Missing Parents and Lost Landscapes in ’70s Canada

From This week’s Irish Examiner

ShelterShelter

Frances Greenslade (Virago; £12.99) 

Review: Val Nolan

Narrated by the teenage Maggie Dillon, and set 40 years ago in northern Canada, Shelter is the first novel from memoirist Frances Greenslade. It is, at its heart, a coming-of-age story, one which opens in Chilcotin Country, that high plateau which forms the core of British Columbia’s mountainous interior. Here the Dillons live in the absence of electricity, running water, or plumbing, with Maggie’s father keen to ensure his children — Maggie and her sister Jenny — understand how to survive in this hard environment.

Nicknamed ‘Mr Shelter’ by the siblings, Maggie and Jenny’s father is a hard-drinking Irish emigrant lured to Canada by the promise of work and adventure. Their mother, full of “green depths”, is an altogether more secretive and mysterious figure. Indeed, though Maggie’s writing down of her story starts out as an effort to understand this wild, imaginative woman, it evolves over the novel into an unpacking of her own upbringing’s hidden lessons.

When their father is killed in a freak logging accident, Maggie and Jenny’s lives are changed forever and the novel’s title is thrown into stark relief. Their mother is unable to maintain a home and so billets the girls with a dysfunctional couple, taking work as a cook at a distant mining camp. Soon her letters, along with the money she was sending, cease.

At first “we did not try to look for our mother,” Maggie says. “She was gone, like a cat who goes out the back door one night and doesn’t return, and you don’t know if a coyote got her or a hawk or if she sickened somewhere and couldn’t make it home. We let time pass, we waited, trusting her, because she had always been the best of mothers.”

A young protagonist searching for a lost parent is a story which has been told many times and Greenslade is not immune from the clichés of such a work. When she hits the mark, Maggie’s voice is strong, soulful and compassionate; when she misses, the character tends towards indulgent fantasy and melodrama. The novel’s endless supply of absent fathers is also more than a little stock and, equally, its constant demonisation of men gets old very quickly, with the pre-eminence of abusive husbands and boyfriends in Shelter laboured to the point of implausibility.

Problematic too is that the novel never really decides what it wants to be, the harsh realism of broken homes and life in the wild jarring with the quasi-supernatural elements Greenslade has chosen to include. One can see what she was trying to do, with ghosts and leprechaun-like little people reflecting Maggie’s paternal heritage while the totemic animals of North America personify her mother’s side. The problem is neither the characters nor the author ever interrogate these apparitions. Presented matter-of-factly, they are starkly at odds with the convincing, sensory world that the novel has been constructing.

Yet, where Shelter does succeed is how it allows the Chilcotin region to speak through Maggie, its vivid landscape as much a character here as either the girls or their mother. Of all the novel’s protagonists, the wilderness is arguable the most likeable.

This article originally published in the Irish Examiner, Saturday4th 2012. 

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