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Books with Spirited Girls (by Allison Baggio)
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Books with Spirited Girls (by Allison Baggio)

By 49thShelf
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Allison Baggio's (author of Girl in Shades) list of "stories that contain spirited female protagonists who face difficult situations in a lively and courageous manner." Baggio writes: "Like Maya in Girl in Shades, most of them have the strength to stand up against adversity in some way and find the inner gumption to challenge the circumstances of their lives."
Ten Good Seconds of Silence
Why it's on the list ...
When I first started writing seriously I took a Short Fiction class at George Brown and Elizabeth Ruth was my teacher. She introduced us to her own novel during the first class. This book contains two spirited and brave girls, Lilith Booth and her daughter, Lemon. Lilith is dealing with her own challenges: obesity, mental instability, social awkwardness, while Lemon is obsessed with finding the father she never knew. Both of these characters defy the odds for different reasons, and also have their love for each other tested in the process.
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The Romantic
Why it's on the list ...
This was the last book I read before I started Girl in Shades. The story begins with nine-year-old Louise Kirk being abandoned by her mother. When a new family moves to the neighbourhood, she becomes best friends with their son, Abel. As the two grow into teenagers, Louise becomes obsessively in love with Abel, who is so haunted by his own demons that he hardly notices her. It’s heart-breaking to watch Louise try so hard to save Abel from himself—only to be left heart-broken. However, she’s a feisty and determined girl, even in the face of loss and abandonment.
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The Falling Woman


The day of Daniel’s confession started in an ordinary way, with a call from Kaye’s mother – a beginning that Kaye would examine in detail later (poking at it, parsing it), trying to find clues to what she had known and what she hadn’t. In the morning she hadn’t known what was going to happen, but by the time she went to bed she knew everything. In between she found out that her husband was sleeping with a girl of twenty-six, a master’s student of his from the environmental studies department, a girl who might have been a younger, shabbier, messier version of Kaye herself. Or at least one part of herself – the lean, uncompromising self she had been at one time.

But the day had begun as those days usually did, with the scramble to pack a lunch for Sarah, the hasty goodbyes at the door, the moment of silence – then the call from Kaye’s mother.

“Kaye!” Margaret exclaimed lavishly, making Kaye wince.

“Mother!” Kaye exclaimed back. “Why do you always sound surprised when it’s me? You’re the one phoning.”

Kaye’s mother threw back her head and laughed richly. What a lark her daughter was. What a perfect straight man. Kaye knew her mother had thrown back her head and laughed even though she couldn’t see her, she was that present in the room. Like a very large ghost, she filled the area above Kaye’s head with her dyed ash-blond hair, her burgundy nails, her legs stubbled with persistent growth. She had yards and yards of female pulchritude. A hideous word, yes, but one that Kaye had chosen long ago to describe her mother’s particular kind of beauty.

“Now listen, honey, have you got a minute? Has Daniel left? Has Sarah left for school?”

They had left, it was true. And it was also true that no matter how irritated Kaye sometimes felt at the sound of her mother’s voice, she liked these calls, she waited for these calls.

They were close, mother and daughter. They had stuck together through thick and thin. Thick mother, thin daughter, Kaye thought – because sometimes it felt like that; as though her mother, that plentiful and immense woman, cast such a shadow, and contained so much, that she contained even Kaye herself.

People noticed their closeness. They compared Margaret with their own mothers, in their late fifties or early sixties, and said that Kaye was lucky, because her mother was so interesting, so alive. Other mothers had receded, becoming pale, or frosty, or diffident; or taking up causes. Daniel’s mother had become a pro-choice activist in Sudbury, defying the church, defying her husband. Interesting, of course – but nothing to match the livid, arresting quality that Margaret gave off.

At fifty-nine she was in her prime, magnificently in her prime, like a full-blown moon – carrying all her past selves inside. Retired actress. Radio host. Now she and Kaye’s father had bought a sailboat, and they headed up the coast each summer scouting for northwest coast sculptures, bartering, collecting. She had become known for her talent, her eye. Someone famous in Ketchikan had even given her a Tlingit name.

Now Margaret was telling Kaye a story about Kaye’s father. He had become a source of bafflement and amusement to them since he had retired. They watched him as though he were a peculiar and interesting bird – something, perhaps, with a rare, proboscis-like beak. Last month he had started reading Proust – five pages a night. “He always hated Proust!” Margaret said to Kaye. “His mother made him read Proust to her in that ugly room she never left, with aspidistra hanging from the bedstead. I can’t believe he’s reading Proust.” But this was nothing compared with what he had done the day before on their yacht. It had been a suddenly warm day for October, an Indian summer day, and Margaret, in a mood of celebration, had peeled off her shirt, slathered her breasts with baby oil and stretched out on the foredeck. Giles had slipped away from the wheel to get his sunglasses, forgotten why he’d gone below deck and settled in for a little nap.

“Kaye – picture it – all at once we’re careening towards an enormous freighter from Taiwan. I had to crawl across the deck, throw something over me, grab the wheel. Meanwhile, about fifteen deckhands had caught sight of me, and they were all cheering madly.”

As was so often the case, once her mother got going, Kaye felt something dark stirring inside her: a feeling that her mother had escaped scot-free, gotten away with the gold or some such thing, while she – Kaye – was caught. Punished.

“Listen,” Margaret continued. “I read something in the Sun this morning and I thought you’d get a kick out of it. Apparently there’s this real estate agent in Topeka, Kansas – and guess what he’s doing.”

“Mother, I couldn’t possibly.”

“He’s buying up abandoned missile silos all over the Midwest and he’s turning them into houses. Can you imagine! And apparently people are buying them like hotcakes.”

“Perfect for the nuclear family.”

“Oh, honey – when I read that, I couldn’t help thinking of you, back in your anti-nuclear days. You could be so ornery.”

“Not precisely how I remember it, Mother.”

“Oh, come on. You were damned ornery, you have to admit it. Do you remember that time you destroyed our dinner party?”

Kaye’s heart was beating slightly faster. Of course she remembered. It was a frequent memory, a talisman, something she carried with her even now, almost twenty years later.

It was back when her parents lived in Shaughnessy and she was in first-year university. She had plunked herself down on the burgundy couch in the living room and one of her mother’s friends had asked her, just casually, what she was doing to keep herself busy. Kaye had answered that she and some other students were organizing a viewing of If You Love This Planet.

“Oh, Helen Caldicott,” Lena Marsden had shrieked. “She’s ghastly.”

“A ghoul, darling. She’s a ghoul!”

“She’d be more bearable if she got her facts straight.” This was from one of the straight men – an accountant, like her father. One of the dull spouses.

It was then that Kaye had risen into the air – or so it had felt – springing out of her seat to float above them, an angel of vengeance and light. Then she had described, point by point, what the effect would be of a nuclear bomb dropped on Vancouver. Yes, she had done this a bit breathlessly; yes, with a red face and palpitating heart; but nevertheless she had recited the whole thing – the sacred litany of destruction – from the fallout floating up as far as the troposphere, to the lack of burn beds, the disease, the lacerations, decapitations, wind fires. “And if you did survive in a fallout shelter,” she had said, “when you came out, there would be rotting corpses everywhere – because ninety percent of Vancouver’s population would be dead – and the survivors would soon die too, from a synergistic combination of starvation, radiation, sunburn, infection and grief.”

At which point – at least in Kaye’s recollection – her mother had stood up and said, in her rich actor’s voice, that she did hope everyone was ready for dinner.

“You were the absolute death of dinner parties,” Kaye’s mother said now, always thrilled by a spectacle, even in retrospect.

And what could Kaye possibly say in response? She looked out the window at the clear sky and a plane high up, like a toy, heading towards the airport.

She wanted to say that perhaps her mother should rethink her attitude. Had the prospect of nuclear war really been all that funny? In the old days that’s what she would have said, and for a second she wished that she could still be that single-minded. The insistence of the young. We are born once, they had sung. Born for a purpose. And they had circled the weapons, singing and crying, throwing
their bodies again and again against this huge dark wall, this impenetrable thing.

But that was over now. She wasn’t that person any more. And people were living in the silos that she had prayed in front of. Turning them into condos.

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Why it's on the list ...
I chose Shaena Lambert as my mentor for the Humber School for Writers because I admired her ability to be patient with her stories, and I wanted to learn from that. She demonstrates her talent well in this collection that examines themes of love, loss and healing. Every one of these stories has a “falling woman” in it who is in transition, but also willing to speak her mind and go fearlessly into forbidden territory.
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also available: eBook
tagged : literary
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Why it's on the list ...
I was told that this book took a similar perspective as my manuscript, and after reading it was pleased with the powerful voice of Eugenia—the girl protagonist whose father vanishes and she must start on a journey to find him, as well as meaning in her own life. I loved the way this character matured and the growing complexity of her thinking.
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Where We Have to Go

Excerpt from Chapter 3:
Wednesday after school, Mom and I took a trip to the Salvation Army. I trolled after her as she pushed the cart, piling it high with “practical” items like military-style sweaters with sewn-in labels that read “Made Specially for You by Grandma,” no-name purple jeans with Popsicle stains on the crotch, and some large floral vests. She had it in her head that vests were really “in.” Mom wanted to buy me a new outfit so Dad could take photos of me in the backyard beside the tomato patch. Before it got too cold, she said, and all the plants died.

“But they’re already dead,” I told her. We passed the lamps section, where everything smelled burnt. “I can smell them stinking up to my window.”

“That’s the smell of regeneration,” Mom said. “Next year, we’ll have better tomatoes than ever.”

I was installed in a musty little changeroom, where I pulled off my T-shirt and stared at myself in the tiny mirror affixed to the pipe on the wall. The big mirror was outside and Mom always made me come out so she could decide for herself if the clothes were “working or not.” I channelled ALF from Melmac and transmitted a message: No sign of breasts. Please send immediately. Sincerely, Bony the Bug Eyes. Over and out.

“Lucy,” Mom called through the curtain. “How’s it going in there?”

“Okay, but I wish we could go to Zellers.” I wanted to sit at the speckled Formica luncheonette counter at Zellers and get served a hot chicken sandwich with fries by one of the glamorous waitresses who wore frilly uniforms in a shade of pink that reminded me of watermelon bubblegum.

“Don’t be spoiled. Some kids your age just wear shirts made from rat hair. When I was a kid in Bulgaria I wore a smock made from camel’s ass. Not so pretty.” Then, after a moment, Mom said, “Anyway, did you hear about the neighbour at seventeen? Her husband went out last week to get an attachment for their blender. He didn’t come back that day, or the next. On day three, she gets a priority letter. Guess what it is?”

“Bad news?”

“Yes!” Her voice rose with excitement. “Exactly.”

Mom loved shocking bad news, the reversals-of-fortune type that cheap tabloid news shows liked to feature. In Mom’s stories, someone was always getting divorced after thirty years of cupcakes. Someone was waking up paralyzed after running a marathon the day before. Someone was getting a routine checkup when his doctors find a cancer the size of a basketball in the stomach.

“He’d sent her divorce papers,” Mom continued. “The guy, it turns out, was a big homosexual type. The note he attached said, ‘I need to feel men on my skin.’ Can you believe that?”

“Gay,” I said through the curtain, “is what they like to be called.”

“Okay,” Mom said. “So now you’re an expert?”

I slipped on a pullover vest embroidered with dogs wearing glasses. The glasses were attached to the dogs’ heads with real mini strands of pearl. Mom had raved about this piece when she’d plucked it off the rack, insisting that “they” — her unnamed group of fashion experts — would be wearing ones just like it come next week. I came out of the changeroom and stood in front of the crooked mirror. Mom came and stood beside me, taking me in distractedly.

“Having your husband leave you, just like that,” she continued, “it must be pretty devastating. Especially when it’s for another man. What do you think?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged. I wanted to change the subject. “But I’ve heard of worse. Like the girl at number eleven who got a bad thought in her head and didn’t know what to do. Her family was very rich but never home.”

Mom handed me the next outfit. A matching pants-and-top set with a pattern of electrocuted cats. Behind the curtain, I took off the vest and threw it into the “passable” heap. I’d made three piles: Passable, Disgusting, and Ultra Grotesque.

“So this girl,” I continued, “she’s the type of person who naturally has a lot on her mind. But now she’s not coping. Her parents are totally absent. She’s so upset that she stops watching TV. That’s serious, isn’t it?”

“Lucy,” Mom sighed, “are you making this up?”

“Listen. One day out of the blue, she starts collecting sticks and dirt. Like, she starts going hunting, like a hound, and for what? For sticks. And all over the place — schoolyards, sandboxes, squirrel lots. The whole bit.” I tightened the drawstring of my pants. “All this dirt makes her feel a bit better. She’s suddenly got jars of it stacked in her room. Buckets of mud —”

“Her rich parents didn’t notice buckets of dirt in the house?”

“They had a cleaning lady,” I explained, “who was used to how rich people act weird. Anyways, this girl’s got a room filled with dirt. Rocks, sticks, mud, fibres from animals. Disgusting stuff. When she starts building the free-range ant farm, her parents wise up. They make her sit down with a shrink.”

“I would’ve just made her clean it up. And sent her to one of those science camps for special people.”

“Mom,” I sighed. “You’re missing the point. This girl was sick. She had a disease in her brain. You can look it up. It’s when you can’t stop collecting dirt and everything that’s in it. It’s a coping mechanism. Geraldo did a show on it.”

“Well, please don’t invite this girl over is all I can say. I have enough problems in the house as it is.”

I came out of the changeroom.

“My turn now,” Mom said. “But don’t think I’m crazy.”

I revolved in front of the mirror. “I won’t.”

“Your dad,” she began, “I think he has another woman.”

I remembered Dad in his hunting scene sweater, his face frozen in concentration as he stood in the entrance of the church basement, where he’d stopped to watch her — Crashing Wave, in her blue plastic heels, laying her hand on another man’s shoulder. I remembered how they had laughed. She’d given me her lipstick and told me “You and I have that natural Twiggy figure.” But Dad said they were just good friends.

Mom stared back at me, her mouth open, her hands folded over the shopping cart. Once upon a time she’d been Miss Sophia West, the beauty queen of suburban Bulgaria. She’d worn peacock feathers and posed in front of gold curtains, smiling with shiny red lips. Now she wore huge tortoiseshell glasses and had hair in her armpits. Now she wore lipstick only on special occasions, because she said it was boiled pig fat marked up 1,000 per cent. It belonged with all the other “rip-offs” — hairspray, leather shoes, and fashion magazines — she didn’t need now that she was “out of that game.”

“Lucy?” Mom said. “Did you hear what I said? Do you think he’s seeing another woman?”

I didn’t understand why Mom was asking me these questions. Or why she had so many doubts and worries. If she spent less time worrying, maybe we could do more fun things, like eat hot chicken sandwiches at the Zellers luncheon counter, instead of hanging around this changeroom wearing other people’s clothes and talking about crazy things.

“No,” I said, “Dad wouldn’t do that.”

Excerpt from Chapter 9:
When I was fifteen, I spent the summer working with Dad at the Sun and Waves travel agency. I couldn’t imagine Holden Caulfield ever working at a travel agency. But then it was also hard to picture Dad working in one. He’d probably take his time to help some blonde book a cruise, but more likely he’d just thrust a couple of airline tickets at an old lady with blue hair and tell her, “Here. You can go now.”

Sun and Waves was located at the far end of the Lawrence Plaza, one of those concrete bottomless squares that Dad said was built in the 1960s, when no one cared if buildings were ugly. At the south end of the plaza was a bus stop and a shoe repair shack that always smelled like horse shit, but Dad said that was actually the boot cleaner the shoe guy had to use for police shoes. On one side of Sun and Waves was a nails supply place, and on the other was a store that was completely empty except for some old chewing gum racks.

Dad worked with only one other person at Sun and Waves, and that person was his boss. Dad’s boss was a man, but his name was Marg Nutter. I think that’s why he was always in a bad mood, because he had a woman’s name.

Marg Nutter sat at the front of the store so he could greet his customers as soon as they walked in. But I think that’s another reason why Marg Nutter was always in a bad mood, because nobody ever came into the store. The customers were mostly phone-ins, old people who wanted to go to Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Springs, or, if they were looking for something more exotic, Varadero, Negril, or Guadalajara. Sometimes the old people got mixed and instead of “Guadalajara” they’d say “Guantanamo,” and then Dad would have to explain that it wasn’t that kind of resort.

Marg Nutter had offered to pay me less than minimum wage to deliver flyers to the high-rise apartment buildings surrounding the plaza. The only part of the job I was looking forward to was the exercise I’d get, because I’d read in one of Florence ’s women’s magazines that power walking burnt 567 calories per hour. I was also in charge of folding the promotional flyers Marg Nutter photocopied on a machine so low on toner that the leaves of the palm trees were almost invisible. They just looked like these long stalks, more like middle fingers than leaves, and when I folded the flyers I’d sometimes think, Yeah, Fuck you! Go to Florida!

“Lucy? What’s so funny?” Dad was talking to me from the front room.

I had started to laugh out loud at tiny jokes I told myself in my head. Once I started laughing it was hard to stop. I figured this was how smoking pot made you feel: your head all airy, as if your brain had dissolved into dancing dandelion spores. I also noticed that I laughed more on the days I’d eaten almost nothing. For instance, if I had two saltines for breakfast and drank two cups of coffee with two Sweet’N Lows, I’d be laughing at the swearing palm trees by about ten in the morning. But if I ate more than the top of a muffin or a piece of plain toast, the trees weren’t so funny — they were actually kind of depressing — and Marg Nutter’s voice, which sounded as if it was strangling through too small a space, became even more unbearable. Whenever I ate more than I’d planned to — sometimes Mom offered me a sandwich at a moment when I was feeling weak — I felt myself leaving my field of rye and the heaviness of the food spread through my body the way a bee sting on your hand can travel up the entire length of your arm, throbbing. Food didn’t give me energy, it sucked all my strength away. I didn’t know if the draining feeling meant “eat more” or “stop eating,” so I usually just stopped eating.

I covered my mouth to stifle the laughing. “Nothing, Dad.”

Around the middle of July I decided I would deliver only half of the flyers. Marg Nutter was paying me less than a chocolate bar an hour, so I felt justified throwing out the rest. I’d walk halfway across Lawrence Avenue, hitting up the two aquamarine apartment buildings where mostly pensioners lived, people who stood on the wavy concrete path talking to their dogs in creaky amazed voices. I liked walking on that path because there were no trees and the sun hit me in a totally absorbing way. I felt like a creature dipped in honey. That’s where I ditched the remaining flyers.

I’d just stepped off the path when a red car slowed beside me. I kept on walking tall in my shoes, which I’d bought for fifty cents at the Salvation Army. They were beige and made out of a dry leatherlike material as stiff as a chewed-up dog toy, but they were my only heels and I thought they made my legs look skinnier. The car was crawling along the shoulder beside me. The passenger window rolled down in intervals, as if the person inside had a weak arm or was still deciding whether I was worth talking to. When I saw his face my first thought was that he was famous. It was Archie from the comic books, with the ski jump nose and five freckles on each of his cheeks so uniformly round they could’ve been drawn in with a ballpoint pen.

“Hey, honey, do you know where Bathurst Street is?”

Then I remembered that Archie was a cartoon character, not a real man.

“Next major intersection, six blocks,” I said. “I’m walking there.”

Archie grinned. “That’s far. We’re lazy asses. We don’t walk anywhere. You want us to give you a ride?”

He was flirting. I forced out a laugh, rocking forward on my heels. I imagined Mom’s face right now, her tortoiseshell glasses superimposed on the bright clouds, her mouth yelling, “No! He does drugs! It’s not safe!”

I decided that taking the ride wouldn’t do any harm. I opened the back door and slid into the seat. The driver was a guy with blond hair cut into the shape of a police cap. Archie started asking me questions about where the nearest Taco Bell was, but I wanted to make sure Police Cap was driving toward Bathurst before I answered. Only when I saw that he was did I start listening to Archie, who was going on about how he’d just quit his job at a computer factory in Ottawa because they’d been “busting his balls” by not paying him overtime, even though he worked on Christmas and Boxing Day. “Two fucking years in a row!” He thumped his thigh and the Burger King cup between him and Police Cap spilled coins onto the hollow area where I figured the radio used to be. Archie turned around and smiled at me over the backrest of his seat before turning around again, so I knew he was checking me out. I crossed my legs and pulled my jean skirt down my thigh a bit. Diana Gaddick used to say that showing a little leg was good, but not so much that guys got the wrong idea. Archie turned around again.

“Say,” he said, “do you have rickets?”

“What?” I said.

“Hey, don’t take it wrong. You look cool. I just never seen someone as thin as you.” He turned to Police Cap. “You?”


“This is pathetic,” I said, “picking a girl up and then asking her if she has some kind of outdated disease. What kind of pickup is this?”

Archie looked embarrassed. “We were just giving you a ride,” he said. “Why did ya have to go make it all uncomfortable now?”

When they dropped me off outside of the Lawrence Plaza, I felt insulted. They didn’t want me. They hadn’t come on to me. If I looked sexy, I didn’t understand why they hadn’t tried to come on to me. Was I not pretty? As I weaved in between the parked cars in the parking lot, I studied my arms, how the veins popped, how the bone of my inner thigh jutted out through my skirt. I walked through the door of Sun and Waves, not even stopping to say hi to Dad or Marg Nutter, and went straight into the bathroom.

I stared at myself in the mirror.

My face had become long and thin, my nose as gaunt as my cheeks. I didn’t understand why I didn’t look like the ultra-thin models in the Ralph Lauren perfume ads, their ribs delicately visible through cotton sundresses. They were New England girls, I decided, whose grandmothers had names like Portia and Rosaline, and who always knew which fork to pick up when the salad came around. These were the girls who starved and flourished, their big eyes made bigger, their tiny noses made tinier, by the absence of food in their stomachs.

When a Jewish girl starves, I thought, something entirely different happens. Her cheeks recede and her nose grows — and so does her guilt. She thinks about her mother constantly: the ways she will make it up to her mother in the future when this eating “thing” settles down, compensate her for the hours spent staring into the pantry, wondering what kinds of carbohydrate combinations — rice and farfel, bowties and kasha, potatoes and rice — she can, by some nurturing magic, sneak into the glass of Lipton’s chicken bouillon that is now the extent of her daughter’s dinner.

I got on my knees and put my finger down my throat, feeling the smooth skin that reminded me of a raw scallop, slippery out of the grocery bag. But I wasn’t good at turning my insides out. Nothing came out. Then Marg Nutter knocked on the door and told me to take it outside, his customers shouldn’t have to hear me coughing up a lung. So now he was hallucinating a lineup of customers snaking out the door.

We were similar in a way, Marg Nutter and I: we both looked at what we had, what we were, and told ourselves stories to make the truth a little softer. Marg Nutter told himself he had a successful travel agency that was just going through a temporary slump. I told myself that if I weighed a little less, when I looked in the mirror I would finally see the girl I had always wanted to be staring back. Instead, I saw a line of hard pimples blazing across my forehead like a Las Vegas sign. Only this sign said, Move along, folks.
Nothing to see here.

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Why it's on the list ...
I read this novel right before my manuscript was placed with a publisher. Having just written the coming-of-age story of a young, spunky girl, it was a pleasure to dive into the life of Lucy Bloom as well. Kirshner perfected the painful experience of growing up in this impressive debut. I loved Lucy’s keen observations, her quirky sense of humour and her ability to survive a complicated family situation and an eating disorder, and to emerge stronger and more seasoned on the other side.
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The Carnivore



In the beginning there was only darkness and heavy rain. Sudden black waters that ruffled and swarmed like a plague over the roads and fields, poured like Guinness into abandoned stairwells. Downtown, at the intersection of King Street and Spadina Avenue, a young man in hitched–up plus–fours tried fording one of the deepest sections of road on his bicycle. The wheels slid out from under him and he disappeared, then rose again sputtering and indignant. Cop or not, I laughed along with the sodden crowd. Two unshaven men carrying a spineless mattress from one building to its neighbour had it ripped from their arms by the current. One of them, a showy and well–muscled lad, dove in theatrically and performed three or four impressive freestyle strokes before standing again, suddenly waist deep. He flopped aboard the ruined springs and feigned exhaustion. Bravo! I thought. Bravo!

No one took any of this splashy weather very seriously, even though there were reports of similar scenes all over the city. The cbc’s meteorologist reported matter–of–factly on the radio that a hurricane was blowing itself out over the Appalachians. His confident forecast was for a little more rain that evening, then drying out after midnight. But the sky was fierce with fat, scudding armies of cloud. And at the lake, a debris–laden surf was beginning to wash in. There were logs and curled roofing shingles, wretched baby toys with broken or missing limbs, dislocated umbrellas and battered hubcaps; a buckled American stop sign.

Commuters were clutching at lampposts and hats, yanking overcoats tight and yelling to each other quite cheerfully, almost proudly, that they couldn’t remember the last time they’d seen a rain like this. The buses were packed and glowed like lanterns. Their drivers honked at the more timid drivers to give way. If it stopped soon, I thought, then there wouldn’t be much of a problem (though I had seen a few refugees evacuating basements already, clutching their record albums and a favourite pair of shoes, or a squirming, terrified cat), but another hour or two and it would lose its comic edge.

Worst was the traffic. Motorcycle cops were attempting to guide drivers towards the shallowest sections of road. A couple of detours had been established. A drunken crowd that had gathered on the roof of the Gladstone Hotel on Queen Street had taken to lobbing beer bottles into the rising sea. The fact that instead of smashing they simply bobbed west seemed to strike them as miraculous. One idiot was scrawling messages on paper napkins and stuffing these inside the Molson’s bottles, as if he had been stranded in this overrun cattle town long ago and had finally sensed the possibility of rescue.

When I found a moment I telephoned home to tell Mary that I wouldn’t arrive until later, when things calmed down. She was disappointed — she had wanted us to spend the evening together, packing. We’d planned a trip to Niagara Falls. She whispered (as if she might be overheard) that she pictured us in bed together tonight, riding out the storm, if I got her drift, and so I told her about the boy on the mattress.

"Do you think we’ll still be able to go away?" she asked me.

"You said the Queensway was flooding."

"We’ll drive around it," I said. "Or we’ll rent a boat." I was feeling strong, cocky even. But I was a respected policeman with a pregnant wife, and that struck me right then as the epitome of good citizenship. Everything about my predicament felt crystalline and pure. It was just the adrenalin kicking in, I suppose.

I told Mary I loved her and her throttled little gasp excited me. I would have to do that more often. But then, feeling suddenly delinquent in my duty, somehow adrift, I said only, "Mare, I have to go."

"Go! Go!" she commanded, and I felt oddly as if I was being ordered once more out of an Italian trench and across exposed muddy fields towards tangles of barbed wire. And I also felt, with an unsettling certainty, and with the wet telephone still in my hand, that I was about to die.


The reporter — a lovely young Chinese woman, Katie something — was bored, I think. She had talked herself into our home but now she wanted none of this florid indulgence; it was unusable. At best she would reduce it to a dozen melodramatic words: Fifty years ago today, Detective Ray Ignacius Townes spoke briefly to his wife before the full force of the hurricane struck Toronto. He had time only to tell her that he loved her…. What she really wanted from me were the so–called heroics. She had a deadline (and perhaps a dinner date), and her appetite for the story’s peripheral details was limited. The day after tomorrow something else would demand her attention. A killing at the Eaton Centre. A police strike. Tuberculosis in the shelters. Any of the sordid thrills Toronto routinely offers. Quite reasonably she might have been thinking that I should understand those things, that I should help her.

And it really was a dreary retelling. I’ve done it much better elsewhere. At cocktail parties and at the occasional speaking engagement arranged by the public library. Every few years a relative of one of the deceased will track me down with questions and I’ll try to tell them what they want to hear. And even now, hours later, lying here in my own bedroom with my notebook pressed against my knees, my heart isn’t in it. I’ve given up on my plan of repeating everything I said to Miss Katie Whatsherface. Mary crept away up the stairs an hour ago. I heard her pull a bottle of Chardonnay from the refrigerator and take it with her. I have driven her to drink. Saying goodbye, Katie kissed my cheek (a social nicety, that’s all it was, but a flyaway strand of her hair was for an instant, I swear, inside my mouth). Once she was gone, Mary began to shake. At our age such a rage is alarming, seems freighted with risk. I can imagine all too readily an aneurysm, blood flooding her brain, or her heart clenching too tightly around her disappointment. Her eyes did pool with tears but words were beyond her. She kicked lightly at my oxygen tank to make sure it was full and that its hoses were attached properly to the valves, and then she sniffed away. She has shrunk in recent years, become shorter, and in a long–ago moment of levity I even suggested we scratch a set of lines into the wall, begin an ironic measure of our annual decline. And as she passed into the kitchen tonight (though it might have been an illusion, I suppose, some trick of perspective) I don’t think she reached much above the halfway point.

Dinner arrived late and stone cold. She had eaten alone presumably, wondering whether to starve me altogether. I think it entirely possible I will die before we are civil with each other again.

And I do understand her anger. That hurricane changed everything. It put our house under a cloud and caused a permanent turbulence to clatter through its rooms. Mary only knows half of it and that’s apparently more than enough for her to never forgive me. She should have, but she didn’t. And as a result we have wasted much of the rest of our lives. Why in God’s name did she stay with me” Was it the memory of love” The faint hope it can be rekindled”


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Why it's on the list ...
Once my book had been place with ECW Press, I was anxious to read some of the other books they have published. Set before and after the Toronto hurricane of 1954, I loved the historical aspects of this story and the complexity of the relationship between the husband and wife. But the character that stood out for me in particular was Mary, her naïve dedication to her husband, but also the way that her character develops into a self-assured woman who is confident with her own truths.
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Girl in Shades

Girl in Shades

A Novel
also available: eBook
tagged : coming of age
More Info
Why it's on the list ...
The brave and inspiring female characters I have read over the years, definitely inspired me as I created my own “spirited girl”. Maya Devine has come to feel like my third child and I am protective of her like a mother would be. I respect her for being so inquisitive and strong even when her whole world seems to be crumbling—that takes guts. After a seven year gestation, Girl in Shades is officially available from ECW Press. We will celebrate the launch of the book on Thursday, October 13th, 6pm, at Ben McNally Books in Toronto.
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