Saturday, January 15, 2011 |
The Canada Reads defenders are back this week, this time ready to declare their favourite scenes in their chosen books. From hovercrafts to healers, each scene is as striking and memorable as the last. How this team chose a favourite, we'll never know.
Warning: many of these defences contain spoilers, so stop reading here if you don't want to know!
You just knew that hovercraft had to come out of the boathouse sometime.
It's literary convention. If you introduce a hovercraft into the proceedings, sooner or later, you've gotta take it out for a spin.
The author makes us wait for it though.
The Best Laid Plans is 312 pages long. The hovercraft takes to the Ottawa River on page 308.
But what a ride! And what a supremely Canadian way to tie off a book! Dressed in winter parka, ski pants, boots, mitts, hat and World War One leather flying headgear, the novel's hero, Angus McLintock, drives his personal watercraft downriver, through a paralyzing blizzard, to the Parliament Buildings.
I saw it coming a mile away. The sinister government. The non-confidence vote. The severe weather warning. Everything pointed to hovercraft.
And if the appearance of an air cushion vehicle isn't enough excitement for you, this scene also contains my favourite sentence from the entire book. It runs thus: "There's a vote to be won, and I'll not sit idly by while an unscrupulous Government hornswoggles a nation."
Hornswoggling and hovercraft, all in one page. Not too many authors can get away with that.
"Le jardin des morts, the garden of the dead, the garden of lost souls." This is what Miss B. whispers to Dora in one of my most memorable scenes in The Birth House. It takes place early on in the book when they go to bury the Ketch baby. The scene is haunting to me, particularly the description of the makeshift graveyard with the Madonna carved into a tree stump.
Even though I'm not particularly religious, this place is special because of its spiritual connection with all the lost souls of infants. The brief ceremony and recitation Miss B. performs to give peace to the soul of the dead baby boy is one that clearly has an impact on Dora, as it did on me. I think what makes this moment so memorable is that it really sets up Dora's path in the rest of the book.
The scene ends with Miss B. asking her to name him as they stand in the grove of spruce trees with dangling bits of lace and shells that are "like the wings of angels." She calls him Darcy after the beloved character in Pride and Prejudice, "Because he should have lived; he should have been loved." If that doesn't moisten your eyeballs even just a little, I'm not sure what will.
What, I have to choose just one??
The fact is that Angie Abdou excels at taking the reader inside an athlete's experience, body and mind, whether it's Sadie in the pool or Digger on the wrestling mat. The perfect example: her vivid, visceral description of Digger's match against a rival who defeated him for a spot in the previous Olympics: it's payback time! The scene is a suspenseful account of "five minutes to determine whether Digger is ever going to be an Olympian. Or not." It also helps the reader to appreciate that the sport is not just about brute force; it requires strategy and cunning.
As a reader you feel what Digger is feeling, and follow his thoughts and the swing of his emotions. The way the match unfolds, it seems like an irresistible force (Digger) is pitted against an immovable object (Harrison), and it's not clear until the very end who will come out on top. Here's a sample of Angie's play-by-play:
"Digger jams the hard part of his right hand — the bone along the thumb and heel — just above Harrison's rib cage. Forcing his hands into Harrison's ribs with all his strength, he lets his breath out in a grunt, squeezing and squeezing. His legs dig into the mat; his thigh muscles throb. He presses and he presses, can feel the air going out of Harrison...Still, Digger doesn't loosen his grip; he squeezes tighter, feeling the blood throbbing in his own forehead."
I love sports — but given this kind of scenario, I'm happy to experience wrestling only vicariously!
It's a good sign when I can see and hear a graphic novel like a movie. Essex County is a book that treats all the senses and that's one of the reasons it's great. It also makes it difficult to choose a favourite scene. One panel sticks out in mind and it happens at the end of Ghost Stories, the book I've already pointed out. In it, Lou is looking back on his life to perhaps one of the saddest points. It's a heartbreaking scene that captures what makes Essex County so powerful:
Lou is sitting on the porch when he hears his brother Vince call him from inside the house. He has fallen and can't get up. He goes to him and holds him in Vince's final moments. Lou begs him to hold on but his brother just doesn't want to. "I'm tired...tired of being without her," Vince says, referring to his dead wife. Lou's responds with "I just don't want to be alone again. I've spent too much of my damn life alone." But it's not enough and Vice passes away in his arms.
With the image of an old and wrinkled and tearful Lou holding his brother, we hear the gradual "tap, tap" of hockey sticks on the ice. We turn the page and in a two-page panel we see the Lebeuf's old hockey team surround the old men. They're all somber but tapping their hockey sticks on the ice as a sign of respect. "Thanks boys," Lou says and the reader is transported back to present day.
For me, the most memorable scene in Unless is the moment when Reta talks about discovering an ancient invitation to a baby shower. The invitation, addressed to the previous owners of the house, was wedged behind a bathroom radiator. What follows is Reta's imagining of what the shower must have been like and how Mrs. McGinn (she never learns her first name) would have responded to it in 1961, interspersed with Rita's reflections on her own life.
The scene, which is really the depiction of a rather mundane event — finding an old, rather insignificant, piece of mail while painting, is the perfect illustration of what sets Carol Shields apart as a writer. In this quiet moment, we learn so much about Reta. We see her try to justify the decisions she has made and the ones she is about to make, all while Shields effortlessly moves on to the next point in the story. The way that Shields is able to probe so deeply into the character while never drawing attention to herself as a writer, while never making it seem forced, is breathtaking.
It may not be the scene with the most action, but it's definitely the one that has stayed with me the longest.
Do you have a favourite scene from a Canada Reads 2011 novel? Share it with us in the comments below!