We began reading together in the evenings last winter, stopped for the summer, and then continued again this winter. Our first book together was Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. This winter we read Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, followed by Volume One of the Tales of Chekhov. Then Seeing Things, by Seamus Heaney, followed by Outside History by Eavan Boland. We pass the books back and forth, bringing to each our own reading styles, our own cadences. We talk a little about what we’re reading but mostly one of us reads, the other listens. I’ve grown to love this.
Two nights ago, the day after we finished Outside History, we were wondering what we’d read next. For some reason we were talking about my recently published novella, The Weight of the Heart, and I was explaining about the notes at the back, how I wanted to include reference to Sheila Watson’s Deep Hollow Creek, her first work of fiction, written about her first teaching job at Dog Creek in 1934 but not published until 1992*. I wanted to reference it because I think it is a small perfect gem but the protagonist of my book wouldn’t have known about it in 1976 or 1977 when she was searching for traces of the fiction of Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson in the landscapes of British Columbia. Anyway, I was explaining this and then I asked John if he’d read it. No, he hadn’t. So let’s make that the book we read over the next few weeks. Sure, he said.
When you read aloud, you hear a text that you don’t necessarily find on the page. You hear what I think of as the undercurrents of the language. In this book, about a small community in the Cariboo, you hear the laconic voices of some of the characters (the dour hardscrabble farmers), the more voluble chatter of the woman who owns the store and who is so self-referential that I think I might have tuned her out when reading to myself (but it’s impossible to do that reading aloud!), and you also hear the heightened language framing the narrative. You realize just a few sentences in that it won’t be an ordinary story.
She had come into the valley to find life for herself. It is not difficult, she thought, to recall all the fine things which have been written about life. She could summon to witness Taylor’s rose, Browne’s frame, and Harvey’s microcosmic sun, the palpitating radiance of the life-streak seen with the naked eye in the egg of a barnyard fowl.
The shift between metaphysics and the quotidian detail of life in houses of rough boards, fenced by weathered poles, surrounded by trees filled with fool hens—this is characteristic of Watson’s work of course but reading aloud you are taken by how her language accommodates these shifts. It’s so exhilarating. Is this what it’s like, asked John, meaning all the gossip as the characters are introduced. Yes, I said, but of course there’s so much more. And there is! After a sad description of Rose Flower’s terrible bread (“cold and grey and sour”), which the narrator Stella realizes is Rose’s “peculiar emblem”, there is this paragraph:
Can the validity of this emblem—or of any other emblem—she wondered, be assessed. I see the hand, the compass, the dragon when the book falls open. The hand reaches over the ledge spilling one knows not what of essence or substance into the narrow cleft. Through Sassetta’s eyes or Edmund Spenser’s I see in the shadow of Limbo the red cross—and they see it because the light glances off and reflects from the fire which warms their shoulders as they work. I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.
The ledge of Stella’s window overlooks the narrow cleft where the house is built against a hill but somehow it is also an aperture. This is a book to take your time with and reading aloud will allow us to do just that.
The cover of this New Canadian Library edition features a painting of Lynn Valley, North Vancouver, by Frederick Varley. But it could have featured a painting by another member of the Group of Seven: A.Y. Jackson. In the 1950s, he stayed at the stopping house in Dog Creek, owned by the Place family, and painted what he saw around him. Hilary Place, grandson of the original Place of Dog Creek, wrote a book about his family and his community. Sheila Watson has a cameo in the book—as Sheila Doherty, she was his grade 8 teacher. On the cover of Dog Creek: A Place in the Cariboo is a beautiful view of the deep hollow threaded through by a blue creek, painted by A.Y. Jackson and given to his hosts.
*Deep Hollow Creek was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction that year but it didn’t win. The English Patient did…