Beneath that starry place

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9780002255066: Beneath that starry place

This haunting and magical novel introduces us to Nathan Mann, the youngest of a family of hustlers and dreamers, whose memories of family history-even of his own early years-are a jumble of the unreliable and the confusing. When he visits his grandmother, Madeline, to fill in the gaps, she provides him with the best that she has to offer-a series of watercolors that hold the clues to the family's murky, elusive past. With these fragments, Nathan reconstructs his family's history and his childhood, discovering in the process the startling reasons their history has become so obscured in the first place.

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About the Author:

Terry Jordan's short story collection, It's A Hard Cow, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. He was the first Margaret Laurence Fellow at Trent University in 1996. His award-winning plays, Reunion, Movie Dust, and Close Your Eyes have been produced across the country. He teaches in the English department at Concordia University, Montreal

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My grandmother, Madeleine, had an astronomer's knowledge of the stars; she prayed for grace and intelligence in all things. A strength and delicacy completed everything she started and she spoke of people in a skewed and wonderful way as if they were characters in a story.

I met her, I thought for the first time, near a village called Wilkes on that high country plateau west of the Rockies. I was just starting on the first slope of my twenties; half a century separated us in age.

I had crossed the cool mountains by train at night and was deposited, alone, at the station there, into a morning already so torrid and fevered with heat that I surely would have panicked had not a small savior cloud, like an awning, shaded the platform and bench outside that post. I caught my breath and looked at the directions she'd given me.

The road leading away from Wilkes seemed little more than a track for wagons. I could make out cattle and horses in the boundless distance, but there were no fences to stop their roaming. Every footfall raised a ring of fine, soft yellow powder; my pants were dust-coated to the knees, wrapped like puttees. I tied a shirt over my head to shield it from the sun.

The valley I eventually reached was ragged, it seemed to be quarried out of the earth. The distances appeared hazy, the slopes painted in. Dry grass. Flowerless cacti. Dark brush strokes were stunted pines. Scree the color of coyotes fanned down from one high rim and disappeared like a wick into a still and silent lake. Beyond, a high ridge jutted out from the plain into a shelf, and on that promontory sat a house.

After we'd talked for a while, Madeleine handed me a book. A brown folio, she'd already loosened the straps that bound it to some others. It was old - sharp smelling where its leather was balded and dusty at the edges, the plane of its cover cracked into tiny crevasses. It was beautiful, not a thing you'd pass your hands smoothly across, but something you'd open.

As I did, the pages in it heaved up, uncinched, the paper bulging, rippled by the watercolors she had used. This is the first painting I saw: In the blue-gray of first light are two dogs. One is larger, obviously older, colored like dark moss. The other is a dirty white, almost yellow. The old dog is scowling at the sky, at a place somewhere off the page. The younger dog is smiling, leaning awry into the other. They stand out from the winter landscape around them as if it was cloth they had torn through.

Underneath Madeleine had pencilled: From that starry place where the dipper would have been, the snow will start soon after and fall thick and heavy through the night. When they awake in the morning they will both be covered and as they get to their feet it will slide off them in rugs.

With my finger on the younger dog I looked to Madeleine for an answer. Instead she asked what I could recall.

In that moment I was charged with the task of recollecting the history of my family. And from that beginning everything, every thing, would become memory. Intricate, intractable, and not to be trusted for all of that. Like my grandfather and the desperate thing that he'd done to have made such a difference in our lives. Like an event long past but still vivid, starlight that will still reach us for many of our lifetimes even though the stars themselves are cold and dead.

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