Books

A PLACE IN THE HEART

John Bemrose’s debut novel captures the essence of his hometown in one man’s story

Brian Bethune September 8 2003
Books

A PLACE IN THE HEART

John Bemrose’s debut novel captures the essence of his hometown in one man’s story

Brian Bethune September 8 2003

A PLACE IN THE HEART

Books

BRIAN BETHUNE

John Bemrose’s debut novel captures the essence of his hometown in one man’s story

“THE SOUTHERN Ontario countryside is devoid of topographic, ethnic or historical interest,” runs the famous opening sentence of John Kenneth Galbraith’s memoirs, A Life in Our Times. The celebrated economist must have somehow missed the town of Paris, some 100 km to the northeast of his birthplace near Iona Station. Perhaps Galbraith, and his dour Scottish relations, were put off by the grandiose name, derived not from some ambition to recreate the City of Light in the wilds of Upper Canada, but from the plentiful supplies of gypsum—plaster of Paris—found there. Yet Ontario’s Paris has a rare and even dramatic beauty, dis-

played in its bridges and cobblestone buildings and, above all, in its natural setting, a plunging valley of Carolinian woods and forking rivers, the Grand and Nith that meet in the deep centre of town.

It’s the kind of place to leave a mark on anyone sensitive who grew up there. It certainly did on John Bemrose, long-time Maclean’s contributing editor and, now, author of The Island Walkers (McClelland & Stewart). Unlike many first novels, Bemrose’s book is not primarily a novel of memory, although the writer’s personal experiences are scattered throughout. Instead, it is peculiarly and emphatically a novel of place, one that Bemrose, 56, has been striving to write most of his life. “When I was 15 years old, I was in a melancholy mood one day—probably over a girl—and after a long walk I ended up on a hill overlooking the town. It came to me in a flash that I’d be a writer and I’d write about Paris through the life of one person. I think The Island Walkers was there in seminal form—the whole story of Alf Walker. But when in my twenties I tried to write it, I didn’t know enough, I hadn’t lived enough.” The Walker family lives in the district known as the Island, a working-class enclave formed by a river bend and a millrace, a channel cut to provide current for a mill wheel. It’s the summer of ’65, in the last days of what Bemrose calls the town’s “wholeness”—its self-absorbed independence— when the great textile mills, which had flourished for a century on the site’s waterpower, still dominated Attawan (as Paris is called in the novel) economically and socially. The Walkers’ lives, never much favoured by time or chance, are about to take a calamitous turn for the worse.

Alf, a bitter survivor of a failed 1949 strike at the mills—undertaken by young war vets like himself, who believed justice was there to be grasped by the bold—sees a chance to advance up the company’s ranks. Now middle-aged, he desperately wants to become a foreman, as much to erase the look of disappointment he sees in the face of his wife, Margaret, as for himself. But management’s price is steep: it wants the names of co-workers involved in a new union-organizing drive. At the same time the older Walker boy Joe, 18, has fallen hopelessly—in every possible

way—in love with Anna, a girl from the right side of the tracks. Even younger son Jamie, a wide-eyed eight-year-old open to the beauty around him, and daughter Penny, 10, have hard choices to face.

The storyline is taut, almost unbearably so at times, from the opening pages. The small-town class divisions that, together with Joe and Anna’s personal demons, ravage their romance, are expertly—and agonizingly-evoked. (“It’s so hard to grasp what it feels like to be young at a particular time, to express that subde connection to the Zeitgeist,” Bemrose says, “that I set the novel in the year I was 18.”) Alf’s struggle to steer a middle course between ambition and betrayal is so clearly doomed that the novel’s overriding question soon becomes, not what will happen—disaster is inevitable—but how will Alf face it, with what reserves of courage and integrity? And running through The Island Walkers like a shining stream is the theme of Alf as “the culture carrier of the town,” in Bemrose’s words, “the one who knows its history and feels responsibility for it.” Alf is almost, but not quite, unconscious of this impetus in himself, but it is the element in his character that determines the novel’s powerful conclusion.

THERE IS “something about beauty,” notes the author, “that strikes deeply in people who are open to it. Beauty of place brings pressure, not simply pride, but pressure to live up to it.” Bemrose is speaking as much about himself as Alf. He was born in Paris in 1947, the son and grandson of men who worked for the textile mills. Family tales and a book on local history had the effect of “populating the entire town with ghosts” in the mind of an imaginative nine-year-old boy. “You learn these stories as an adult,” Bemrose continues, “and they’re merely interesting facts. For a boy they’re larger than life, they’re myth.”

So even when Bemrose left Paris in 1966— for university, marriage, fatherhood and a career as an arts journalist—Paris didn’t leave him. “I can close my eyes in Toronto now, and see it all through the eyes of a child—as it was, but fresh, as if for the first time, every stone of it, the hills and the rivers. I’m sure it will be the last thing I see before I die.” That boy’s-eye perspective is reflected in the narrative voice—a complex tale simply told—and in the palpable expression of physical memory, of summer swimming

holes and perfect winter skating conditions.

The rivers, in fact—known as the Shade and the Attawan in The Island Walkers—are the essence of the place for author and main character alike. Bemrose’s grandfather drowned while fishing in the Grand; so too did Alf’s father in the Shade. Alf is drawn to the riverbank whenever he is most troubled while, in a finely written novel, Bemrose’s most striking metaphors derive from water: time passing by “in the lick of water on

‘I CAN CLOSE my eyes and see it all through the eyes of a child-as it was, but fresh, for the first time, every stone, the hills and rivers’

stone,” and the sudden, strange effect of a poem, “like a bullet severing water.”

A sense of place is something the novel’s characters take for granted in 1965. Not so its author in 2003. “Just as we know humanity through individuals, family and friends, we know the earth through particular locales,” he says. “But that sense is rapidly being eroded by the speed of our lives and our increasingly monolithic culture. We can lose that connection.” The ghostly presence of the Attawan Indians, long gone when the first settlers arrived, floats through the novel. What happened to them remains obscure; perhaps, as Alf worries about his Attawans, they had somehow failed to live up to the demands of their beautiful home. Place endures, The Island Walkers implicitly argues, but that doesn’t mean we will. lil