Jane Urquhart The Stone Carvers

ISBN 13: 9780771086397

The Stone Carvers

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9780771086397: The Stone Carvers

Set in the first half of the twentieth century, but reaching back to Bavaria in the late nineteenth century, The Stone Carvers weaves together the story of ordinary lives marked by obsession and transformed by art. At the centre of a large cast of characters is Klara Becker, the granddaughter of a master carver, a seamstress haunted by a love affair cut short by the First World War, and by the frequent disappearances of her brother Tilman, afflicted since childhood with wanderlust. From Ontario, they are swept into a colossal venture in Europe years later, as Toronto sculptor Walter Allward’s ambitious plans begin to take shape for a war memorial at Vimy, France. Spanning three decades, and moving from a German-settled village in Ontario to Europe after the Great War, The Stone Carvers follows the paths of immigrants, labourers, and dreamers. Vivid, dark, redemptive, this is novel of great beauty and power.
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About the Author:

Jane Urquhart is the author of five internationally acclaimed novels: The Whirlpool, which received Le prix du meilleur livre étranger (Best Foreign Book Award) in France; Changing Heaven; Away, which won the Trillium Award and was a finalist for the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; The Underpainter, which won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Rogers Communications Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize; and The Stone Carvers, a finalist for the 2001 Giller Prize and for the Governor General's Award for Fiction. She is also the author of a collection of short fiction, Storm Glass, and three books of poetry, I Am Walking in the Garden of His Imaginary Palace, False Shuffles, and The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan (I Am Walking in the Garden of His Imaginary Palace and The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan were published together in 2000 in a one-volume collector’s edition entitled Some Other Garden). Urquhart has received the Marian Engel Award, and has been named a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France. She was also the 2003 recipient of Alberta's Bob Edwards Award.
Urquhart has received numerous honorary doctorates from Canadian universities and has been writer-in-residence at the University of Ottawa and at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and, during the winter and spring of 1997, she held the Presidential Writer-in-Residence Fellowship at the University of Toronto. She has also given readings and lectures in Canada, Britain, Europe, the U.S.A., and Australia.

Jane Urquhart was born in Little Long Lac, Ontario, and grew up in Toronto. She now lives outside of Toronto.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

There was a story, a true if slightly embellished story, about how the Ontario village was given its name, its church, its brewery, its tavern, its gardens, its grottoes, its splendid indoor and outdoor altars. How it acquired its hotel, its blacksmith’s shop, its streets and roads, its tannery, its cemetery, its general store. This was a legend that appealed to fewer and fewer people in the depression of the early 1930s. Times being what they were, not many villagers had the energy for the present, never mind the past – the tattered rail fences and sagging porches of the previous century seemed to them to be just two more things in need of repair. The tannery and blacksmith’s shop had disappeared years ago, and though the general store was still a fixture, its counter was so warped and scarred it looked as if it might have once served as a butcher’s block.
 
It was difficult to believe, in those days, with the older parts of the village in a state of decay usually associated with the decline of a complete civilization and the newer sections consisting of sloppy, half-finished attempts at twentieth-century industry, that one hundred years ago there was no sign of western European culture in the region. Difficult also to believe that it took only one hundred years for this culture to break down under the weight of economic failure.
 
Still the tale continued to be dear to one thirty-eight-year-old spinster who lived half a mile away from the village at a spot known as Becker’s Corners and all of the good Sisters at the small Convent of the Immaculate Conception near the top of the village’s only hill. These women believed the story connected them, through ancestry, through work and worship, and through vocation to the village’s inception. They believed it also connected them to the great church, under whose shadow, in the seldom-visited cemetery, their forebears slept beneath iron crosses that leaned at odd angles to one another, as if trying to establish contact after a long season of isolation and neglect.
 
The nuns and the one spinster clung to the story, as if by telling the tale they became witnesses, perhaps even participants in the awkward fabrication of matter, the difficult architecture of a new world.
 
 
In the middle of the nineteenth century, in the small village of Inzell, Bavaria, the wonderfully named Pater Archangel Gstir had no opinions about difficult architecture. In fact, Father Gstir was such a contented young man, a young man filled with such happy certainties, that beyond his faith and his fierce desire for a suitable bell to adorn the Romanesque belfry of the little parish church of St. Michael where he was pastor, he had few strong feelings about anything at all. He was troubled by neither women, nor fashion, nor financial insecurities – the usual afflictions of young men. In his church he was surrounded by a devout and devoted flock of parishioners, and once he stepped outside he was presented with a view of some of the finest mountain scenery in Bavaria, a region not now, and certainly not then, impoverished when it came to ravishing landscape. He spent his weekdays after morning mass cheerfully encouraging German-speaking boys in the study of classical languages, history, natural science, and liturgy. He ate well, enjoying Bavarian beer and his choice of European wines with his meals, and after these meals he took long walks along the edges of the gorgeously scenic Knappensteig, where he was able to admire the peaks of the Watzmann, the Hochkalter, the Hocheisspitze, and the Reiter Alpe. It was his habit on these promenades to pray to the Creator of all this beauty at the charming outdoor shrines and crosses scattered liberally across the hills and mountains. During one of these periods of reflection, just as he was beginning to be distracted by a rare wildflower – blue with black markings, quite unlike anything he had pressed in his album so far – he was startled by an announcement from God Himself with whom he often carried on conversations in his mind. “Go to Canada,” He told him now. “There is much work for you to do there.”
 
Father Gstir was astonished. As far as he knew he had not, until that very moment, even thought about Canada. Snow, he mused vaguely, and savages. “The English,” he whispered aloud, “and, I believe, some French.” He plucked the wildflower from the grass, placed it inside his breviary, and tucked the small book firmly under his elbow. “There must be some mistake,” he said to the Creator and continued along the mountain path, forgetting about Canada altogether.
 
The spinster was particularly fond of this moment in the story because it always brought to mind an increased awareness of the serendipitous quality of one’s presence here on earth. Where would she be had Father Gstir resolutely decided to ignore God’s call? Indeed, where would anyone be had the slightest incident not occurred in the chaos of details that led to their birth. The past need do no more than shrug its shoulders or lift its eyebrows for us to cease to exist. But the wonderful thing about saints, the spinster had been known to remark to the nuns – for she was confident that Father Gstir, recognized or not, was a saint – is that saints have no choice.
 
God forgot neither Father Gstir nor Canada and was moved to remind the Bavarian priest of His wishes in a direct and ultimately fateful way. In the middle of a spring week, while Father Gstir was removing his vestments after morning mass and silently preparing his Sunday sermon in which he would compare each of the virtues to a mountain wildflower, the postmaster knocked at the door of the vestry.
 
Father Gstir pulled back the bolt and invited the man in. “You were not here at mass, Johann,” he said.
 
This was a joke between them. Johann Heipel, postmaster of Inzell and a very devout man, could never attend weekday morning mass because of his letter-carrying duties. He felt this very deeply and often confessed it – much to Father Gstir’s amusement.
 
But on this day, the postmaster did not respond with the customary explanation. Instead he reported excitedly that there was a letter from the bishop.
 
Father Gstir had never received a letter from the bishop, despite his writing regularly to this venerable person petitioning for funds to replace the bell and, in his braver moments, for a limewood altar for a side chapel in the church. A wonderful ringing was in his mind as he tore open the envelope.
 
The message, which made mention of neither bell nor altarpiece but which nevertheless made quite clear that the bishop had received Father Gstir’s petitions, read as follows:
 
May 30, 1866
 
Our esteemed King Ludwig, benefactor of the Ludwig Missions, has lately interested himself in a small group of our people who have established themselves in the wilds of Canada where they have no priest to minister to them or to instruct their children in the ways of the Blessed Church of Rome. I have noted from your many letters that you reside in an alpine district where the air is necessarily much colder and fresher and therefore more like the air of Canada. Because of this, and because of your rumoured great good humour, you have therefore been chosen by me to complete this Holy Task & etc. . . .
 
The Sisters at the Convent of the Immaculate Conception knew the contents of this letter by heart, as did the spinster, who had memorized it in her youth. They also knew that Father Gstir would have been moved by the letter to recall his inner conversation on the Knappensteig and at the same time the authority of his holy vows. Some of the nuns wondered why the spinster had not taken holy vows herself, since she had no husband, and it was unlikely at this late date that one would appear. But most of the Sisters suspected that the spinster was completely unsuited for convent life, and were content to appreciate the way she dusted and polished the church pews, washed and sewed the altar cloths and linens, and decorated the altar with flowers in the summer.
 
They were also very grateful for the small Madonnas she carved for their rooms, and the complete crèche she had made, down to the last animal in the manger, to be assembled outside the church in the Christmas season, though all of them believed that carving was men’s work. They knew the spinster was unsuitable for convent life because of her fondness for men’s work – carving, farming, tailoring – her fondness, and her skill.
 
 
Like every other man, woman, and child in Bavaria, Father Gstir was well aware that King Ludwig was mad, and he knew that an interest in Canada was precisely the kind of course the King’s mad mind was likely to take. Was the bishop mad as well? Were the alleged Bavarian settlers also suffering from diseases of the brain? Instead of being ministered to in that wild place, should they not instead be encouraged to return to civilization? He put the last of these questions as delicately as possible to the bishop in an eloquent letter that also included a list of reasons why he, Pater Archangel, was a completely inappropriate candidate for the task, ending with a hopeful reminder regarding the bell. The bell, he told his superior, would ring out from the beautiful Romanesque belfry, the last vestige of the original parish church that had been founded in 1190 by Archbishop Albrecht II of Salzburg and that had unfortunately burned in 1724. Did the bishop not agree that the fact that the belfry and its splendid onion dome were spared in the conflagration was surely a kind of miracle, one that should be celebrated by a perfect bell, with a perfect pitch, rather than one filled with cracks that therefore emitted a disturbing sound that put the pastor in mind of a choirboy singing a Bach chorale just slightly off-key.
 
The bishop did not reply but sent instead the necessary documents for the journey.
 
 
Until Pater Archangel Gstir came to Canada, he had been able to walk along the edges of life in much the way he had walked along the edges of the beautiful Knappensteig. He had been an observer, albeit an appreciator. The mountain tracks he trod were lined with wildflowers; the views were gorgeous and distant. He loved climbing up to heights, but even more he loved gazing into depths. He turned from prayer at an outdoor shrine and looked down into deep green valleys. He stood in the altar and smiled upon his parishioners. Occasionally he climbed the miraculous belfry to inspect the faulty bell, and then he was able to look down on the whole village as it went about its business. All this would change when he came to Canada. He would become, as a result of geological, geographical, and meteorological necessity, a participator.
 
 
A year almost to the day after he had received the bishop’s letter – a year that had included a six-month-long hellish journey over water and land to the place then called Upper Canada – Father Gstir found himself in a pinewood forest trudging over an uncompromisingly flat terrain with a cloud of the Devil’s own insects, called blackflies by the English, buzzing over his head and the head of his horse. His territory – his parish – covered approximately two thousand square miles of practically unpopulated backwoods, an area filled with all manner of birds, beasts, and insects of prey. His task was to travel from one squalid cabin to another, avoiding those dwellings occupied by Protestants, known in these parts as Orangemen, bringing joy, comfort, and spiritual guidance to the German Catholics who had squatted on the land. Most of these settlers were so busy removing trees – and in a most unattractive fashion – that they hadn’t thought about the Blessed Virgin since they were children, if they had thought about her at all. The women had been glad to see him because his appearance suggested there might be someone – anyone – to administer last rites when they died in childbirth, as they so often did. The older men were respectful, though few had the reading skills or the time to study the catechism. The young men were difficult, sometimes almost surly, for it was they who ruled this domain, where physical strength was the key to survival. Still, it was one of them who had suggested that the good Father travel ten miles farther north, where a number of Alsatians and a few Bavarians were settled around the establishment of a sawmill.
 
“Don’t bother with us,” said one of two young and alarmingly large backwoods brothers to Father Gstir as he tried to intercept them in the muddy yard of their cabin. “Leave us alone, old man, we’ve no time for redemption.”
 
Father Gstir deeply resented being called an old man, for he was far from old, in fact not much older than the brothers themselves.
 
“Go to the settlement ten miles to the north,” they told him. “Storekeepers and millers there have lives soft enough for religion.”
 
The priest decided to forgo the correction he had been planning in regard to his age. “I’ll not give up on your souls,” he said. “But what then is the name of this village?”
 
“Doesn’t have a name,” said one of the brothers. “Ten miles north, sawmill, gristmill.”
 
Father Gstir set off in the direction the two brothers had indicated, the black cloud of flies accompanying him. When he had imagined Canada and his posting there, it had been the cold, the endless wastes of snow that he had dreaded. Now he longed for winter, prayed for it, for at least in winter there were no flies and the swamps and rivers would freeze, making his progress easier and the way shorter. But as he rode mile after mile in the heat and humidity of that early summer afternoon, he became aware that the swampy areas were becoming less frequent, that the ground was hardening underfoot, and that there was a slight rise in the level of the earth. He was enchanted by the appearance now and then of perfectly round ponds of water, a geological oddity he would soon learn were called “kettles” by the locals, though no one could explain why. It was shortly after he had skirted the edge of one of these that he emerged from the forest at a cleared area on the brow of a hill.
 
What lay before him was a view of his first deep Canadian valley, one with signs of settlement near a shining stream, and he fell in love at once. He had to admit, however, even in the midst of his sudden infatuation, that the place was a cluttered mess, all vegetation having been recently torn up or chopped down, leaving behind acres of mud littered with uprooted and rotting tree stumps. Any attempts at architectural construction – even the sawmill and gristmill – looked temporary, haphazard, and dangerously frail, the boards from which the structures were built pale and raw in the afternoon light, men, oxen, and horses moving sluggishly around them. The humidity of the season had settled in the valley, and everything alive appeared to be swimming in a slow trance through cloudy water. Only the little river was filled with vitality – Father Gstir could hear the sound of it – as it picked up and tossed light that came from a sun barely visible in a milky sky.
 
He saw all this, ...

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