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Barefoot Girls and Wild Women: Karen Hofmann

By 49thShelf
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Karen Hofmann's first novel is After Alice, which author Angie Abdou has calledun "a rich novel with big heart.” In this list, she recommends wild Canadian heroines who have much in common with the fascinating female characters in her book. ***** This is a list of Canadian books with female characters who break the rules, ignore decorum, sin, err, shoot at people, take off their shoes in public, love who they shouldn’t, and otherwise transgress. These unconventional woman are also associated with the landscape—not in the classic sense of fertility and cultivation, but in their ability to discover or rediscover and draw on their inherent, individual, untrammelled selves.
Swamp Angel

Swamp Angel

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : classics
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Excerpt

One
 
 
Ten twenty fifty brown birds flew past the window and then a few stragglers, out of sight. A fringe of Mrs. Vardoe’s mind flew after them (what were they – birds returning in migration of course) and then was drawn back into the close fabric of her preoccupations. She looked out over the small green garden which would soon grow dark in evening. This garden led down a few steps to the wooden sidewalk; then there was the road, dusty in fine weather; next came the neighbors’ houses across the road, not on a level with her but lower, as the hill declined, so that she was able to look over the roofs of these houses to Burrard Inlet far below, to the dark green promontory of Stanley Park, to the elegant curve of the Lions’ Gate Bridge which springs from the Park to the northern shore which is the base of the mountains; and to the mountains. The mountains seemed, in this light, to rear themselves straight up from the shores of Burrard Inlet until they formed an escarpment along the whole length of the northern sky. This escarpment looked solid at times, but certain lights disclosed slope behind slope, hill beyond hill, giving an impression of the mountains which was fluid, not solid.
 
Mrs. Vardoe had become attached to, even absorbed into the sight from the front- room window of inlet and forest and mountains. She had come to love it, to dislike it, to hate it, and at seven- fifteen this evening she proposed to leave it and not to return. Everything was, she thought, in order.
 
Behind her unrevealing gray eyes of candor and peace she had arranged with herself that she would arrive at this very evening and at this place where, on Capitol Hill, she would stand waiting with everything ready. There had been time enough in which to prepare. She had endured humiliations and almost unbearable resentments and she had felt continual impatience at the slowness of time. Time, she knew, does irrevocably pass and would not fail her; rather she might in some unsuspected way fail time. Her look and habit had not betrayed her although she had lived more and more urgently through the last few weeks when an irrational fear had possessed her that she – or he – would become ill, would meet with an accident, that some car, some fall, some silly bodily ailment would, with utmost indignity and indifference, interfere; but nothing had happened to interfere. The time was now half past five. It was not likely that the unlikely – having so far held its hand – would happen within two hours, but, if it did, she was armed against revealing herself and she would build in time again, or again, like the bird who obstinately builds again its destroyed nest. So strong was the intention to depart.
 
She had been most vulnerable and desperate when, more than a year ago, she had taken a small box of fishing flies to the shop known by sportsmen up and down the Pacific coast.
 
“May I see Mr. Thorpe or Mr. Spencer?”
 
“There’s no Mr. Thorpe. I am Mr. Spencer.”
 
“Here are some flies, Mr. Spencer.”
 
He picked up each fly and scrutinized it. Turning it this way and that he looked for flaws in the perfection of the body, the hackle, the wings. There were no flaws. He looked up at the pleasant young woman with less interest than he felt in the flies. There were small and large flies, dun- colored flies, and flies with a flash of iridescent green, scarlet, silver.
 
“Who made these flies?”
 
“I did.”
 
“Who taught you?”
 
“My father.”
 
“Where did he learn?”
 
“At Hardy’s.”
 
Mr. Spencer now regarded the young woman with some respect. She was unpretentious. Her gray eyes, rimmed with dark lashes, were wide set and tranquil and her features were agreeably irregular. She was not beautiful; she was not plain. Yes, perhaps she was beautiful. She took no pains to be beautiful. The drag of her cheap cloth coat and skirt intimated large easy curves beneath.
 
“Would you like to sell us your flies?”
 
“Yes, but I have no more feathers.”
 
“We can arrange that. Have you a vise?”
 
“Yes, my father’s vise.”
 
“We will take all the flies you can make. Would you like to work here? We have a small room at the back with a good light.”
 
“I would rather work at home.”
 
“Where do you live?”
 
“Out Capitol Hill way.”
 
“And you come from . . . “”
 
“I have lived in Vancouver for some time.”
 
“Oh. You were not born . . . “”
 
“I was born in New Brunswick.”
 
“Will you come to the desk? Sit down.”
 
He took up a pen. “Your name?”
 
“Lloyd.” The word Vardoe died in her mouth.
 
He looked at her large capable hands and saw the ring.
 
He smiled. “You won’t mind me saying, Mrs. Lloyd, but I always back large hands or even short stubby hands for tying flies.”
 
She looked down at her hands as if she had not noticed them before. “Yes,” she said, “they are large,” and she looked up and smiled for the first time, a level easy smile.
 
“Your telephone number?”
 
“There is no telephone.”
 
“Oh, then your address?”
 
“I’d rather call on Mondays.”
 
He pushed his lips out and looked at her over his glasses.
 
“Oh,” she said, “I know. The feathers. Please trust me the first few times and then I’ll pay for my own.”
 
“No, no,” he protested. “Oh no, you must do whatever suits you best.”
 
“It suits me best,” she said, coloring a very little, “to call on Monday mornings and bring the flies I’ve made, and see what you want done for the next week and take away the material.”
 
“That suits me too. What do you know about rods?”
 
“Not as much as I know about flies. But I can splice a rod, and mend some kinds of trout rods.”
 
“Would you want to take the rods home too?”
 
She hesitated. “No, if I do rods, I must do them here. But I would like to do all the work you can give me . . . if I can arrange to do it.”
 
That was how it had begun and she had been so clever; never a bright feather blew across the room; vise, hooks, jungle cock and peacock feather were all ingeniously hidden, and Edward had never known. The curtains, drawn widely, now framed her in the window as she looked out and out over the scene which she had loved and which she hoped not to see again.
 
In the woodshed by the lane was her canvas bag packed to a weight that she could carry, and a haversack that she could carry on her shoulders. There was her fishing rod. That was all. How often she had lived through these moments – which had now arrived and did not stay – of standing at the window; of turning; of walking through to the kitchen; of looking at the roast in the oven; of looking, once more, to see that her navy-blue raincoat with the beret stuffed in the pocket hung by the kitchen door, easy to snatch on her way out into the dark; of picking up the bags and the rod inside the woodshed door as quickly as if it were broad daylight because she had learned their place so well; of seeing the light in the Chinaman’s taxi a few yards up the lane; of quickly entering the taxi on seeing the slant face of the Chinese boy; and then the movement forward. She had carefully planned the time, early enough to arrive; too late to be seen, recognized, followed, and found.
 
Now she advanced, as planned, along these same minutes that had so often in imagination solaced her. When, in the night, as had soon happened after their marriage, she lay humiliated and angry, she had forced her mind forward to this moment. The secret knowledge of her advancing plan was her only restoration and solace. Often, in the day and in the night, she had strengthened herself by naming, item by item, the contents of her haversack and bag. She would, in fancy, pack a sweater, her shoes . . . the little vise and some flies. . . . How many scores of times, as her hands lay still, she had packed these little bags. Each article, as she in fancy picked or discarded it, comforted her and became her familiar companion and support. And last night she had lain for the last time beside her husband and he did not know that it was the last time.
 
She had once lived through three deaths, and – it really seemed – her own. Her country had regretted to inform her that her husband, Tom Lloyd, was killed in action; their child was stricken, and died; her father, who was her care, had died; and Maggie Lloyd, with no one to care for, had tried to save herself by an act of compassion and fatal stupidity. She had married Edward Vardoe who had a spaniel’s eyes. Now she was to disappear from Edward’s eyes.
 
Mrs. Vardoe, still standing at the window, raised her left hand and saw that the time was now a quarter to six. She turned and went through to the kitchen. She took her large apron from the chair where she had thrown it, tied it so that it covered her, opened the oven door, took out the roast, put the roast and vegetables back into the oven, and began to make the gravy in the pan. These actions, which were familiar and almost mechanical, took on, tonight, the significance of movement forward, of time felt in the act of passing, of a moment being reached (time always passes, but it is in the nature of things that we seldom observe it flowing, flying, past). Each action was important in itself and, it seemed, had never been real before.
 
The front door opened and was shut with a bang and then there was silence. As she stirred the gravy she knew what Edward was doing. He was putting his topcoat on its hanger, turning his hat in his hand, regarding it, reshaping it, and hanging them both up – the good topcoat and respectable hat of Eddie Vardoe, E. Thompson Vardoe. It’s a good thing I’m going now, she thought as she stirred the gravy. I’m always unfair, now, to Edward. I hate everything he does. He has only to hang up his hat and I despise him. Being near him is awful. I’m unfair to him in my heart always whatever he is doing, but tonight I shall be gone.
 
As he walked to the kitchen door she looked up from her stirring. He stood beside her, trim, prim, and jaunty in the little kitchen. He was in rare good humor, and excited.
 
“Well,” he said, “I pretty near bought it. Guess I’ll settle tomorrow. Four hundred cash and easy terms.”
 
She straightened herself and looked mildly at him. Was it possible that what she was about to do was not written plain on her brow.
 
“If you gointa show people real estate,” he said, “you gotta have the right car. Something conservative but snappy. Snappy but reefined. See.”
 
“Yes, oh yes,” she agreed. She had forgotten about the car.
 
He took off his coat, revealing a tie on which athletes argued in yellow and red. That tie, and other ties, were new signs of Edward’s advancement and self- confidence. What a tie, thought Mrs. Vardoe, stirring mechanically. When Edward took off his coat a strong sweet sour smell was released. He took a paper from an inner pocket, went to the hall and hung up his coat. He came back to the kitchen and held out the paper to her.
 
“Take a look at that, woodja,” he said with a smile of triumph. “‘E. Thompson Vardoe’ – sounds all right, doesn’t it!”
 
“Just a minute till I put the roast on the table,” she said, picking up the hot platter.
 
He turned and followed her into the room. “Well,” he said aggrieved, “I’d think you’d be innerested in your husband starting in business for himself!”
 
She went with her usual light deliberation into the kitchen again, brought in the vegetables, gravy, and plates, took off her apron and sat down at the table.
 
“Let me see it,” she said.
 
Mr. Vardoe, sitting down in his shirt sleeves before the roast, passed her a piece of paper with a printed heading. She read aloud “Weller and Vardoe – Real Estate – Specialists in Homes – West End, Point Gray and Southern Slope – Octavius Weller, E. Thompson Vardoe.”
 
“Oh it does look nice! I hope that . . .”
 
Say!” said Mr. Vardoe in an affronted tone, holding the carving knife and fork above the roast of beef. “Whatever got into you, buying this size roast for two people! Must be all of six pounds! Is it six pounds?”
 
“No,” said Mrs. Vardoe with her wide gentle look upon the roast, “but it’s all of five pounds.”
 
“And solid meat!” said Mr. Vardoe, striking the roast with the carving knife. His voice rose shrill with anger. “You buying six-pound roasts when I gotta get a new car and get started in a new business! Bet it wasn’t far off a dollar a pound!”
 
“No, it wasn’t,” admitted Mrs. Vardoe. She gave a quick look down at her watch. The time was twenty minutes past six. It seemed to her that time stood still, or had died.
 
“It’ll be nice cold,” she said, without self- defense.
 
“Nice cold!” he echoed. “Who wants to eat cold meat that cost the earth for a week!”
 
If you only knew it, you will, thought Mrs. Vardoe.
 
Edward Vardoe gave her one more glare. In annoyed silence he began to carve the roast.
 
As Mrs. Vardoe put vegetables onto the two plates she dared to give another downward glance. Twenty- five minutes past six. The roast was delicious. When Edward Vardoe had shown enough displeasure and had satisfied himself that his wife had felt his displeasure he began eating and talking of his partner Octavius Weller, a man experienced – he said – in the real estate business.
 
“Octavius’s smart all right,” he said with satisfaction and his mouth full. “Anyone have to get up pooty early to fool Octavius. I guess we’ll be a good team, me and O.W.” He at last pushed his plate aside. He continued to talk.
 
Mrs. Vardoe got up and took away the meat course and brought in a pudding. Her husband looked at her strangely. He took his time to speak.
 
“Well, say,” he said at last, “you got your good tweed suit on!”
 
“Yes, I have,” she said, looking down at it. The time was twenty minutes to seven. She had to control a trembling in her whole body.
 
“Cooking a dinner in your good suit!”
 
“I had my apron.”
 
“Well, what you got it on for! You never sit down in your good suit like that before! Wearing that suit around the house!”
 
She could conceal – how well she could conceal! – but she could not deceive and she did not need to deceive.
 
“I wanted to see Hilda and her mother. I went there and they weren’t in. So I walked around for a bit and went back there and they weren’t in, so I came home.”
 
And never took that suit off, and went and cooked dinner in that suit!” (That suit, that suit, that suit.)
 
Yes, but, her mind said, if I didn’t wear my suit I hadn’t room to pack it. That was all arranged. Long ago that was arranged, arranged by night, arranged by day. I won’t tell him any lies. I can stay quiet a little longer whatever he says. She ate her pudding mechanically, hardly knowing what she did or what he said. It all depends on me, now, she thought. If I can manage the next quarter of an hour? Oh God help me. Just this quarter of an hour. Time could kill a person, standing still like this. A person could die.
 
“Any more pudding?” she said.
 
He shook his head. Ill temper made his face peevish.
 
“Gimme the paper,” he said sourly.
 
“It’s here.” She passed it to him and her heart beat like a clock.
 
He turned himself from the table and seemed to settle to the paper. A weight lifted a little from her. She took out the plates, cleared the table, and went into the kitchen, closing the door behind her. She ran the water into the dishpan. Water makes more noise than anything but crumpling paper, doesn’t it, she thought. I must have things quiet, so that I can listen both ways. She piled the dishes, one on one, very quietly. It was seven o’clock. She began to wash the dishes, silently enough. The moments became intolerable. A person could die, waiting for a minute to come. She could not bear it. She dried her hands on her apron and threw off the apron. It dropped to the floor. She snatched the raincoat off the peg by the door. She slipped her arms into the raincoat and went out into the dark. If it’s not here, she thought in her fluttering mind, what shall I do. If he comes into the kitchen and I have to go back in, what’ll I do. The taxi might be two or three minutes early. It might. She walked quickly down the little back garden path to the lane where the woodshed stood. The air, cool and fresh and dark after the warm lighted kitchen, blew upon her face. She saw up the dark lane a car standing, its engine running. The absurd fear nearly choked her that this might not, after all, be her car. Some other car might be standing there. Ducking into the woodshed, she picked up the two bags and the thin fishing rod in the case, slung the haversack over her shoulder, and began to run. She reached the taxi and looked eagerly in. She saw the Chinese face. Before the driver could reach the door handle, she wrenched the door open, sprang in and closed it.
 
“Drive,” she said, and leaned back in the car with a relief that made her for a moment dizzy.

From the Paperback edition.

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Why it's on the list ...
Maggie Lloyd has had more than her share of sadness and loss. One day she puts down a dish she is drying and walks out the back door, away from her sour, narrow, controlling husband, Eddie, and takes a job in a rugged resort at Three Loons Lake (reputed to be an alias for Lac le Jeune, near Kamloops, in BC’s Interior). Both Maggie, who is unconventional, self-aware, and intelligent, and her wilder friend Nell (the owner of the pearl-handled revolver the book is called after) show toughness and guts and unusual survival instincts, as well as the power of friendship between women.
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Desert of the Heart

Desert of the Heart

edition:Paperback
tagged : literary
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Why it's on the list ...
This novel was among the first to explore a lesbian relationship, outside of pulp (not that there’s anything wrong with that) fiction. The novel is set in the 1950s; the protagonist, Evelyn, an academic, in Nevada waiting out the residency period to obtain a “quickie” divorce, falls in love with a younger woman. As with other of Rule’s work, the novel portrays the lesbian couple as “ordinary”—but the characters struggle with conformity and individuality just in the exploration of their sexuality and roles. A film version of the novel, Desert Hearts, released in 1985, starred Helen Shaver.
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Bear

Bear

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback
tagged :
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Excerpt

1  In the winter, she lived like a mole, buried deep in her office, digging among maps and manuscripts. She lived close to her work and shopped on the way between her apartment and the Institute, scurrying hastily through the tube of winter from refuge to refuge, wasting no time. She did not like cold air on her skin. Her basement room at the Institute was close to the steam pipes and protectively lined with books, wooden filing cabinets and very old, brown, framed photographs of unlikely people: General Booth and somebody's Grandma Town, France from the air in 1915, groups of athletes and sappers; things people brought her because she would not throw them out, because it was her job to keep them. "Don't throw it out," people said. "Lug it all down to the Historical Institute. They might want it. He might have been more of a somebody than we thought, even if he did drink." So she had retrieved from their generosity a Christmas card from the trenches with a celluloid boot on it, a parchment poem to Chingacousy Township graced with a wreath of human hair, a signed photograph of the founder of a seed company long ago absorbed by a competitor. Trivia which she used to remind herself that long ago the outside world had existed, that there was more to today than yesterday with its yellowing paper and browning ink and maps that tended to shatter when they were unfolded. Yet, when the weather turned and the sun filtered into even her basement windows, when the sunbeams were laden with spring dust and the old tin ashtrays began to stink of a winter of nicotine and contemplation, the flaws in her plodding private world were made public, even to her, for although she loved old shabby things, things that had already been loved and suffered, objects with a past, when she saw that her arms were slug- pale and her fingerprints grained with old, old ink, that the detritus with which she bedizened her bulletin boards was curled and valueless, when she found that her eyes would no longer focus in the light, she was always ashamed, for the image of the Good Life long ago stamped on her soul was quite different from this, and she suffered in contrast. This year, however, she was due to escape the shaming moment of realization. The mole would not be forced to admit that it had been intended for an antelope. The Director found her among her files and rolled maps and, standing solemnly under a row of family portraits donated to the Institute on the grounds that it would be impious to hang them, as was then fashionable, in the bathroom, announced that the Cary estate had at last been settled in favour of the Institute. He looked at her, she looked at him: it had happened. For once, instead of Sunday school attendance certificates, old emigration documents, envelopes of unidentified farmers' Sunday photographs and withered love letters, something of real value had been left them. "You'd better get packing, Lou," he said, "and go up and do a job on it. The change will do you good."

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Why it's on the list ...
I found this novella while doing research for a poem sequence I’m working on, about a bear in my neighbourhood. Engel’s protagonist, Lou, retreats from her job (sorting through the detritus of other lives and historical constructs), her relationships, and her social connections to live on an island with a semi-tame bear. The bear is both literal and metaphorical, comforting and shocking, vulnerable and violent, a companion of both body and spirit as the protagonist explores her own raw psyche and sexuality.
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Modern Classics the Progress of Love
Why it's on the list ...
The women in these stories go about their loves following their own often impractically skewed moral compasses, and Munro’s close observation and detached treatment of their stories honours the quirks and fits of the individual. My favourite story is “A Queer Streak”: the characters in it can’t be contained, though society tries. They suffer suspicion, social banishment, isolation, disenfranchisement from the world of politeness and wealth, but their individuality bursts through with the devastation of dammed water. The progress that love has made, Munro seems to say, is from the stemming up of society of what is most human to the sometimes frightening freedom of acceptance.
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We So Seldom Look On Love
Why it's on the list ...
Necrophilia. Need I say more? In the title story, the basis for the film Kissed, lovers challenge the ordinary boundaries of arousal, as does the female protagonists of the selections “Sylvie,” “Ninety-Three Million Miles Away,” and “Flesh of my Flesh.” Gowdy explores the extraordinary, the taboo, the repulsive in life by looking at it with calmness and objectivity. This is a kind of freedom, she seems to say: to unplug the imagination from the social constructs that seek to limit and define. Gowdy’s novel, The White Bone, with its visionary pachyderm heroine, Mud, would also fit in this list of books with unconventional heroines who are connected to the landscape.
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Bad Imaginings
Why it's on the list ...
This collection of short fiction, published when Adderson was still in her twenties, won the Ethel Wilson prize for fiction and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award. It’s a brilliant collection, exploring characters from such a variety of lives in such vivid and convincing detail that I felt, reading it, that the author must be channelling them. “The Chmarnyk,” which has been widely anthologized, is my favourite: its heroine, a young Ukrainian immigrant in the Palliser Triangle during the Great Depression, observes and aids the spit and spark of her brother’s madness with a sensibility that is both bare-bones, stripped to a 1930s prairie mentality we associate with Sinclair Lewis, and rooted in deep, rich, wild Galician myth.
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The Cure For Death By Lightning
Excerpt

THE CURE for death by lightning was handwritten in thick, messy blue ink in my mother's scrapbook, under the recipe for my father's favorite oatcakes:

Dunk the dead by lightning in a cold water bath for two hours and if still dead, add vinegar and soak for an hour more.

Beside this, some time later, my mother had written Ha! Ha! in black ink. The same page contained a tortoiseshell butterfly, pressed flat beside the cure for death so the wings left smudges of burgundy and blue on the back of the previous page. The bottom of one wing was torn away. My mother said that she'd caught the butterfly and pressed it between the pages of her scrapbook because of this torn wing. "Wonderful," she told me. "That it could still fly. It's a reminder to keep going."

The scrapbook sat on my mother's rocking chair next to the black kitchen stove and was hers just as the rocking chair was hers. I didn't sit in her chair or touch her scrapbook, at least not whe she was in the room. My mother knew where to find a particular recipe or remedy by the page it was written on, because every page was different. She compiled the scrapbook during the Depression and into the Second World War when paper was at first expensive and then impossible to buy, so she copied her recipes on the backs of letters, scraps of wallpaper, bags, and brown wrapping, and on paper she made herself from the pulp of vegetables and flowers. The cover was red, one of the few bits of red that my father allowed in the house, cut from the carboard of a box of crackers. The book was swollen from years of entries. Pages were dusted with flour, stained with spots of tea, and warped from moisture. Each page had its own scent: almond extract or vanilla, butter or flour, the petals of the rose it was made from, or my mother's perfume, Lily of the Valley.My mother didn't keep the book as a diary. If she kept a diary at all, I never found it. But she wrote brief thoughts along the margins of at the bottom of a page, as footnotes to the recipes and remedies, the cartoons and clippings -- footnotes to the events of the day. She was always adding a new page, and it didn't matter how many times I stole the scrapbook from her chair and pilfered my few minutes with it, there was always some new entry or something I'd missed.

I still have my mother's scrapbook. It sits inside the trunk that was her hope chest. I sometimes take out the scrapbook and sit with it at my kitchen table, by the stove that is electric and white. Even now I find new entries in the scrapbook, things I've never seen before, as if my mother still sits each morning before I wake and copies a recipe, or adds a new page made from the pulp of scarlet flax.

My name is Beth Weeks. My story takes place in the midst of the Second World War, the year I turned fifteen, the year the world fell apart and began to come together again. Much of it will be hard to believe, I know. But the evidence for everything I'm about to tell you is there, in the pages of my mother's scrapbook, in the clippings describing bear attacks and the Swede's barn fire and the children gone missing on the reserve, in the recipe for pound cake I made the night they took my father away, and in the funeral notices of my classmate Sarah Kemp and the others. The scrapbook was my mother's way of setting down the days so they wouldn't be forgotten. This story is my way. No one can tell me these events didn't happen, or that it was all a girl's fantasy. The reminders are there, in that scrapbook, and I remember them all.

Excerpted from The Cure for Death By Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz.

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Why it's on the list ...
This novel, which won the Ethel Wilson Prize and was shortlisted for a Giller, uses magic realism and a vivid, immediate voice to tell the story of fifteen-year-old Beth Weeks, growing up in the Turtle Valley area of the Shuswap in the 1940s. Recipes and cures are combined with accounts of madness, violence, taboo relationships, and the uncanny. Beth’s connection to the landscape and her fearlessness give her what it takes to tough things out. The novel’s fresh and individual take on the legacy of war and other forms of colonialism and dislocation gives it a philosophical depth that balances the quirkiness and the tightness of Beth’s world very effectively. Beth, at the novel’s end, finds her own cure in the free expression of her own fierce will and sense of self.
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I'll Tell You A Secret

I'll Tell You A Secret

A Memory Of Seven Summers
edition:Paperback
tagged : women, literary
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Excerpt

EARLY ONE MORNING
1950
I am swimming up into the morning through green-gold water that is shot with sunrays as I surface. It is a dream and I float out of the image as I open my eyes.

And I am in my own bed. I am lying on my smooth white sheet, my covers on the floor, and I can hear a wild tumult of birdsong: the trees, even the verandah vine, are full of so many birds singing that it is amazing that everyone isn’t awake, but all the sounds are outside. Within the house all is quiet and everyone still sleeps.

I lean up on my elbow to look through my wide open window. The air is cool but the day will be warm, maybe even hot.

I hitch myself up to look out and better see my maple tree, which is at this moment seething with the singing birds. It is huge and ancient and because of the way the lawn slopes below the house, I am almost on a level with its crown. The leaves nearest me are in shadow and the sun is lighting the ones only at the very top on the eastern side. The sunlit ones are the bright new green of early summer. Below me the grass is dark green, still wet with dew. I know just how it would feel, cold, under my feet and that I would leave silver tracks. By my new watch I see that it is six o’clock.

I will think about my secret.

I rest my arms on the sill and notice how brown they already are, making the little blond hairs on them look white as they catch the light. I am wearing pale orange pajamas, short-sleeved, many times washed, in fact a faint peach colour now, and rather shrunken. Or is it that I am now so tall? My arms and legs have lengthened even since Christmas.

At every time of year my first ritual on waking, when I am home, is to study the leaves and bark of my maple. I know from their look how early it is; also in the evenings, how late. I am not someone who really needs a watch but time is important to me and I like to be precise. And I like my watch, which is a man’s and what I asked for. On long summer evenings, I stare at the leaves until the shadows have gathered and deepened and then it is important that I sleep at once. I must not still be awake when darkness overtakes the tree.

From the tree, I also know the weather and the temperature: in winter the tree’s unprotected skin pales, becomes dry and brittle, grey with the cold. Watching from my window, I know how it would feel under my hand. And it darkens with warmth and moisture on a milder day while the snow around its base greys and coarsens. In spring the bark is a richer brown and I watch the thin, high branches, the fragile black twigs against the sky, and think of the sap mounting. My brother and I pound in sharp spigots, one to each side to hang a pail on, and tap it. The sap tastes of spring, thin and green. We boil it down and make a tiny jug of syrup.

I am obsessed with seasons as well as time. I am a very odd child, according to my sisters. Even though I am a quiet person, it seems that I am turning out to be the most extreme member of the family, in some ways anyway. I am not sure how much choice a person has in who she turns out to be. The difficulty is in wanting the things and being the ways other people expect. A person can make herself do certain things perhaps, but she can’t make herself want to. In my case I don’t even make myself do them.

The situation is getting worse because I am about to be fourteen. Increasingly I feel the push of other people’s expectations on me of what a girl is supposed to be and I can’t want any of the things I’m supposed to be eager for. My sisters have gone ahead of me along the path into, and in the case of my older sister, out the other side of, adolescence. They have had to endure miseries and perils, and I have watched in dread the tortures of shyness and holding back in the case of one, and the worrying but brave ventures forth in the case of the other, both of them being determined, throughout, to succeed at being the right sort of woman whatever the cost. The miseries and perils were about having the wrong sort of hair (we all have curly) and having in every way to look and behave unnaturally or face terrible scorn. I long to bypass the whole stage and I will, somehow. I don’t seem able to do anything else, in fact.

However, at the moment I am so happy I can’t even worry. I am home from boarding school and I will never go back there. Mother has promised. We may even move back to Toronto and I’d go to school there. I have been home for two weeks, but still each morning I wake up to joy and relief at being in my own bed. And there is my new and secret friendship. It makes me feel a little bit excited all the time, even when I am doing other things.

My grandmother is visiting, and my aunt, who lives with her. This is their summer holiday in the country and they are here for three weeks.

My grandmother has always worn a girdle and stays. When I was a smaller girl, I would sit on her bed and watch her get dressed. It was a long and complicated matter. She had to deal with several layers, while more or less lying down against the pillows. The room was dim because her window had an awning to keep out the sun, and that made her tasks all the more mysterious. While still in her loose summer dressing gown, she would begin. The first step was using a big peach-coloured puff to smooth talcum powder over herself, slipping her hands under her gown to do this. She never would be fully undressed in front of me. Then she would place tiny, flattish pink powder-puffs in strategic, tender spots against her pink plumpness (of which I would have some glimpses) to protect her soft skin from the bones of her stays, or girdle. This at first flapped hugely wide and spoked, and then was heaved firmly into position — an uncomfortable moment requiring an indrawn breath — and then hooked and laced. I remember how I would sit there, grasping my bony knees tightly, watching her body that seemed to have no bones at all.

Her drawers were heavy silk and had legs. They were oyster coloured, or deep cream. I planned, and still plan, never to wear anything but cotton myself, no matter how old I get. I will never wear anything that could be called “drawers.” Not that I can imagine getting old, not me. A slip next. Then garters, with more powder-puffs carefully placed to protect the soft, dimply skin of her thighs.

I always wear as few clothes as possible in summer.

And I have always planned to take my body entirely for granted.

But the fact of the matter is that my own body is changing. No one else is noticing, but it is.

Enough. I bounce my fists on the sill. And jump lightly off the bed, as I don’t want to wake anybody else up, not for their sake but for my own. I peel off my pajamas and thrust my legs into my shorts that still hold my underpants from yesterday and I stand for a moment looking down at my new, small breasts. I like them. They are interesting. And they feel interesting. There is a sort of firm disk inside them that is changing and softening and they are getting bigger. The funny thing is, and I know it may not be logical, but I feel that the changes in my body have no relation to, are in no way like, the changes that must have happened to other women in my family. They are entirely private and mine and will not make me a woman like any of them.

I pull on a crumpled cotton blouse. It has been mashed against the cushion on my chair under the heavy book I am reading and that I threw there last night. I snatch up the book and run silently downstairs in my bare feet.

No one else gets up until about seven-thirty, not even my younger brother. The kitchen has a large bay window but it faces west and so the room is cool and shadowy now though by lunchtime it will be full of sunlight. I pour cereal into a bowl and add brown sugar, no milk, and I take three of the early plums and rearrange the bowl so no one will notice that I take more than is fair.

The verandah extends almost the full length of the house at the front and there is a Dutchman’s pipe vine that climbs all the posts and runs along the edge of the roof. As well, it has almost filled in the eastern end of the verandah where we have an old porch glider. That is where I lie on my stomach, propped on my elbows, in a dapple of sunshine. The leaves of the vine are large and round and a light bright green. Without looking directly at them, I am also aware of the two tall elms at the eastern edge of the lawn and I can see the three birch trees below our road that slightly screen the Bassetts’ cottage. Their lawn runs down to the lakeside road and then there is the lake itself, glinting here and there through the trees.

I am perfectly safe and no one can spring forth and mock me, as could happen so suddenly at boarding school if I ever let down my guard. I love knowing that. The birds are still singing though not quite as loudly. I eat a plum first. The thin, tough skin snaps under my teeth and a drop of juice falls onto the cover of my book. I lick it up.

I open my book and start to eat my cereal with my fingers. I am rereading War and Peace, in the translation by Constance Garnett. Is that a man or a woman? I always mean to ask someone and never do. And how would “Constance” be a man, anyway? Maybe it’s the full form of the name: I am used to “Connies.” And a strong quality like constance could be a man’s or a woman’s, couldn’t it? Or maybe I mistrust the notion of a woman doing something so wonderful and huge as translating War and Peace from the Russian. But I plan to learn Russian one day and would like to know of a woman who did manage it, and how and where she did so. I am in love with Prince André. The little Princess is dead and all should be plain sailing for him and Natasha. I fear and hate Anatole and dread what is coming.

Mr. MacLennan will know if “Constance” is a man or a woman. I will ask him today maybe, if I get a chance. I like to have a question to greet him with.

I rest my chin on my hands for a minute and think of Mr. MacLennan. I never think of him by his first name and don’t really even want to be asked ever to use it. It is like Jane and Mr. Rochester. It would be much more thrilling had she continued to call him that even after their marriage, the marriage that happens when he is so tamed, even maimed, and has become just “Edward.” All the excitement has leaked out of the situation by then.

Mr. MacLennan’s eyes are bright blue and they sort of narrow and glint when I come along, because of the way his cheeks go when he smiles. He has a distinctive smile, his mouth curving up at the sides the way a child draws a smile and the way people’s faces mostly don’t go. I love the way he smiles. He is an extremely handsome man, especially of course his legs. I think “of course” because we have made a thing in our family, my sisters and I that is, about his legs. It started before he and I became friends and now I don’t particularly like it that they still comment on his wonderful legs when I consider him to be mine. However, I have to contend with it because they don’t know that we are friends and I don’t want them to.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Why it's on the list ...
n her memoir, which is as acutely written and tautly structured as a good work of fiction, Coleman recounts the story of her friendship with the great Canadian writer, Hugh MacLennan, from the time she was 14 to about 21. Coleman explores a nuanced, confusing, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t attraction between the young woman she was and the famous (and domestically troubled) older man. Coleman’s depiction of herself as a headstrong, intelligent, daydreaming girl suspended in a summer world of lake water and fluid social boundaries inspired me to write about an adolescent girl in lake country, but is a portrait that will be recognized by many women.
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