My memories are so like that hat full of butterflies, some already deteriorating the moment they are collected, some breathed back to life now and again, for a brief moment, by the scent on a passing wind–the smell of an orange, perhaps, or a whiff of brown-sugar fudge–before drifting away, just out of my reach. How much of myself flits away with each of these tattered memories? How much of myself have I already lost? (Turtle Valley, p. 289)
Kat has returned with her disabled husband and young son to her family’s homestead in Turtle Valley, in British Columbia’s Shuswap-Thompson area. Fire is sweeping through the valley in a ruthless progression toward the farm and they have come to help her frail parents pack up their belongings. Kat’s mother, Beth, (the now elderly protagonist of Anderson-Dargatz’s first novel, the award-winning The Cure for Death by Lightning) is weighed down by her ailing husband, Gus, and by generations of accumulated detritus. But there is something else weighing her down, a secret she has guarded all her life. Kat is determined to get to its source before fire eats up all that is left of the family’s memories.
Kat has her own burdens. Her father is dying, and the family has chosen to keep him home as long as possible in defiance of the approaching flames. Beth is showing signs of early dementia. And her husband, Ezra, is a husk of his former self, stolen from her years ago by a stroke and now battling frightening mood swings and a trick memory. Once filled with passion and hope, their relationship has become more like that of nursemaid and invalid.
Now thrust into contact with her parents’ neighbour Jude, her lover before Ezra, Kat finds his strength attractive, as well as his ongoing passion for her. As she considers her choices in love, Kat discovers that her grandmother, Maud, to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance, was once faced with a similar dilemma when forced to choose between the capricious violence of her shell-shocked husband, John Weeks, and the rugged constancy of their neighbour Valentine Svensson. Leafing through Maud’s scrapbooks and long-hidden love letters, Kat begins to unravel the mystery of her grandfather’s disappearance in the mountains. She is to find that like most family secrets, this one is tangled amidst generations of grief.
As sparks rain down upon them, Kat tries to hold her family together, soothing Ezra’s rages, comforting their son, Jeremy, tending to her mother’s fragile mental state and striving to keep her father at home and comfortable as he nears death. Masses of ladybugs swarm through the house and panicked birds smash windows. Shadowy ghosts flit in and out of the encroaching smoke. All around them the landscape burns and terrible choices must be made. What can be salvaged? What will survive after Turtle Valley has burned?
Turtle Valley is a novel of reconciliation and hope in the midst of terrible loss. Part ghost story, part mystery, part romance, the novel transcends these genres and carries its readers into new territories of forgiveness and acceptance of the difficult choices we all must make in finding our way through life and love.
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Turtle Valley is the fifth book to come from talented Canadian author Gail Anderson-Dargatz, whose novels have been published in several languages worldwide. Her first novel The Cure For Death By Lightning met with terrific acclaim and garnered her the UK’s Betty Trask Award and a nomination for Canada’s Giller Prize. A Recipe For Bees soon followed with nominations for the Giller and the IMPAC Dublin Award. A Rhinestone Button was a national bestseller in Canada and her first book, The Miss Hereford Stories, was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour.
Her style has been called “Margaret Laurence meets Gabriel García Márquez” because her writing tends towards magic realism, but Anderson-Dargatz says the ghosts and premonitions in her novels arise from her family’s stories of the Shuswap-Thompson area, which she carefully transcribed. “My father passed on the rich stories and legends about the region I grew up in, which he heard from the interior Salish natives he worked with,” she explains. “And my mother told me tales of her own premonitions, and of ghosts, eccentrics and dark deeds that haunted the area.”
Anderson-Dargatz has recently moved home to British Columbia’s Shuswap-Thompson area, that landscape found in so much of her writing. She is married to photographer Mitch Krupp, who took the beautiful photos that are reproduced throughout Turtle Valley. Now at work on her next novel, she is an adjunct professor in the creative writing optional-residency MFA program at the University of British Columbia.
Of her inspiration for Turtle Valley, Anderson-Dargatz writes, “It all started back in 1998 when I helped evacuate my parents from the Salmon Arm fire. Almost the whole city was evacuated, in what was the largest peacetime evacuation in the history of BC up to that time. It was both terrifying and visually beautiful, as fire quite literally rained down on the Salmon River Valley. Even as we went through it, I knew I would write of it someday, and I did, in Turtle Valley.”
The fire on the hillside shimmered in the night like a bed of dying embers in a fireplace. Pretty. Not frightening at all. The smell of woodsmoke in the air conjured ghosts of past campfires. Wieners and blackened marshmallows. Watery hot chocolate. But the fire was crawling across the top of our mountain, and was now beginning to head down the slope as well, threatening this valley of farms and acreages. Several huge columns of smoke loomed over the Ptarmigan Hills, blackening out the stars.
Across the field, Jude passed under the yard light, carrying a box from his kiln shed to the Toyota pickup. If I could see him, he could see me standing here in my mother’s kitchen in the T-shirt and panties I had worn to bed. I reached for the switch intending to turn off the light so he wouldn’t notice me as I watched him, but I changed my mind and pressed my hand to the glass of the window instead. The smell of cumin on him as we danced in the Turtle Valley hall all those years ago. The heat of his hand at my waist. His thigh against mine.
A bird bashed into the pane and I gasped and jumped back. It was a junco, scared off the mountain by the fire, I imagined. When it flew away I saw a figure reflected in the window, an old woman standing beside the door to my parents’ room behind me. I swung around to see who it was, but I was alone in the kitchen. My mother’s whistles and Dad’s snores still rang from behind the closed door to their room. When I looked back at the window I saw only my own face mirrored hazily there, but I had seen the old woman, there had been someone in the room with me, I was sure of it.
I grabbed my father’s robe from the bathroom and put it on as I started my search through the house for the woman, opening my sister Val’s old room first, where my son, Jeremy, slept on one of the two single beds, his face flushed and his hair wet with the heat. Then I eased open the door to my parents’ room, careful not to bump the fire extinguisher that hung by the door, as it often fell from its housing when someone brushed by it. My mother was curled into herself and nearly falling off her side of the bed, her eyes moving beneath their lids in dream. My father spooned her; his arms and legs were outlined under the covers. Then to my childhood room, where my husband, Ezra, snored, his arm hanging off the side of the double bed. I opened the door to the parlour, which my mother used only for storage now. The boxes and bags stacked on the piano. But there was no one else in the house.
I checked to make sure Jeremy was all right one more time, stopping a moment to smooth his sweaty forehead, then went back to the kitchen, where I turned on a burner and placed a small pot of milk on the stove in an effort to calm myself. The Vancouver Sun I had picked up that afternoon at a gas station in Golden now sat on the table; on the front page a headline about this fire read, If you have 10 minutes to flee a forest fire, what do you take? The whole of Turtle Valley had just been placed on evacuation alert, and if the fire did take a run down that slope toward the valley, we would be given only a ten-minute warning to get out. Not nearly enough time to salvage my parents’ precious possessions. So we had begun to gather them now, for storage at my sister Val’s place in Canoe, just outside of Salmon Arm, until the threat of evacuation was over.
All around me cardboard boxes and garbage bags were stacked hip-high. But even before this fire, the house was not simply cluttered but tumultuous, each room full of my mother’s accumulated thrift-shop finds of wicker baskets, dishes, bags of yarn, and stacks of books, as well as her contest winnings. My mother entered competitions of all kinds, and her mailbox was jammed with junk mail as a result. But she did sometimes win. There was a ceramic geisha from a contest advertised on a box of mandarin oranges; a barbecue from a local grocery store; an exercise bike from a sporting goods store. These items sat about the house unused, gathering dust and cat hair. She never gave them away as gifts, as both Val and I wished she would.
Ezra, Jeremy, and I had arrived in Turtle Valley earlier that evening, after driving all day from our farm outside Cochrane, Alberta, to help load my parents’ things and deal with their farm animals. As we passed through Salmon Arm, we had seen a crowd of tourists on the pier, watching the Martin Mars water bomber as it picked up water from Shuswap Lake to dump on this fire. Twenty or more firefighters in full gear, grimy in soot, were gathered at the Tim Hortons that we stopped at for washrooms and donuts. When we entered Turtle Valley, making the skip from pavement to the reddish gravel of Blood Road, we saw neighbours sitting out on lawn chairs, drinking beer and watching the fire creep over the hills above. The sun, shining weakly through the plumes of smoke, cast a thin yellow light over the trees of the hillsides, the pastures on the benchlands, and the farms in the narrow valley bottom. On one lawn, children jumped on a trampoline as a light dusting of ash fell around them.
I turned off the burner, poured the milk into a cup, and carried it to the window, where I stood for a time looking out at Jude’s yard. He carried another box to his truck, loading up his possessions for storage elsewhere, out of the path of the fire, just as we were. I hadn’t spoken to him for nearly six years. He had once come over to my parents’ place for coffee any time he saw our truck in the yard. But that last visit with him had been our first since Ezra’s stroke, and Ezra had still been very often confused, and prone to blurting out whatever thought came to mind. During a lull in the conversation he had asked Jude, “You come here to glance at Kat, don’t you?”
Jude’s cheeks reddened. “Well, yes, I came to see Kat. And you, and Gus and Beth.”
I put my hand on Ezra’s. “He comes over to visit Mom and Dad often. He’s not just here to see me.”
“You still want her, don’t you?”
Jude pushed back his chair. “Maybe I should go.”
“No, please, Jude,” I said. “He doesn’t know what he’s saying. It’s the stroke talking.”
“It’s okay. Lillian is expecting me back home for lunch. It was good to see you Kat.” He nodded. “Ezra.” I watched him walk over to his place, following the path that wound past the old well. After that I waved to Jude when I saw him in town, or as I drove by his place on my way to my parents’ farm, but he didn’t come over during my visits home anymore, and I never summoned the courage to face him or Lillian, to stop in on them and say hello.
The fire extinguisher slipped from its mount on the wall and crashed into the open box below. I startled and turned, expecting to find my mother, as she often knocked that extinguisher down when she left her room, but there was no one there. I listened a moment to see if the noise had woken Jeremy, but the house remained still.
When I picked up the extinguisher to replace it, I saw the corner of my grandmother’s carpetbag lying beneath a stack of my mother’s writings in the box. This carpetbag was the one my grandmother carried in that last photograph of her, a picture taken by a street photographer who made a living snapping shots of people as they strode along the sidewalk in Kamloops. She was not expecting to be photographed–her brow was furrowed and her face was tense because, my mother told me, her hips and knees were so badly worn that each step she took was painful. Her outfit was very much of her time: the sensible black shoes, the big round buttons of her coat, the carpetbag slung over one arm. She had sewn the bag herself from flowered upholstery fabric, and fashioned it with curved wooden handles varnished the colour of butterscotch. Even though it wasn’t quite the sort of valise Mary Poppins carried, as a child I had begged my mother to let me play with it. But she always said no. “My mother was a very private woman,” she told me later, when I was in my twenties. “No one looked in her handbag, not even my father.”
“Surely she wouldn’t have minded us looking at her things once she was gone,” I said.
“I mind.” And she had kept it hidden from me, in her room.
As I pulled the carpetbag out of the box, my grandmother’s billfold and dozens of dead ladybugs fell from inside it to the floor. The insects often overwintered in this house, creeping inside in the fall through the many cracks in the door and window frames, and gathering into swarms within unused dresser drawers, just as they did outside under piles of leaves and other litter. But I had never before seen them in such great numbers.
I picked up my grandmother’s wallet. It was fat with bits of paper: shopping lists and receipts, the obituaries of lady friends, a few of the community notes my mother had written for the Promise paper. A tiny worn photograph–not much bigger than a good-sized postage stamp–was wrapped inside a carefully folded news story. It showed a slim, sharp-featured man, dressed in a white shirt with braces and armbands, leaning on a shovel. On the back, in my grandmother’s hand, was written: Valentine, June 1945, in his garden. Valentine Svensson, my father’s uncle. I unfolded the news story. My grandmother had written the date on the clipping: April 1, 1965.
Press-time News Flashes
Turtle Valley Man Missing
A private search in the Ptarmigan Hills revealed no sign of Turtle Valley resident John Weeks. Well-known area woo...
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