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Canlit fall cottage reads & David's Tea

By ayoungvoice
1 rating
Canadian novels to dig into during the last few weekends at the cottage as the weather starts to cool and the leaves burn golden long after the sun goes down. Tea pairings included.
Fall on Your Knees

Silent Pictures

They're all dead now.

Here's a picture of the town where they lived. New Waterford. It's a night bright with the moon. Imagine you are looking down from the height of a church steeple, onto the vivid gradations of light and shadow that make the picture. A small mining town near cutaway cliffs that curve over narrow rock beaches below, where the silver sea rolls and rolls, flattering the moon. Not many trees, thin grass. The silhouette of a colliery, iron tower against a slim pewter sky with cables and supports sloping at forty-five-degree angles to the ground. Railway tracks that stretch only a short distance from the base of a gorgeous high slant of glinting coal, towards an archway in the earth where the tracks slope in and down and disappear. And spreading away from the collieries and coal heaps are the peaked roofs of the miners' houses built row on row by the coal company. Company houses. Company town.

Look down over the street where they lived. Water Street. An avenue of packed dust and scattered stones that leads out past the edge of town to where the wide, keeling graveyard overlooks the ocean. That sighing sound is just the sea.

Here's a picture of their house as it was then. White, wood frame with the covered veranda. It's big compared to the miners' houses. There's a piano in the front room. In the back is the kitchen where Mumma died.

Here's a picture of her the day she died. She had a stroke while cleaning the oven. Which is how the doctor put it. Of course you can't see her face for the oven, but you can see where she had her stockings rolled down for housework and, although this is a black and white picture, her house-dress actually is black since she was in mourning for Kathleen at the time, as well as Ambrose. You can't tell from this picture, but Mumma couldn't speak English very well. Mercedes found her like that, half in half out of the oven like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. What did she plan to cook that day? When Mumma died, all the eggs in the pantry went bad - they must have because you could smell that sulphur smell all the way down Water Street.

So that's the house at 191 Water Street, New Waterford, Cape Breton Island, in the far eastern province of Nova Scotia, Canada. And that's Ma on the day she died, June 23, 1919.

Here's a picture of Daddy. He's not dead, he's asleep. You see that armchair he's in? That's the pale green wingback. His hair is braided. That's not an ethnic custom. They were only ethnic on Mumma's side. Those are braids that Lily put in his hair while he was asleep.

There are no pictures of Ambrose, there wasn't time for that. Here's a picture of his crib still warm.

Other Lily is in limbo. She lived a day, then died before she could be baptized, and went straight to limbo along with all the other unbaptized babies and the good heathens. They don't suffer, they just sort of hang there effortlessly and unaware. Jesus is known to have gone into limbo occasionally and taken a particularly good heathen out of it and up to heaven. So it is possible. Otherwise....That's why this picture of Other Lily is a white blank.

Don't worry. Ambrose was baptized.

Here's one of Mercedes. That opal rosary of hers was basically priceless. An opal rosary, can you imagine? She kept it pinned to the inside of her brassiere, over her heart, at all times when she wasn't using it. Partly for divine protection, partly out of the convenience of never being without the means to say a quick decade of the beads when the spirit moved her, which was often. Although, as Mercedes liked to point out, you can say the rosary with any objects at hand if you find yourself in need of a prayer but without your beads. For example, you can say it with pebbles or breadcrumbs. Frances wanted to know, could you say the rosary with cigarette butts? The answer was yes, if you're pure at heart. With mouse turds? With someone's freckles? The dots in a newspaper photograph of Harry Houdini? That's enough, Frances. In any case, this is a picture of Mercedes, holding her opal rosary, with one finger raised and pressed against her lips. She's saying, "Shshsh."

And this is Frances. But wait, she's not in it yet. This one is a moving picture. It was taken at night, behind the house. There's the creek, flowing black and shiny between its narrow banks. And there's the garden on the other side. Imagine you can hear the creek trickling. Like a girl telling a secret in a language so much like our own. A still night, a midnight clear. It's only fair to tell you that a neighbour once saw the dismembered image of his son in this creek, only to learn upon his arrival home for supper that his son had been crushed to death by a fall of stone in Number 12 Mine.

But tonight the surface of the creek is merely as Nature made it. And certainly it's odd but not at all supernatural to see the surface break, and a real live soaked and shivering girl rise up from the water and stare straight at us. Or at someone just behind us. Frances. What's she doing in the middle of the creek, in the middle of the night? And what's she hugging to her chest with her chicken-skinny arms? A dark wet bundle. Did it stir just now? What are you doing, Frances?

But even if she were to answer, we wouldn't know what she was saying, because, although this is a moving picture, it is also a silent one.

All the pictures of Kathleen were destroyed. All except one. And it's been put away.

Kathleen sang so beautifully that God wanted her to sing for Him in heaven with His choir of angels. So He took her.

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Why it's on the list ...
There's nothing like a big book to get you through the weekend. I love being able to dig into a book and know that I have simply pages and pages to get to know the characters. Ann-Marie MacDonald's book is a classic in the Can lit world and it will not disappoint. Pair with: Organic Cream of Earl Grey >
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Through Black Spruce

Through Black Spruce

also available: Paperback
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Why it's on the list ...
This book is a fabulous read that I couldn't put down. It's a truly Canadian novel, and as you journey through the North with Will Bird and Annie, who narrates his story, you feel the fresh smells of spruce, snow and smoky campfires as if you were there. Another brilliantly written book by Joseph Boyden. Pair with: Organic Northern Lights >
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One Bird's Choice

One Bird's Choice

A Year in the Life of an Overeducated, Underemployed Twenty-Something Who Moves Back Home
also available: Hardcover
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Why it's on the list ...
Iain Reid's memoir is filled with charming, rural anecdotes of working on his parents' farm after he's moved back home in his mid-twenties. His parents are delightful characters and by the end of the book I felt like I knew them so well that I could finish their sentences. Organized into seasons, this book is easy to pick up and put down in between a swim in the lake, or going for a canoe. Pair with: Organic Mother's Little Helper >
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Alone in the Classroom

Other children were out picking that morning, but she passed them by in her light- blue dress and sandals. “Ethel,” they called, and she gave a quick smile and went on up the road towards the woods and fields at the top of the hill. She had an empty kettle in each hand and was alone, despite having three sisters.
They were a family of bright solitaries, studious, quiet. Unlike anyone else in that town in the Ottawa Valley, she had been conceived in India, born in India, and raised there until the age of three. Her earliest memory was having warm water ladled over her hot head from an earthenware jar. For five years her father served in the British Army, then he left that parched and dusty land for the woods and rivers of Canada. In their apartment on the third floor of the Stewart Block adjoining the Rover Garage, there were a few keepsakes from that time, small ornaments, lacquered boxes, a monkey carved in ebony. Had they lived in a house with a veranda and a grassy yard, she might not have been so inclined to stay away for hours at a time. Her mother, waiting impatiently for the plums to ripen, was no great admirer of chokecherries. Nevertheless, she simmered a second batch in a big preserving kettle and strained it through cheesecloth, then added four cups of sugar for every two cups of cherry juice and let the liquid boil until the flow of juice off a spoon turned to slower drips that came together in a sheet and broke off, at which point she removed the pot from the fire.
Ruby- sweet jelly was the ultimate goal, manufactured in summer kitchens for winter mornings. Pickers were out every day that summer, mainly children, the fruit uncommonly plentiful in a year that also saw a heavy growth of plums in gardens and fields. Blueberries had given promise, too, but in the hot, dry weather of late July the blue gold suffered a setback, and some were going as far away for them as the mountains of Pakenham.
Chokecherries merit the name, puckering one up even more than green apples. Held aloft on low and spindly trees, the size of peas, almost black when ripe and almost edible when black. Shiny black. Prune- black. Prunus virginiana. Not a name children knew, but they knew the word astringent.
Roads were narrower in 1937, more shaded. Cars less common and slower. Summer feet were bare and tough, or shod in old leather. Faces were careless of the sun. Noses burned, and children aided the peeling by picking the skin loose and giving it a fascinated tug. As many peelings per summer as there were pips in a winter grapefruit.
In a dress you were one flitting colour among many in a landscape that mobilized its colours into a procession of ripening – from wild strawberries in June more potent in flavour, more fragrant than twenty garden berries put together and reason for kneeling on the grassy verge, your face inches above your prey, your fingers gently grappling to dislodge the firm, pale, tiny necks from their leafy hulls – to raspberries in July that raked your hands and arms as you grabbed a thorny cane and swung it back like a throat about to be slit, the soft red fruit like gobbets of blood – to blueberries in August abloom with ghostly light that erased itself in your fingers. The whole landscape was a painting come to life, and not a Canadian painting (no if figures allowed), but a European painting, peopled and unpeopled, storied, brazen.
A deer came out of the bush. Hardly a sound. It was there, a tawny pose and wet eyes. They absorbed each other’s attention. The deer lowered its head and nibbled, Ethel moved closer. Around them was birdsong, breezes. One small branch of a leaning maple showed the first touch of red. Early August. The jewelweed was in blossom, tomatoes were ripening, the morning became increasingly hot. Summer held. But school was in the air. Every child felt it. She was aware of precious time running out.
The search for the lost girl started at suppertime and spread rapidly. First, family and neighbours, then the police and Boy Scouts combed the Opeongo Road where she had been seen walking that morning. They moved out through the fields and along the creek, the Scouts blowing horns to communicate their whereabouts far and wide. Bugling criss- crossed the evening and gave the impression of a summer fox hunt. The sun began to go down.
Crows, not quiet before, were quiet now. A breeze picked up and stirred the leaves. Shadows deepened, but fields and woods were still clear enough to an accustomed eye. And a shout went up. A young man had stumbled over a body.
Word circulated through town, and an hour before midnight a ghost appeared. It lingered in front of the Argyle Hotel on Argyle Street, then continued on past Russell’s drugstore and Barker’s shoe store and over to the baseball diamond and the railway tracks in a slow, footless sort of swoop, a strange white moth involved in dusky explorations. A travelling player was drumming up an audience for the midnight “Ghost Show” at the O’Brien Theatre. He drew an overflow crowd. Many had to stand in the back, others were turned away. It was the summer equivalent of Santa: children were up way beyond their bedtimes and even more suggestible than usual.
By then everyone knew that thirteen- year- old Ethel Weir had been found at sunset in the bush on Ivey’s Hill. Her battered head lay in a pool of blood. Four feet away were two kettles, one of them partly filled with chokecherries, the other empty.
This part of the world is where I live now. At least in a general way. It contains the stream in which my grandmother washed herself in dumb panic upon finding a large red stain in her underwear – a motherless child raised by a Scottish grandmother who told her nothing. She passed on the favour, telling my mother nothing, even though they shared the same bed, and my mother passed this abashed ignorance on to me, asking me after the fact if I knew what to expect. It’s hard to credit in this age of palaver that people used to say so little about sex. Until it exploded in their faces, that is, at which point newspapers told all. Two days after the murder, a name floated up on the front page of the Mercury. John Coyle, not an official member of the search party, “almost stumbled” over the corpse in a bush next to a grain field. Very quickly, suspicion veered from marauding cattle and prowling degenerates to the lone young man who had nearly tripped over the body. The hot breath of the newspaper. “Police are working on the theory that some local person committed the deed. Some questioning has occurred. It is felt that at any hour the mystery may be solved.”
The old see- saw from horrified belief to dizzy disbelief to entrenched belief. The town was busy weaving a story, meting out blame, finding symmetry and plot and motive. Johnny Coyle’s fascination with his crime, went common opinion, reflected the old desire to return to the scene – as I am doing right now in returning to this time and place, in revisiting my mother’s childhood in the valley. Stories from her past draw me on. The shadows and underbrush, the evening light and imminent sorrow, until I stumble over what I’ve been looking for without quite knowing what it was, and look up. How dimly quiet the library is, how industrious the other researchers as they, too, ruin their eyes in moonlit woods of microfilm. Let’s not kid ourselves anymore about new technology.
In Ethel’s clenched hand were some fibres of green and yellow, light blue and rose, also dark blue, evidently wool, and some “pointed” hairs of a golden hue. My mother knew Ethel’s sister, who was too shy to be a close friend. “I was shy,” my mother said, “and she was shyer.”
Towards suppertime I leave the library and step outside into a haze of twenty- first- century sunshine and wind. Wellington Street in Ottawa. Behind me the Ottawa River flows east, and upriver, sixty miles from here and a bit inland, is the town I have been reading about, my mother’s hometown. I bicycle south, heading home through a flood of April light, and nothing around me is as clear as the colours and threads in Ethel’s hand, those makings for a tiny nest. Birds everywhere, but no leaves, not yet, though the red maple at the foot of my garden earns its name by staining the air dark crimson with minute, discreet blossom. In the morning, taking my pillow with me, I lie at the foot of the bed in order to see the colour through the upstairs window.
We have the most beautiful tree in the world. It turns my head every spring and again every fall when I step into this second- floor study and receive a bouquet the size of my window. Our house and garden used to belong to a botanist who was fascinated with orphan plants, waifs, like the Kaladar cactus first discovered a two- hour drive west of here in 1934, then lost from view and subsequently rediscovered in 1947, an isolated and vulnerable plant six hundred miles east of its Wisconsin home. The botanist used to sit on the front porch in a white chair and when he went inside he left a sign on the chair saying Open for business. You could bring him any flower or leaf and he would identify it. My study used to be full of plants that he watered in the nude. I am sorry not to have known him, though very probably he was best in small doses, because there are so many things I would like to identify and because the story I’m telling now is another story of discovery and rediscovery, not botanical but personal. Perhaps every family tale falls into this category: a child discovers something the parent has neglected to tell her and brings it into view again, naming it and locating it and establishing its importance.
What happened that August Tuesday in 1937 lived on in my mother’s mind, not that she ever mentioned it to me until long after I left home. Nor did she temper any of my own youthful wanderings with a warning. I went out into the world as free of apprehension as was Ethel Weir on the day she went to pick chokecherries, wearing a blue dress of synthetic silk and a green slip underneath it.
Birds compete for the berries. Robins peck the guts out of strawberries. Finches, robins, blue jays, kingbirds, cedar waxwings – all of them go after the chokecherries that favour fencerows and roadsides and the edges of open woods. Crows fancy the metallic glints of the kettles and pails children carry as they wander into the open centre of wild- plum thickets, or into the grassy meadow next to a little- used airfield, or into an abandoned orchard on a southern slope, or along the railway’s right- of- way, or down a path skirting a grain field towards the straggly, ragged chokecherry bushes above the creek, or into the woods for shade and rest.
Murdered in the morning, it was thought, for by the time they found her body, it was stiff. Dead eight to ten hours, the coroner said. They carried the body on a blanket out of the woods and transported it by car to the funeral parlour on Argyle Street. Three days later, several hundred people, mostly women and children (though not my mother and grandmother, they were at the lake), gathered at the Presbyterian Church for the morning funeral. A closed white casket. And afterwards, interment in the Angusville Cemetery.
Another funeral took place in the afternoon, another instance of sudden and perplexing death. A doctor had died on the operating table. On Tuesday evening (as the search was on for Ethel), Dr. Thomas entered the hospital and on Wednesday morning his heart gave out, an apparently rugged man with a heavy practice and a long history in the town.
Some who went to the first funeral attended the second, among them a reporter for the Ottawa Journal and the source of much of what I know. Connie Flood stayed on in the cemetery, notepad against her propped- up knees and her back against a tree, a young woman who made a desk for herself wherever she went. The cemetery was on a grassy hill half a mile from town. A white fence separated it from the road, and the large swing gates were open. The second funeral came through the gates, a sombre parade led by a firing party of the Lanark and Argyle Scottish Regiment with arms reversed. From a curious distance, Connie noted the contrast with the earlier scene of mothers holding their children by the hand, the bereaved family bent- shouldered and willowy, the sisters bare armed in summer dresses and flat, flowered straw hats, purchased for Easter probably, the mother in black, the father in black, the ceremony at the graveside drenched in tears and formality beside the point. Afterwards, the mourners left the baked cemetery for more of the noonday sun, some walking, some in cars.
In the second case, all the motions mattered. The regiment fired three volleys over the grave, then the pipe major played the customary lament and a comrade sounded the last post. A prominent citizen was being buried and prominent citizens were in attendance. Connie lingered on the edges. The dead man apparently had no children, no wife. It was hard to say. Two women seemed front and centre, aunts perhaps or sisters. And men in dark suits and hats, older men, established men, and suddenly the air went funny and the ground shifted. She drew near to make sure.

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Why it's on the list ...
This new work from Elizabeth Hay is a mysterious story that begins with a murder. Through the stories passed down by generations, we learn about the Flood family, and the relationships that define them. Set in the Prairies, then in Ontario, this book screams Canada and took me through so many familiar landscapes I know so well. Pair with: Prairie Berry >
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Late Nights on Air

Harry was in his little house on the edge of Back Bay when at half past twelve her voice came over the radio for the “rst time. A voice unusual in its sound and unusual in itself, since there were no other female announcers on air. He listened to the slow, clear, almost unnatural con—dence, the low-­pitched sexiness, the elusive accent as she read the local news. More than curious, already in love, he walked into the station the next day at precisely the same time.

It was the beginning of June, the start of the long, golden summer of 1975 when northern light held that little radio station in the large palm of its hand. Eleanor Dew was behind the receptionist’s desk and behind clever Eleanor was the studio. She looked up, surprised. Harry rarely darkened the station door except at night when he came in to do the late shift and got away with saying and playing whatever he liked. He paused beside her desk and with a broad wink asked about the new person on air.

“Hired off the street,” she told him. “The parting shot of our erstwhile manager.”

“Well, well, well,” said Harry.

Despite the red glow of the on-­air light, he then pushed through the studio door, only to be met by one of the great mysteries of life. We look so very different from the way we sound. It’s a shock, similar to hearing your own voice for the “rst time, when you’re forced to wonder how the rest of you comes across if you sound nothing like the way you think you sound. You feel dislodged from the old shoe of yourself.

Harry had pictured somebody short and compact with sun-­bleached hair, “ne blue eyes, great legs, a woman in her thirties. But Dido Paris was tall, big-­boned, olive-­skinned, younger. Glasses. Thick, dark, springy hair held back off a wide face. Faintest shadow on her upper lip. An unreasonably beautiful woman. She ­didn’t look up, too intent on the newscast typed in capital letters on green paper, three-­part greens, the paper-­and-­carbon combination the newsmen typed on.

He turned to check who was in the control room. Eddy at the controls and one of the newsmen standing at Eddy’s shoulder. An audience, in other words.

Harry took out his lighter, “icked it, and put the “ame to the top corner of the green. And still she ­didn’t look up.

An upper lip as downy as he imagined her legs might be. And yes, when she stood up later and came around the table, her legs were visible below a loose blue skirt, and the mystery of her voice was solved. She was European. European in her straightforwardness, her appearance, her way of speaking, which was almost too calm, except when the page was alight. Then her voice caught “re. She stopped turning her long pencil end on end, pacing herself. Stopped speaking altogether. Her eyes went in two directions — one leg on shore, the other in the canoe, but the canoe was pulling away from shore and shit — she picked up her glass, poured water on the “ames, and read with jolting speed, repressed panic, to the very last word at the bottom of the page.

The news clip came on, she switched off her microphone and looked up wildly at the man with the boyish gleam in his eye. But he ­wasn’t boyish, he was balding, bespectacled, square-­jawed. She noticed his cauli—ower ear.

“You’re Harry Boyd,” she said.

And she, too, had imagined another face — a big, bushy head to go with the relaxed, late-­night growl that she heard only as she fell asleep. The man who’d once been a big name in radio, she’d been told. He was shorter than she’d expected and his hands trembled.

Half an hour later, perched on Dido’s desk, bumming a cigarette, Harry asked her how she’d come by her intriguing accent. She studied him, not quite willing to forgive his outrageous behaviour, until he asked if she was Greek. Then out bubbled her easy and seductive laugh.

No chance. She’d grown up in the Netherlands near the German border, the daughter of a Latin teacher who’d listened to the bbc and written questions to “London Calling” about expressions he ­didn’t understand. Her father had a reel-­to-­reel tape recorder and taped programs off the radio. She learned English at school, she told Harry, but her pronunciation was terrible and so she’d asked her father to make some tapes for her, and then she practised her English listening to Margaret Leighton reading Noel Coward and to Noel Coward himself, acquiring in that way her peculiar European-­English accent, which she hated. “I “gured marriage to a Canadian would solve my problem, but it ­hasn’t.”

“Two minutes,” said Harry, “and you’re already breaking my heart.”

“It ­didn’t last,” she said.

“Then we have something in common, you and I.”

He slipped her glasses off her face and breathed on the lenses and polished them with his handkerchief, then slid them back over her nose, saying, “And Dorothy Parker said men never make passes at girls with glasses.”


“Dorothy. A writerly wit who famously claimed to be ‘too fucking busy and vice versa.’”

Dido was only semi-­amused. To Eleanor the next day she called Harry “the loser,” a put-­down softened by her accent; it came out “lose-­air.” She said he’d taken a drag off her lit cigarette, then set it back on the ashtray. “So cheap,” she said with a shake of her head and a faint, unimpressed smile.

“But not without charm,” countered Eleanor. “Charm, sex, insecurity: that’s what Harry has to offer.”

Dido was more interested now.

“He’s too old for you, Dido.”

But his age was the last thing Dido minded.

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Why it's on the list ...
Another book about the North, this novel of Elizabeth Hay's follows the story of the small radio station in Yellowknife and the lives of those that are associated with it. The relationships are so different from those in the novels I usually read and yet they are still so accessible. This book takes you on a rough and wonderful adventure through the Canadian North that made me want to book my own once I had finished this book. Pair with: Organic Evergreen >
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Why it's on the list ...
This novel is filled with heartbreaking language that is so deftly crafted and intelligent while describing little moments in day to day life that would otherwise go unnoticed. Firmly planted on the eastern shores of Canada, this gorgeous novel deals with loss in a very real and honest way that was so refreshing to read. Pair with: Whiskey White >
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Canoe Lake
Why it's on the list ...
The mysterious, romantic story of Tom Thomson is one that lives forever in the lakes and twisted pines of Algonquin Park. Though there are many well written, non-fiction takes on the circumstances surrounding his death (or was it murder?) it is lovely to read a historical fiction where liberties are taken to make for a really good read. Pair with: Pair with: Indian Summer >
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Clara Callan
Why it's on the list ...
This novel, set in Ontario in the 30s, follows the simple, routine life of school-teacher Clara and, through letters, the more exciting life of her sister Nora who's a radio actress in New York. Richard B. Wright sets the scene of a seemingly inescapable, small town in Ontario and how tough it is sometimes to escape the confines of your own life. Pair with: David's Organic Breakfast >
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