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Place, and Time

An essay by D.R. MacDonald
Author of Anna From Away, coming this Fall

Here, D.R. MacDonald reflects on the setting in his new novel.

What did Anna Starling imagine when, from a magazine’s classifieds, she chose to rent an old rural house in winter, as far east as she could get, Cape Breton Island? Not exactly what she found, but when you seek a new turn in your life, the predictable is not what you need, or what you’re after. Her story called for a place in which, and a time when, she could lose herself.

Recently, a young columnist for the Globe and Mail railed sarcastically against Canadian publishers for favoring novels set in the past, “a purer and more noble time. You can set your novel in any period you want as long as it isn’t, well, now.” Any novel should be measured on its own merits of course, whether it’s now or then, but his impatience with the old is typical of his generation. In Anna’s case, I wanted her free of that very electronic clamor—its seductive ease and availability—that he champions, and the distractions of urban life.

The setting of her story has not changed substantially since Anna drove down that dirt road, long and snow-banked, to Cape Seal (based on Cape Dauphin) early in the 1990s.  Now, high-speed Internet has reached even into its deadend: all you need is a phone line. To set a novel there now, you’d have to account for that omnipresent connectedness, pulsing for your character’s attention. Anna’s only link, beyond mail, is a fickle telephone liable to hissing silences: no surfing there. The introspection forced upon her by genuine isolation would have been possible only by an act of will, for avoiding, and evading, the Internet would itself have become a telling ingredient in her narrative, affecting not just how she felt about her evasion but about nearly everything else. A good story might arise from that of course. It’s just not mine, not hers.

Anna, an artist, is coming from a California college town, at middle age, estranged from her husband and perhaps part of herself. She wants a jolt, to put herself out of reach of all the blinding familiarities that obscured her relationship, her own actions and limitations. Artistically, she yearns for a new landscape, a vision that jars her consciousness.

Her house sits above the sea, at the head of a strait, the Atlantic broadening in the east, to the west the wide channel fades away toward low headlands and a large saltwater lake beyond, the heart of the Island. From the start, everything engages her anew—the homemade desk and its black, scarred varnish, old utensils (a wooden bread bowl, kitchen knives of dark steel worn thin on a grindstone). Out her windows, wandering animals (a wary red fox testing her leftovers, a howling coyote under an icy moon, the white blur of a fleeing hare), the ocean wind-driven and wild. In every sense, she has a lot to learn about this place and about herself in it, and she must gather it on her own, unmediated, wherever her explorations take her. No Facebook, no chat, no chatter, no flood of manic imagery.

Through her sketches and drawings, Anna seeks something like soul. What she observes and encounters in this unfamiliar place she must absorb and assess on her own: she has no quick outside reference, no Google. Her disconnectedness with the familiar, more sophisticated world she has left behind puts demands upon her character, intuition, powers of perception: you take whatever is at hand, and work with it. The immediate is what goads and pushes her toward discovery: her hikes along her rocky beach, examining its flotsam—a dead seabird from a colony on an offshore island, the gaping skull of a fish, tree roots long adrift, their flowing grain of greys worthy of a detailed sketch.  In the upper woods, small birds bright in sparse spring foliage she’ll draw from memory, and, come summer, when mosses silence her steps, the lichen of long-fallen trees, their cinnamon decay, boles animals have grubbed in.

All Anna needs are her own senses, an active curiosity open to the natural world. Understanding the place she is in requires immersion, a slow awakening, the nourishment of time—not the rapidity of a screen and a keyboard. Her tools are not software but charcoal, pencil, pen, the sketchpad, the notebook. Her eyes and her ears, the feel of wind and snow and rain, of sun and fog. Nothing virtual about her world. The way she pays attention would not be the same in the Internet era. Something fundamental to her story would be lost.

The prospect of her opening a laptop to check email or surf the web on a lonely night would shrink the distance she has sought, the sometimes painful peace that comes with simply being out of reach—a state almost unthinkable now, and not attainable even in Cape Seal where GoogleEarth would already have a satellite photo of her house.  Anna would think differently, act in ways influenced by the link inside that computer on her desk. But the option of logging into the rest of the world is not there, her solitude is not compromised by a vast net of electronic communication. She has no search engine but her own intellect and imagination, no sites other than her immediate one in which to lose herself, no millions of Web locales where she might assuage her longings and regrets or distract herself from the uncomfortable truths and conflicts that come to gnaw at her.

Eventually, Anna’s self-imposed solitude is shaken not by any technological intrusion but by a summer storm that pushes onto her shore a wrapped bale whose contents call up her past, and complicate her growing friendship with her neighbor Red Murdock. The outside world will know nothing of their dilemma. They must resolve it alone.

 - D.R. MacDonald

Find out more about D.R. MacDonald’s upcoming novel, Anna From Away, here.


Celebrating Kit Pearson!

One of my very favourite Canadian authors is Kit Pearson. I grew up reading her books, and still recommend them to anyone looking for good, wholesome reads for preteens.

A literary journey through Canada would not be complete without adding books by Kit Pearson to the list. Here are two I highly recommend:

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The Whole Truth & And Nothing but the Truth

In The Whole Truth, Kit Pearson tells the story of two sisters, Polly and Maud, who are hiding a family secret. Polly, the youngest, is sent to live with her grandmother on an island in British Columbia, and finds great happiness, but still cannot stop thinking about the secret she must keep.

Pearson continues Polly’s story in And Nothing but the Truth. Here, we see Polly head off to boarding school in Victoria where her sister Maud makes a dramatic confession.

Both of these books feature great lessons about family ties, the importance of honesty and loyalty, and staying true to yourself. They will also give you a wonderful look at life on the Canadian west coast.

Happy Reading!

Shannon

Canada

Just a quick drive North and we’ve made it to our very last stop on our Summer Passport tour: the one, the only…CANADA! Welcome to the true North, strong and free where hockey is not a sport but a way of life and poutine is its own food group.

Richard Ford is going to start off our tour with his novel entitled (appropriately) Canada. The novel begins: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later.” Largely set in Saskatchewan, Canada is the story of a young boy named Dell Parsons forced to flee from the US into Canada because his parents chose to become robbers. Dell struggles to adjust to his life of hard work and encompassing solitude on the lonely flats of the Prairies.

Susan Juby will be our next guide with her novel: The Woefield Poultry Collective. A twenty-something year-old New Yorker named Prudence Burns has just found out that her uncle has left her his farm on Vancouver Island. Full of back-to-the-land ideals, Prudence packs up her things and moves out to the farm, only to find out that the bank is on the verge of foreclosing Woefield Farm. Prudence, together with Earl, a seventy-something year old man, Seth, the alcoholic and celebrity blogging boy whose life has been shut-in by scandal involving his high school drama teacher and Sara, an intelligent go-getter eleven year-old looking for a home for her prize-winning chickens, dig their heels in to save the farm.

From the Rocky Mountains, to the Prairies, to the lushness of the Maritimes, Canada has something to offer everyone. Click here to get your piece of Canada by entering to win copies of these books!

United States of America

Wave goodbye to the anacondas because we’re heading north, just a hop, skip and a jump over the Caribbean and we’ve hit our next stop: The United States of America! More than the land of the free and home of the brave, USA has been the setting for a multitude of great books.

Courtney Miller Santo is going to start us off on the West coast in a small town in Sacramento Valley in Northern California. In The Roots of the Olive Tree, Santo introduces us to the Keller family where 5 generations of first-born women live in an old house on their olive grove. Anna, the family matriarch, is 112 years old and determined to be the oldest person in the world. For a woman her age, Anna is in impeccable physical and mental shape. Anna’s age has caught the attention of a geneticist who believes that the Keller family may hold the key to slowing down the process of aging. As the geneticist digs deep into their DNA the Keller women find themselves digging deeply within themselves to try and keep their secrets hidden from each other, a task made exponentially harder when the youngest Keller woman, Erin, arrives back home alone and pregnant.

  

Hold on because we’re zipping across the country to the East coast, North Carolina to be more exact, where Wiley Cash’s novel A Land More Kind than Home is set. Jess and his older brother Christopher – a mute that everyone in town calls Stump – love to spy on grown-ups. Their mother has warned them not to snoop but they just can’t help that they’re curious. That is until one day when Christopher sees something he’s not supposed to and it shatters his and Jess’s worlds. The discovery thrusts Jess into adulthood unprepared and confused, but he now knows that a new understanding can bring not only a growing danger and evil—but also the possibility of freedom and deliverance as well.

There’s so much to discover in the large and diverse country of USA. Click here to start your American adventure by entering to win a copy of these books!

Paulo Coelho: A Warrior’s Life

We all know Paulo Coelho as the author of The Alchemist which has sold over 65 million copies worldwide, but behind the pen and paper is a thrilling story of a man who always wanted to be a writer but ended up down a hundred other paths before he found himself. As a teenager, Coelho knew he wanted to be a writer but his mother told him that his father was an engineer, logical, reasonable and that he should be more like that. At age 16 Coelho’s opposition to following a traditional path led to his parents committing him to a mental institution – from which he escaped 3 times - before being released at the age of 20.

Paulo Coelho: A Warrior’s Life explores his Brazilian roots, his life as a singer and song-writer, his rock-and-roll days and how he came to write and publish The Alchemist. This is a life story that needed to be told and needs to be read.