a return to Housekeeping

•September 25, 2016 • 2 Comments


Last week I was tidying a room and found a copy of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I read it not long after it was published in the early 1980s, then again about ten years ago. In some ways it was a different book the second time around. When I first read it, I was a young mother and what I noticed was the sense of abandonment. Girls stranded with aging grandmothers as children because of a mother’s suicide, strangers in bus stations talking of losing their children as infants, the ghosts of children at a collapsed homestead under the mountain near Fingerbone, (“stunted orchard and lilacs and stone doorstep and fallen house, all white with a brine of frost”) and how the narrator hears their voices while waiting , and hoping her wayward aunt Sylvie will return to row her home over a dark lake. The second time I read it, I noticed the sentences, how beautiful each one was, and how the novel proved it’s possible to build a narrative around graceful sentences. A novel could be lyrical and resonant as the Book of Psalms. This time I noticed everything. It took me a week to read a book of slightly more than 200 pages. I’d read, pause, think about how I’d imagined one thing ten years ago when I first encountered Sylvie; and now she seemed far more complex. I thought about the setting, its mountains, the icy lake, and the sound of trains heading east and west. And how important it was to know their schedules.

I’d always thought the ending was clear. But it’s not. I see now that there are several possiblities, one happier than the other(s). One more inevitable than the other(s). When I was immersed in caring for my own small children, I believed one ending. Ten years later, I was willing to believe another. And now? I think this book explores how we can live between worlds, we can apprehend the past — our own as well as a more impersonal history — and inhabit the interstices, the gaps that most people avoid. The narrator, Ruthie, is drawn to those places, influenced by her aunt.

To the east the mountains were eclipsed. To the west they stood in balmy light. Dawn and its excesses always reminded me of heaven, a place where I have always known I would not be comfortable. They reminded me of my grandfather’s paintings, which I have always taken to be his vision of heaven. And it was he would brought us here, to this bitter, moon-pulled lake, trailing us after him unborn, like the infants he had painted on the dresser drawers, whose garments swam in some ethereal current, perhaps the rim of the vortex that would rag them down out of that enameled sky, stripped and screaming. Sylvie’s oars set off vortices. She swamped some leaves and spun a feather on its curl. The current that made us sidle a little toward the center of the lake was the draw of the river, and no vortex, though my grandfather’s last migration had settled him on the lake floor. It seemed that Sylvie’s boat slipped down the west side of every wave. We would make a circle, and never reach a shore at all, if there were a vortex, I thought, and we would be drawn down into the darker world, where other sounds would pour into our ears until we seemed to find songs in them, and the sight of water would invade our eyes…

In ten years I’ll read Housekeeping again and what will the ending tell me about a woman and a girl balanced on a railway bridge above that bitter, moon-pulled lake, about the songs they hear in water, and how it’s possible to make a life in the interstices, where everything is all white with a brine of frost? And where heaven is not for everyone.

“up beyond the bull pine, beyond, beyond”

•September 24, 2016 • Leave a Comment


from a novella-in-progress:

I needed to drive. I needed to drive up the river, try to follow it to Kamloops where I also hoped to find Ethel Wilson, or at least a trace of her on the landscape she’d written about in Swamp Angel. I would be following the river back from where it had claimed you, James, back through its deep canyon in the desert north of Spences Bridge (I felt I knew it intimately between Spences Bridge to Lytton, the section you loved and where, when I swam in its warm waters, I was in your company for a brief and sweet time), gardens and remnants of old orchards on the shrub-steppes between Ashcroft and Kamloops, and maybe beyond, to the more verdant corridors along its southern route from its outlet at Little Shuswap Lake. One day I would also explore its northern arm’s sinuous flow from its glacial origins near Blue River to where it joined the south arm at Kamloops. I wanted to know it all. It was somehow our river, mine and yours. Thinking of it that way made me shiver a little and I tried to ignore the rattling noise my truck made every time I accelerated on the wide sections of the highway.

Here, once more, they drove past the great solitary bull pines with their strongly hatched and corrugated bark – all the delights of this country spoke afresh to Maggie – swelling hills, wild and widespread sage, look! There is a coyote and his coat is the same dun colour as the hill on which he runs purposefully about his business. He vanishes. This was Maggie’s third year in. Breathe this sagey air! See, a bluebird! Floating cloud, drifting scent, tree, wild creature, curving fleeting hill – each made its own statement to Maggie in the imperishable spring. (SA, 205)

The Lac Le Jeune Road swept up and away from the TransCanada just west of Kamloops. And I took the turn, my truck juddering as I slowed down and then stopped on the shoulder. Because there was a bull pine in dry grass, solitary as any god. I knew from reading the field guides that bull pine was a disputed synonym for Pinus ponderosa, our native yellow pine. Some botanists thought it was more accurately a Pinus sabiniana, or gray pine (also called ghost pine or foothills pine for its occurrence in the Sierra foothills of California). Others grouped all the yellow pines – shortleaf, loblolly, slash, Jeffrey – together as bull pines. And some insisted it was really a particularly large and singular specimen of any of these pines. When I grew weary, in my graduate seminars, of the squabbling over the context of a line of Robert Frost or the etymology of some arcane word used by Basil Bunting, I’d remember the botanists, the clumpers and the splitters, and how their arguments echoed the literary ones and I’d want to just get outside. As I was now, on the side of the Lac Le Jeune Road, looking at a tree. Which might have been one of the trees Maggie Lloyd saw as she drove towards her cherished life at Three Loon Lake, away from the small bitterness of her second husband, the odious Edward Vardoe.

Looking at a tree, a long black scar on one side where lightning or a a fire scorched it. And huge plates of bark fitting together like sections of a puzzle. I got out of the truck and walked over to it. Clusters of resin, deep gold, with a few ants trapped inside, as beautiful as amber. Which they were on their way to becoming in the fullness of time, though I wasn’t sure if these pines were known for their amber, unlike Pinites succiniter, also known as Pinus succinifera, or Baltic pine. I broke off a little chunk and wrapped it in a soft mullein leaf which I tucked into my pocket. And looking up, I heard nutcrackers up in the branches, scolding me for interrupting their meal of seeds. This was what I wanted, the ordinariness of birds and pines, not the sorrow of life without you, James. I sunk into the deep duff of needles to cry and after a few minutes, I took out my map and noted the date, the location, and drew a little pine to remind me to look up the passage in Swamp Angel. My fingers were tacky with resin and a little of it stuck to the map. I pressed a single pine needle into it and made sure I refolded the map with that section exposed to air.

My truck wouldn’t start. I turned the key and there was a kind of grinding noise. Then nothing. I sat in the driver’s seat on the edge of the road, my map on the dashboard, and I did what I usually do in such circumstances: I cried. I’m not proud of it but sometimes I feel so helpless and hopeless that I don’t know what else to do. And then someone was knocking on my window.

An older man in overalls with a John Deere cap turned backwards like a catcher. –Need help? he asked. And I must have nodded because he was lifting the hood and making noises like Ah huh, and oh boy. It was the battery and he had jumper cables but they were at his ranch, about a twenty minute drive away, near Jocko Creek. If I wanted to wait, he’d go get them and then we’d see if we could get the truck up and running.

If I wanted to wait. I didn’t see that I had choice and anyway the day was sunny. I walked up beyond the bull pine, beyond, beyond, to where I felt I was on the spine of the earth. Forests and grasslands in all directions, and the long beautiful length of Kamloops Lake, fed and replenished by the Thompson River. A train snaked its way along the far shore, too far away to hear. But I could see the water holding the sky in its wide bowl.

from a work-in-progress

•September 22, 2016 • Leave a Comment

How the tunnels see the Fraser Canyon:

Yale, Saddle Rock, Sailor Bar, Alexandra, Hell’s Gate, Ferrabee, and China Bar, blasted through canyon rock, openings birds swoop into, and out, deer skittish in headlights as they race the long paved stretches, panicked by their knowledge that they are inside the mountains, inside mountains, passages north and south, look down, down at the Yale midden, hollows of old kikulis, remnants of cedar burial wraps, ground dense with salmon vertebrae, and the salmon themselves, 30 pound springs, river red with sockeye, the muscular steelhead heading north, north, past where Old 97 hit the snow-covered rock slide in 1909, Maggie Lloyd on her seat in the bus, face pressed against the window: “The trees retreated, now, from the roadway and the road passed between grassy mounds, rippling flowing, it seemed, out of each other. Above them, the pine trees ascended.”; shadow of brigade trail through the trees, past lilacs and fruit trees near the Alexandra Bridge, the old bridge, injured and dying men on the slopes, the words of Radcliffe Quine still in the air: “I tell you it is a hard road to travel. You have to carry your own blankets and food for over three hundred miles and take to the soft side of the road for your lodgings and at daylight get up and shake the dust off your blankets and cook your own food for the day and take the road again.”: the grave of 14 year old Catherine Patrick, dead of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1938, Lily Clegg on the porch of the Alexandra Lodge with her pipe and sharp eyes, taking a break from the endless housework and cooking, the far-off sound of Simon Fraser on his river below Hells Gate and Ferrabee where the original road had crept along the rocks on wooden trestles: “The water which rolls down this extraordinary passage in tumultuous waves and with great velocity had a frightful appearance; however, it being absolutely impossible to carry the canoes by land, all hands without hesitation embarked upon the mercy of this awful tide”; and the lofty view down from China Bar where “sad and fatal accidents often occur, and horses and their owners are dashed to pieces on the rocks below, or drowned in the deep foaming waters rushing down the narrow defiles from the vast regions of mountain snow melting in the summer heat.”


•September 22, 2016 • Leave a Comment

The other day we drove to Grand Forks for lunch. We were staying in Osoyoos and part of what we do when we’re in that area is drive up into Boundary Country for the long views, the golden fields, and the pleasure of Russian food at the Borscht Bowl in Grand Forks. Every fall I make a huge pot of that borscht, using this recipe. (I have wonderful cabbages in the garden right now, begging to be shredded and used in this soup.) My grandmother made borscht, a red barszcz, probably in homage to her first husband, who was Polish. And for my parents, that was the benchmark of borscht. I tried making the Doukhobor one for them once, thinking it would be a good thing for my mum and I to do together, but they simply couldn’t hear that it was also a borscht. Nope. Borscht was beets and maybe some thin slices of beef, whiffy with vinegar, and served with a dollop of sour cream. Smetana. They kept saying, “It’s a good vegetable soup but it’s not borscht.” And in the way of family history, it’s a phrase we use every time I make this soup.

autumn borscht.jpg

The borscht in Grand Forks is delicious. Everything is diced or shredded very finely and the surface of the soup is ferny with dill. It’s thick and the colour of ochre. I had a big bowl and had to restrain myself from ordering another. We were also having vareniki, large ones, stuffed with beef and potato, and served with smetana and grated cheese. My grandmother’s, called pedeha, in homage to her second husband (my grandfather), who was more or less Ukrainian, were smaller than the ones we ate in Grand Forks. Hers were almost always filled with homemade cottage cheese and potatoes, with flecks of green onion. She also made dessert ones filled with golden plums. She kept heaping them on plates and showed delight as we asked for more.

I can understand why the Doukhobors were drawn to the Grand Forks area. Everywhere we saw those fertile fields, roadside stands with boxes of squash, huge tomatoes, cabbages, strings of garlic, bags of red and yellow-skinned onions, even bags of Russian noodles called lapsha and which my grandmother also made, though I don’t remember what her version  was called. My father said that when he was a child in Drumheller and the family was very poor, she made them to sell, using eggs from her chickens and butter from her cow. My father said it was rare that they ate butter themselves because my grandmother could sell it and supplement my grandfather’s sporadic income from coal mining. I hoped to buy flour from the Pride of the Valley Flour Mill but it was closed and none of the grocery stores we looked it had it for sale. (But then I found Red Fife flour at the McMynns Store in Midway, milled at the Heritage Flour Mill in Rock Creek. So later in the week, I’ll bake bread with a taste of that Bounday wheat.)

For years I never thought about these foods. We ate them when we visited our father’s family in Beverley (then a community near Edmonton and now part of the city itself) and they were foreign, though eating them meant that we were too. (I never felt foreign, apart from the first day of school when teachers used to struggle with the pronunciation of my surname!) And now I want to know how to cook them. I want to eat them on these cool fall days and think of the generations of women in my family who grew cabbages and churned butter and carefully peeled potatoes for the pedeha, tossing the peels to the chickens who waited by the kitchen door. Sometimes they are so far away, in time, in geography, in language (my grandmother’s English was so heavily-accented that I could barely understand her), and sometimes they are in our hands as we cut and dice, they are in the faces of our children and grandchildren (where else do the blue eyes come from?), and in the way we drive long distances to see a landscape both familiar and nourishing, and to eat the bowls of soup that called us there.

postcards, the road to Grand Forks

•September 19, 2016 • 2 Comments

Left in the cool morning to drive to Grand Forks, through Boundary country, the wide fields and fall colour just ravishing. We stopped at places we stop every time — the side of the highway near the summit of Anarchist Mountain to look at the yellow farmhouse standing alone in a pasture.


Michael Kluckner wrote this about the house:

The ranch just to the west of Anarchist Summit is known locally as the Lawless place. I was told by Fred Lawless of Cawston that it was built of squared and dovetailed tamarack timbers that have been sheathed with horizontal drop siding. It actually looks like a typical frame house, perhaps balloon-framed. The interesting point is the clear span across the living-dining room, supported by a major beam parallel to the side walls; that open room, together with the large kitchen and pantry (it must be a pantry as it’s windowless) supports the notion of many ranchhands being fed, with the family’s own quarters somewhat separate at the front and upstairs, where there are probably three bedrooms (it is only about 600 square feet).

Don’t you love that phrase, “dovetailed tamarack timbers”? It sounds like a dance, perhaps a square dance (dovetailed), and the music? Oh, Patsy Cline, whose music was our soundtrack today, the old sweet songs of love and loss. (“Don’t leave me here, in a world/Filled with dreams that might have been…”) Yet a house has been left and it’s as lonesome a house as any on earth, with its memories and its emptiness, the ranchhands and the family all dead and gone.

A stop in Greenwood for espresso and butter tarts at the Copper Eagle and a walk around that beautiful little town. We camped here nearly 30 years ago and looked at the museum with its well-organized exhibits, eating ice-cream on the street afterwards. And John and I came back to the museum in 2009, trying to find out about Phoenix, a place where my grandfather lived briefly (as a miner) in 1911. I wrote about this search in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, wrote about the drive over Phoenix Mountain on a backroad, using a small map from the museum and finding so little left of the community — and nothing of my grandfather.

All the fall colour, the shades and shadows. This Doukhobor village (it might be the Ozeroff village?) just west of Grand Forks, which I believe was in the process of being restored a few years ago but now it looks abandoned, given up on. I scrambled along the highway, trying for the best view, pushing aside choke cherry branches almost the exact colour of the houses:


The faded pinks and the tawny grass remind me of a consolation waltz, maybe with Patsy singing again, a woman alone on a long road, heart wistful for the lives lived in old houses:

I walk for miles along the highway
Well, that’s just my way of sayin’ I love you
I’m always walkin’ after midnight
Searchin’ for you


postcard, the Nicola Valley

•September 18, 2016 • Leave a Comment


On a clear day, you can see forever. And this is what it looks like. Suede hills, aspens just turning,Ponderosa pines so particular and iconic that you could look at each one and never think you knew pines in general. The scent of sage. The sound of magpies. An osprey overlooking Stump Lake, the waters green and dusted with the hatch of some insect that had a few flyfishers excited as well as the fish themselves, mouthing the surface of the lake.

And did I say the other day that the road up through the Fraser Canyon was my favourite on earth? Today it’s 5A, from Kamloops to Merritt, winding by the lakes, the creeks, the roads leading off to remote ranches, the Lieutenant-Governor’s home ranch at the head of Nicola Lake in good shape despite her absence, the store at Quilchena as enticing as ever (and this time I had to resist tiny cowboy boots, two-tone, with sensible heels; though if a grandchild asked for a pair, I’d go back in a heartbeat…). So I’m fickle about roads. So I’m contradictory. I have as my model in this the wonderful Walt Whitman, a poet I always think of in the kingdom of grass (lines of his thread through my novel Sisters of Grass…):

The past and present wilt—I have fill'd them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.
Who has done his day's work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?
Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

postcard, highway 99, between Fountain and Pavilion

•September 17, 2016 • Leave a Comment


I was hoping to see something of T’it’q’et, or Keatley Creek, the site of an ancient village of pithouses, associated with the river and fishing and inhabited for more than 4000 years. A character in the novella I am currently writing (and this road-trip is partly for research) is an archaeologist working at this site and so I’ve been reading, reading, and wondering about it. We didn’t see the site but did see the fishing rocks on a narrow gorge of the Fraser River where fish have a hard time getting through and we knew we were in the right area. The winds through the canyon were perfect for drying salmon and you can almost smell fish in the air, can almost smell the cooking fires, hear the voices of people coming up from the river.