky girl and Jorge grabbed my hand and we took off, running. He wore a white shirt that was too big on him and hard plastic shoes.
We didn’t really know what to do but after a while we stopped running and we walked around for a long time and then we went to my house and told my parents that we had got married and my mother went to her bedroom and closed the door softly and my father slapped me in the face. Jorge pinned him to the wall of the kitchen and said he’d kill him if he did it again. I went into my mother’s bedroom and we hugged each other and she asked me if I loved Jorge. I said yes. I told her that he and I were going to go to Chihuahua city now and that we would live with his mother for a while until we found jobs and our own place to live. Then my father came into the room and told me that Jorge and I weren’t going anywhere, that we were going to live in the house next door and work for him and that if we didn’t he’d turn Jorge over to the cops and that the cops would sooner put a bullet in the head of another greasy narco than bother with the paperwork of processing him. He didn’t say it in a fierce or menacing way, just in a way that made it clear and final. And then he left the house and my mother went into the kitchen and put some buns and cheese onto the table and a rhubarb platz that she cut up into small pieces.
Jorge and I sat down with her, on either side, and she held our hands and prayed for our happiness and for an everlasting love. She spoke quietly so the other kids wouldn’t wake up. After that she whispered congratulations to us in Low German and I told Jorge what she had said and they smiled at each other, I had forgotten how pretty her smile was. Jorge thanked her for the gift of me and she asked him to protect and cherish that gift. Then my father came back into the house and told us to get out and that we were no longer welcome in his home. Jorge and I walked down the road to our house and he took my hand and asked me if I believed what the justice of the peace had said, that I was a lucky girl. I looked west towards the Sierra Madre mountains but I couldn’t make them out in the darkness. Jorge’s hand was a little sweaty and I squeezed it and he was kind enough to let that be my answer.
We lived in the house for free but worked for my father for nothing. We looked after the cows so that he could work the fields and travel around from campo to campo imploring people to continue with old traditions even though the drought was killing us. The plan was that when my little brothers were older they would help him with the farm, and Jorge and I would be booted out of the house. Jorge said he wasn’t worried about that because he had other opportunities to make money and eventually he and I could follow our dream of living in a lighthouse. We didn’t know of one but he said he knew people in the Yucatán who would help us. I didn’t even really know exactly where the ocean was.
But none of that actually matters now and it’s embarrassing to talk about because Jorge is gone and I’m still here and there’s no lighthouse on my horizon as far as I can see. Jorge came and went all that year and I never knew when he’d show up but when he did it wasn’t for long so I really saw no one, except the cows.
One morning my little sister Aggie snuck over and gave me some news. She told me that filmmakers from Mexico City were moving into the empty house next to mine and our father said she wasn’t supposed to talk to them or in any way whatsoever to acknowledge them.
She also told me that she had a new dream of becoming a singer of canciones rancheras, which are ballads of love and infidelity and drunken husbands. She had new dreams every day.
I missed Aggie. I missed her big laugh and her little tricks. I missed listening to her practice her swearing deep under the blankets so our parents wouldn’t hear. She has white-blond hair and a brown face from the sun and blue eyes that are so light they’re almost translucent, like a wolf. She told me that the sun and the moon are the two eyes of God and when one disappears the other one pops up to keep spying on us. When we can see them both at the same time we’re in big trouble and all we can do is run. Since I married Jorge she hadn’t been allowed to talk to me, which is why she had to sneak over, but it wasn’t really sneaking, not entirely, because our mother usually knew when she was coming and sometimes sent things along.
According to my father, Jorge was more interested in searching for sensations in Chihuahua city than taking care of the cows and the corn in Campo 6.5. He had other reasons for not liking Jorge but the real reason was that I’d married a non-Mennonite. A long time ago, in the twenties, seven Mennonite men travelled from Manitoba to the Presidential Palace in Mexico City to make a deal. They’d been offered this land for cheap and they decided to accept the offer and move everyone from their colony in central Canada down to Mexico where they wouldn’t have to send their kids to regular school or teach them to speak English or dress them in normal clothing. Mennonites formed themselves in Holland five hundred years ago after a man named Menno Simons became so moved by hearing Anabaptist prisoners singing hymns before being executed by the Spanish Inquisition that he joined their cause and became their leader. Then they started to move all around the world in colonies looking for freedom and isolation and peace and opportunities to sell cheese. Different countries give us shelter if we agree to stay out of trouble and help with the economy by farming in obscurity. We live like ghosts. Then, sometimes, those countries decide they want us to be real citizens after all and start to force us to do things like join the army or pay taxes or respect laws and then we pack our stuff up in the middle of the night and move to another country where we can live purely but somewhat out of context. Our motto is from the “rebuke of wordliness,” which is from the Biblical book of James: Whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
I once made the mistake of asking my father if it didn’t make sense that in all those years from then to now some Mennonite girl would fall for a Mexican boy and want to marry him. It’s called integration, Dad, it’s not a big deal. I mean if you accept their cheap offer of land . . . But he had stopped listening to me ages ago. The last real thing we talked about was the absurdity of life on earth. He was thinking about something he’d read in an old newspaper that had somehow managed to float into our field from El Paso or somewhere. We were in the truck on our way to Cuauhtémoc and he asked me how I thought it was possible that a crowd of people could stand on the street in front of a tall office building and cheer a suicidal man on to his death by encouraging him to jump. I was surprised by the question and said I didn’t know. What does that say about us? said my dad. That we’re cruel, I said. Then my dad said no, he didn’t think so, he thought it meant that we feel mocked, that we feel and appear stupid and cowardly in the presence of this suicidal man who has wisely concluded that life on earth is ridiculous. And we want him to die immediately so that the pain of being confronted with our own fear and ignorance will also, mercifully, end. Would you agree with that? my dad asked. What? I said. I didn’t know what he was asking me. It’s a sin to commit suicide, I thought. I said no, I still think it means we’re cruel. My dad said no, it doesn’t mean we’re cruel. He got a little mad at me and stopped talking to me for a while and then as time passed never got back into the habit.
My father had lost his family when he was a little kid, when they’d been driven off their farm near the Black Sea. His parents and his sisters had been slaughtered by soldiers on a road somewhere in Russia, beside trees, and buried quickly in the ditch. My father survived by singing some songs, German hymns I think, for the soldiers, who thought it was cute, this little blond boy, but eventually the novelty of that wore off and they foisted him onto some other fleeing Mennonite family who adopted him and brought him to Canada to help with the animals and baling. He hated his adopted family and ran away when he was twelve to work on some other farm where he met my mother and eventually married her. That’s all I know about that because by the time it occurred to me to ask him questions about it he had stopped talking to me. I tried to get more details from my mother but she said she didn’t know any more than that either.
We’d had fun, me and him, you know, typical farm fun, when I was young. He made me a swing that I could jump from into hay and he understood my grief when my favourite chicken died. He even brought me to the fabric store to buy some flannel to make a burial suit of little trousers and a vest and hat for my chicken and he let me bury it outside my bedroom window rather than tossing it into the rubble fire like the other dead ones. But it was colossal and swift like the sinking of the Titanic the way all that disappeared when he moved us overnight to Mexico.

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Why it's on the list ...
Any of Toews’s books makes good sickroom reading—she has a remarkable gift for taking you out of yourself. But Irma Voth is my favourite. It begins so quietly, slips under your defenses and pulls you away from that crumpled bed and out to an almost-unknown Mexico, a hidden scrap of the world that is almost outside time, in which Irma lives her huge, hungry, shattering, star-spiked life. A bonus with this book: if you’re too sick to focus on the page, you can watch the movie starring Toews, Silent Light, made in Mexico a few years ago, which forms part of the plot of Irma Voth. Watch it as a “DVD extra” to the book; it’s very exciting to see how much better the book is—in fact, how much richer and deeper the possibilities are in a novel than in a movie. Possibilities of which Toews makes every skillful, beautiful use, to talk about art and living and why, and how, we keep going even through unendurable pain. And how eventually we get slightly better, and can live again.
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