Road trip diary (# 5)

Tuesday, October 8, Hague, Saskatchewan

In B.C., I defend Winnipeg weather, which tends to be misunderstood, and usually I do so in terms of its sunshine. According to this comparison of Canadian cities, Winnipeg tops the chart in annual sunshine. The four days we just spent there, however, failed to reward my fond defence. It was grey and moist throughout. But Sunday evening, the sky cleared somewhat, and yesterday (Monday) we were on the road again under bright sun and summery warmth. All day we enjoyed that light and the beauty of the prairies, a modest beauty, but beauty for sure, mostly flat but valleys and waves of land here and there, stands of trees turning yellow (with occasional hints of red), grazing cattle, geese in long lines overhead, stubble in rows and dotted with bales.

We took the Yellowhead highway to Saskatoon, which took us through Neepawa, which I don’t drive through without thinking of Margaret Laurence. I’ve been re-reading her work this year, as well as reading the Africa books, which I hadn’t read before. She was an enormous inspiration and influence in my reading/writing coming of age. (About an earlier visit to Neepawa here.) We passed through numerous other towns, some large, some small, many with truck and implement dealerships, gleaming vehicles and machines on display. And always the vast sky, set back and cloudless, insisting that we focus on the landscape.

We arrived in Hague, where my sister Linda lives, in time for supper, and spent the evening visiting with her. A bit of panic ensued when I saw my MacBook was almost out of power but I couldn’t find my charger. I figured I must have forgotten it in the last bedroom we occupied. How dependent we get on these instruments of information and communication! This morning I found it, packed in the place it wasn’t supposed to be packed, and all is well, it’s juicing up while I write this and H. and I are drinking our daily morning yerba mate.

We’ll spend this day with my elderly mother (97) at the Mennonite Nursing Home in Rosthern, and the evening at a reading event in Saskatoon. More on that after it happens!

Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page

41nBAtsStsL._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_Dear Evelyn opens with a birth — of Harry Miles, who is half the couple featured in the book. I’d just read some wonderfully feisty comments by the late Margaret Laurence about birth scenes in novels, so was immediately positively predisposed to this novel by Kathy Page, which dared such a scene right out of the gate. (A male reviewer of Laurence’s first novel, This Side Jordan, had wondered about “the obligatory birth scene in novels written by women,” which infuriated Laurence, though the good thing was, “that dolt” launched “a kind of self-liberation” for her in writing. Fine for men to write endlessly of violence or masturbation or sexual conquest, she said, but “not at all right, apparently, for a women to speak of the miraculous beginnings of human life.” After that, she never hesitated to write about birth, “from the viewpoint of the mother.”*)

And then, I happened to read Tess Hadley in a Guardian interview saying she wanted to write about long marriages (as apparently she does in her latest book, Late in the Day), because “they seem immensely interesting and they are kind of new in a way … people just live so much longer,” and I thought, well I certainly like to read about long marriages, being — at 44 years and counting — well on the way into a long marriage myself, and there I was, happily into Dear Evelyn too, which is exactly on the topic.

It’s not that Page’s novel needs these asides from Laurence or Hadley to bulk its worth, but I mention them by way of noting how often it’s the entire atmosphere of reading — current circumstances, personal life stage, other voices bumping alongside — that makes a particular book memorable. At any rate, with or without all that, Dear Evelyn is a fine and memorable book. Page skilfully unfolds the characters and experiences of Harry Miles and Evelyn Hill — from his birth to her death — in linked short stories. Each chapter/story treats of a specific episode or slice of their separate or joint lives, but the sum of them feels seamless, as if everything in between has been revealed to us as well.

Harry and Evelyn meet outside a library, and he is taken not only with her beauty but her strong sense of striving. “A girl like her would need him to be ambitious, more so than he had been so far. Even as he realized this, he committed to it.” We already know that poetry grabbed hold of Harry’s head and heart under the tutelage of his teacher Mr. Whitehorse, and at this early point it’s easy enough to assume that his “ear for verse” and nascent interest will grow and be fulfilled. But that’s the thing about life and marriage — they limit, even thwart. Which is why Harry and Evelyn as couple is a story of love but far from a happily-ever-after one. Their ambitions, so compatible at one level, compete drastically at another, not to mention the changing and powerful shaping circumstances of war (and the separation and temptations it imposed), children, and old age.

A week after finishing the book I’m still thinking about this fictional relationship. Does one admire, or pity? Can fault, realistically speaking, be laid? The 2018 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize jury, which awarded Dear Evelyn the win, called the novel “tender and unsettling.” Yes. Both those words.

 

*Margaret Laurence, Dance on the Earth