“Dark, nothing but darkness, thick and deep, and it wasn’t home, she could sense that, it was somewhere else. Susan Ann was trying to think, trying to remember the last thing she remembered — what day was this?” (p. 2)
It is September 11, 2001, and eighty-five-year-old Susan Ann Roberts is coming to the end of her life. In and out of consciousness, she is bedridden in a Toronto hospital, confused as to what has brought her to this place. Her daughter, Lorraine, and beloved granddaughter, Meg, are by her side but they seem unable (or unwilling) to take her home.
Susan Ann isn’t exactly sure where home is anymore. Lorraine had insisted her mother move to Toronto, worried about her living alone in the big house back east. Ever since, Susan Ann has been trapped—stuck in an unfamiliar city in a too-small apartment where things are so cramped that the dresser drawers in her bedroom open only partway.
Susan Ann resolves that she will return home to the Maritimes one last time. Her journey begins at the bottom of the laneway of the New Brunswick farm where she spent her summers, and takes her to the town where she grew up, and then across the ponds and rivers of the Tantramar Marshes, all the way to Nova Scotia and Ragged Islands, where she had made her home with her devoted husband and children.
As she travels on foot along old roads and visits the lost houses of her memory, Susan Ann is kept company by a dog from her distant past. Her unlikely guide propels Susan Ann forward, leading her ever closer to the place where she hopes to reunite with her husband. Along the way, they meet various people from Susan Ann’s life: a neighbour who died in a fire with her four siblings; the man who was her brother in all the most important ways; and a young woman who may hold the key to one of the great mysteries of Susan Ann’s life: why did her mother give her away to relatives to raise, despite the fact that she kept children who were born both before and after her?
Meanwhile, Susan Ann’s son, Carl, is at his mother’s Toronto apartment sorting through her belongings. He comes across an envelope labelled TO BE SAVED. In it, he discovers assorted papers, letters, and pictures that reveal his mother’s life as a woman and a wife, not just a mother. Old wounds are opened, unanswerable questions are asked, and mysteries are both solved and created.
In Ragged Islands, Don Hannah has given us a moving, witty, and tender portrait of a remarkably modern old woman at the end of a life bound by tradition and family secrets, blessed with great love, and rocked by events in the outside world. Coloured with intimate portraits of a family that seems almost familiar, Susan Ann’s journey suggests an answer to the question of what happens to the soul when the body begins to die. The final pages lead us to question what parts of a life remain behind for others to discover, how a family remembers those who have died, and where life’s final journey will take us.
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Don Hannah is the author of The Wise and Foolish Virgins, a novel, and Shoreline, a collection of plays. In 2006, he was named the Lee Playwright in Residence at the University of Alberta. Born and raised in New Brunswick, he now divides his time between the south shore of Nova Scotia and everywhere else.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Carl found the package when he stripped the bed. A huge padded envelope, dog-eared, wrinkled with time and use, and worn so soft – somehow it had worked its way down between the sheets and come to rest at the bottom, where it lay lodged between the mattress and the footboard like some forgotten nighttime comfort, a hot water bottle or a doll.
The envelope had originally been sent to his mother in Ragged Islands. In the upper left-hand corner, where the return address label had been torn away, there was a square of exposed bubble lining, a small translucent window through which he could almost see the inside.
When he turned it over, he saw the words she had printed across the back in a wide black marker: TO BE SAVED
She was in the dark darkness.
Where’s this? she said. Where am I?
Dark, nothing but darkness, thick and deep, and it wasn’t home, she could sense that, it was somewhere else. Susan Ann was trying to think, trying to remember the last thing she remembered–what day was this?
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday Monday Tues–
She didn’t have a clue. Had she wandered off into a strange room? She’d better take a look-go-see and–
There was nothing down below – she couldn’t feel the far end of her at all!
Where’re my feet?
It was empty-feeling down there. Up above, the darkness was pressing against her all around – heavy upon her chest, her head, holding her fast.
Calm down, calm now, think.
She must’ve had another episode, yes, and somehow she’d managed to lose her feet this time.
But where was this dark place? Had she gone somewhere to visit? Where was this, where?
Yes, that damn Lorraine!
Susan Ann had been stupid enough to listen to her kids – that was what this was, that was why this was happening. She should never’ve listened, never’ve let them talk her into coming here.
Lorraine thought she was so smart – and Carl, on the phone, “Mum, you know it’s for the best.” What could he possibly know from out there? He hadn’t seen Ragged Islands since his father’s funeral, he stayed out there in the West and let his sister run things. Her own son had no idea of what was really going on, no idea at all.
Lorraine, the last summer back home, out in the yard–“The apartments in that building are nice and big, Mum.” Susan Ann would find out all too soon that the only big things there were the fibs her daughter told.
That bedroom’s so small if you want to make the bed properly you need to be able to fly!
“Mum, you know it’s for the best. We worry about you all alone in the house. And you’ve made it very clear that you won’t go to Surf Side Manor.”
Yes, because then no one would ever come see her, she’d never see her own grandchildren again–there’d be nowhere for them to visit and stay. She’d be stuck in the TV room all day long, stuck in there with a bunch of nosy old people she’d never cared for all yak-yak-yakking, and there was nothing but crap on the old box nowadays anyway – young people parading their private lives about like fools–
You should never’ve left Ragged Islands, should never’ve let that house be sold–Jamie’s house, Jamie’s house, Jamie’s–
Don’t, now don’t go and get all upset, it won’t get you anywhere so just calm down.
But Jamie’s house, I let them talk me into selling Jamie’s house.
That’s a while ago, that’s ancient history, just–
But it was Jamie’s house!
And that apartment Lorraine shoved her in–
Kitchen cupboards were so narrow that she couldn’t put a plate in them – there wasn’t enough counter space to chop an onion, and no window at all – at Ragged Islands there were the beautiful new cupboards Jamie had put in, and while she washed the dishes she could look out and see the islands themselves, just offshore, and the back harbour and the edge of town – almost an island itself – in the distance. But no window in that damn apartment kitchen or the bathroom – and even an outhouse has a window. Up at the farm the outhouse had two windows – two! But oh no, not that “nice big apartment.” Not a foot of decent woodwork anywhere, the doors all thin as cardboard, and that miserable wall-to-wall rug. There was no satisfaction in cleaning a place like that, none at all. At nighttime, the street outside was so bright and noisy that she had to keep the windows closed and the drapes shut or she’d never sleep a wink. The full moon could come and go time and again, but she’d never know, oh no, not in there. And stars, she could just forget about wanting to see any of them ever again!
It’s no fair!
Who’s that? Is someone there?
She thought she heard someone say something. She was still as could be, listening. . . .
Not moving a muscle, quiet as a mouse. . . .
Listening. . . .
Hssssssssss. . . .
What was that? What was that sound? Take a look-go-see and–
How in the name of God could a person lose her own feet?
They must be down there somewhere, but she couldn’t feel a thing, nothing seemed to be going on down there at all. And in this light, without her glasses, she couldn’t see worth a damn.
If she tried to take a step, what would happen?
My feet, my poor old feet.
Were they ashamed of themselves and hiding? Who could blame them? But where?
Jamie would be shocked to see those old feet of hers now. When was the last time she’d touched them?
Putting on my slippers.
No, touched them closer than that, took a real good look at them. How long had it been since she’d trimmed her own toenails? Months and months, oh, ages and ages ago. Her granddaughter did that these days, cut her toenails when she came to visit. It was an awful thing to ask a young person to do. Susan Ann couldn’t watch; she hated the sight of those tough old things, all ancient and gnarled, and an awful dirty yellow colour, like claws. Poor Jamie would be shocked to see them. She used to have such nice feet.
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Book Description Knopf Canada, 2007. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. New item. Bookseller Inventory # QX-208-X1-0937600