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Pages from the Past (by Ami McKay)
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Pages from the Past (by Ami McKay)

By 49thShelf
1 rating
Sometimes a tale set in the distant past can speak to my here-and-now just as readily as a story set in my own lifetime. Here are a few novels that stayed with me long after I turned the last page. Ami McKay’s debut novel, The Birth House was a # 1 bestseller in Canada, winner of three CBA Libris Awards, nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and a book club favourite around the world. Her new novel. The Virgin Cure, is inspired by the life of her great- great grandmother, Dr. Sarah Fonda Mackintosh, a female physician in nineteenth century New York. Born and raised in Indiana, Ami now lives in Nova Scotia.
River Thieves

The Face of a Robber’s Horse


have the face of a robber’s horse: to be brazen, without shame or pity. — Dictionary of Newfoundland English


It was the sound of his father’s voice that woke John Peyton, a half-strangled shouting across the narrow hall that separated the upstairs bedrooms in the winter house. They had moved over from the summer house near the cod fishing grounds on Burnt Island only two weeks before and it took him a moment to register where he was lying, the bed and the room made strange by the dark and the disorientation of broken sleep. He lay listening to the silence that always followed his father’s nightmares, neither of the men shifting in their beds or making any other sound, both pretending they weren’t awake.

Peyton turned his head to the window where moonlight made the frost on the pane glow a pale, frigid white. In the morning he was leaving for the backcountry to spend the season on a trapline west of the River Exploits, for the first time running traps without his father. He’d been up half the night with the thought of going out on his own and there was no chance of getting back to sleep now. He was already planning his lines, counting sets in his head, projecting the season’s take and its worth on the market. And underneath all of these calculations he was considering how he might approach Cassie when he came back to the house in the spring, borne down with furs like a branch ripe with fruit. A man in his own right finally.

When he heard Cassie up and about downstairs in the kitchen, he pushed himself out of bed and broke the thin layer of ice that had formed over his bathing water and poured the basin full. His head ached from lack of sleep and from his mind having run in circles for hours. When he splashed his face and neck the cold seemed to narrow the blurry pulse of it and he bent at the waist to dip his head directly into the water, keeping it there as long as he could hold his breath.

The kettle was already steaming when he made his way down to the kitchen. Cassie was scorching a panful of breakfast fish, the air dense with the sweet smoky drift of fried capelin. He sat at the table and stared across at her where she leaned over the fire, her face moving in and out of shadow like a leaf turning under sunlight. She didn’t look up when he said good morning.

“Get a good breakfast into you today,” she said. “You’ll need it.”

He nodded, but didn’t answer her.

She said, “Any sign of John Senior?”

“I heard him moving about,” he said, which was a lie, but he didn’t want her calling him down just yet. It was the last morning he would see her for months and he wanted a few moments more alone in her company. “Father was on the run again last night,” he said. “What do you think makes him so heatable in his sleep like that?”

O unseen shame, invisible disgrace!” Cassie said. She was still staring into the pan of capelin. “O unfelt sore, crest-wounding, private scar!

Some nonsense from her books. “Don’t be speaking high-learned to me this time of the day,” he said.

She smiled across at him.

He said, “You don’t know no more than me, do you.”

“It’s just the Old Hag, John Peyton. Some things don’t bear investigating.” She turned from the fire with the pan of capelin, carrying it across to the table. She shouted up at the ceiling for John Senior to come down to his breakfast.

By the second hour of daylight, Peyton was packing the last of his provisions on the sledge outside the winter house while John Senior set about harnessing the dog. He was going to travel with Peyton as far as Ship Cove, a full day’s walk into the mouth of the river, but both men were already uncomfortable with the thought of parting company. They were careful not to be caught looking at one another, kept their attention on the details of the job at hand. Peyton stole quick glimpses of his father as he worked over the dog. He was past sixty and grey-haired but there was an air of lumbering vitality to the man, a deliberate granite stubbornness. Lines across the forehead like runnels in a dry riverbed. The closely shaven face looked hard enough to stop an axe. Peyton had heard stories enough from other men on the shore to think his father had earned that look. It made him afraid for himself to dwell on what it was that shook John Senior out of sleep, set him screaming into the dark.

His father said, “Mind you keep your powder dry."

“All right,” Peyton said.

“Joseph Reilly’s tilt is three or four miles south of your lines.”

“I know where Joseph Reilly is.”

“You run into trouble, you look in on him.”

“All right,” he said again. There was still a sharp ache in his head, but it was spare and focused, like a single strand of heated wire running from one temple to the other. It added to the sense of urgency and purpose he felt. He’d come across to Newfoundland ten years before to learn the trades and to run the family enterprise when John Senior was ready to relinquish it. His father electing not to work the trapline this year was the first dim indication of an impending retirement. Peyton said, “I won’t be coming out over Christmas.”

John Senior had set the dog on her side in the snow and was carefully examining her paws. “January then,” he said, without raising his head.

Peyton nodded.

His father took a silver pocket watch from the folds of his greatcoat. He was working in the open air with bare hands and his fingers were bright with blood in the morning chill. “Half eight,” he said. “You’d best say your goodbyes to Cassie. And don’t tarry.”

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Why it's on the list ...
This is beautiful storytelling. There is poetry in Michael Crummey's voice as he meanders through the history of the landscape of his youth. Set at the turn of the last century, River Theives traces the colonization of Newfoundland and the last days of the Beothuk in a way that is both heartbreaking and honest.
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Clara Callan
Why it's on the list ...
Told through the letters and diary entries of sisters Clara and Nora, the reader is given an intimate look at the lives of two women during the Depression era. While they may seem as opposite as any other pair of sisters (Clara is a school teacher who stays in their hometown, Nora leaves to pursue a role in a radio soap opera in New York) it's the bond between them that makes this novel so compelling.
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The Outlander
Why it's on the list ...
A "widow by her own hand," nineteen year old Mary Boulton is on the run from her husband's two brothers who are out for revenge. Through Mary's journey, we discover her past, her secrets and exactly what she's made of. Set in 1903 in the Crownset Pass region of the Rockies, this is a wonderfully paced, cinematic novel that kept me turning pages into the wee hours of the night.
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The Stone Diaries

The Stone Diaries

by Carol Shields
introduction by Penelope Lively
also available: Audiobook (CD)
tagged :
More Info

Birth, 1905

My mother's name was Mercy Stone Goodwill. She was only thirty years old when she took sick, a boiling hot day, standing there in her back kitchen, making a Malvern pudding for her husband's supper. A cookery book lay open on the table: "Take some slices of stale bread," the recipe said, "and one pint of currants; half a pint of raspberries; four ounces of sugar; some sweet cream if available." Of course she's divided the recipe in half, there being just the two of them, and what with the scarcity of currants, and Cuyler (my father) being a dainty eater. A pick-and-nibble fellow, she calls him, able to take his food or leave it.

It shames her how little the man eats, diddling his spoon around in his dish, perhaps raising his eyes once or twice to send her one of his shy, appreciative glances across the table, but never taking a second helping, just leaving it all for her to finish up -- pulling his hand through the air with that dreamy gesture of his that urges her on. And smiling all the while, his daft tender-faced look. What did food mean to a working man like himself? A bother, a distraction, perhaps even a kind of price that had to be paid in order to remain upright and breathing.

Well, it was a different story for her, for my mother. Eating was as close to heaven as my mother ever came. (In our day we have a name for a passion as disordered as hers.)

And almost as heavenly as eating was the making -- how she gloried in it! Every last body on this earth has a particular notion of paradise, and this was hers, standing in the murderously hot back kitchen of her own house, concocting and contriving, leaning forward and squinting at the fine print of the cookery book, a clean wooden spoon in hand.

It's something to see, the way she concentrates, her hot, busy face, the way she thrills to see the dish take form as she pours the stewed fruit into the fancy mold, pressing the thickly cut bread down over the oozing juices, feeling it soften and absorb bit by bit a raspberry redness. Malvern pudding; she loves the words too, and feels them dissolve on her tongue like a sugary wafer, her tongue itself grown waferlike and sweet. Like an artist -- years later this form of artistry is perfectly clear to me -- she stirs and arranges and draws in her brooding lower lip. Such a dish this will be. A warm sponge soaking up color. (Mrs. Flett next door let her have some currants off her bush; the raspberries she's found herself along the roadside south of the village, even though it half kills her, a woman of her size walking out in the heat of the day.)

She sprinkles on extra sugar, one spoonful, then another, then takes the spoon to her mouth, the rough crystals that keep her alert. It is three o'clock -- a hot July afternoon in the middle of Manitoba, in the middle of the Dominion of Canada. The parlor clock (adamantine finish, gilded feet, a wedding present from her husband's family, the Goodwills of Stonewall Township) has just struck the hour. Cuyler will be home from the quarry at five sharp; he will have himself a good cheerful wash at the kitchen basin, and by half-past five the two of them will sit down at the table - this very table, only spread with a clean cloth, every second day a clean cloth -- and eat their supper. Which for the most part will be a silent meal, both my parents being shy by nature, and each brought up in the belief that conversing and eating are different functions, occupying separate trenches of time. Tonight they will partake of cold corned beef with a spoonful of homemade relish, some dressed potatoes at the side, cups of sweet tea, and then this fine pudding. His eyes will widen; my father, Cuyler Goodwill, aged twenty-eight, two years married, will never in his life have tasted Malvern pudding. (That's what she's preparing for -- his stunned and mild look of confusion, that tender, grateful male mouth dropping open in surprise. It's the least she can do, surprise him like this.) She sets a flower-patterned plate carefully on top of the pudding and weights it down with a stone.

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Why it's on the list ...
While not historical fiction, The Stone Diaries does contain the history of a life - that of Daisy Goodwill Flett, one of the most memorable characters in Canadian Literature. Set between 1905-1985, the details of Daisy's life are woven together in an attempt to paint an autobiographical portrait of a woman. Ephemera such as check lists, book lists and bits of conversation, come and go, punctuating the narrative like a plaintive chorus saying, "this is who I am."
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Execution Poems
Why it's on the list ...
Life isn't simple. These poems remind us that the lines we draw to make ourselves feel comfortable, often do us harm.
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Jade Peony, The

Jade Peony, The

also available: eBook
tagged : literary
More Info
Why it's on the list ...
Set in Vancouver's Chinatown during the turbulent 1930's and 40's, the three siblings in Choy's brilliant first novel struggle with questions about tradition, race, romance and war. Who am I in the face of change? How much of my identity is defined by the past? Can I move forward while holding on to tradition? Who can I trust? Such questions have helped to shape this country in both the past and the present, with many immigrants and their families still struggling to answer them today.
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