Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s evocative first novel–a richly atmospheric coming-of-age tale novel set on a remote Canadian farm in the midst of World War II–reveals an assured and original voice.

The Cure for Death by Lightning is the story of Beth Weeks, a young girl whose life is thrown into turmoil by her abusive father, a mysterious stalker, and her own awakening sexuality. But friendship with a girl from the nearby Indian reserve connects her to an enriching mythology, and an unexpected protector ultimately shores up her world. The novel is sprinkled throughout with recipes and remedies from the scrapbook Beth’s mother keeps, a boon to Beth as she faces down her demons and discovers what she is made of–and one of many elements that gives The Cure for Death by Lightning its enchanting vitality.
Goodreads Description
This review contains spoilers.

I read Gail Anderson-Dargatz's coming-of-age story in two days. The writing was easily readable, and at times poetic (which is something I like in a book). You get a vivid impression of the landscape of British Columbia. There is a wonderful scene where a storm strips the petals from a field of flaxflowers and covers the farm with them: With blue flax in my cupped hands, blue flax on my hair, my face, my dress, I looked over a world that was blue and as strange as a dream. This scene could be thought of as magical, but the author in an interview explained that she had experienced just such an event. This beauty is contrasted with the routine brutality of killing farm animals and the ravages of the local wildlife, especially coyotes, on those same animals and possibly even children. There is a particularly gory description of a sheep which Beth finds after it has been attacked by coyotes: Coyotes go for the genitals and the soft belly of a sick sheep. They nip like a dog at the legs and face until the sheep falls. Then they eat her alive. This ewe was still alive, and her genitals were eaten away.

I found myself empathising with the narrator, Beth Weeks, who was in many ways a familiar and quite ordinary teenage girl. But Beth shouldn't be ordinary. Things happen to her and they happen around her, horrendous things, and yet she remains pretty constant. Even when she sees or experiences something shocking, such as catching someone she is fond of having sex with a cow, there's very little reaction. Big issues are skirted around, half referred to, apart from the violence against animals. We are left to fill in the gaps. Maybe this is the narrator's way of coping, but as a result when I got to the end of the book and went over it in my head I was shocked by what I had read. The book contains: self-harm, rape, missing children, suicide, lesbianism, incest, child abuse, bestiality, insanity, and violence against humans and animals. Poor Beth and her community have got the lot. Too much so for the novel to be completely credible or indeed focused. How could I possibly have read it so easily? Alas one of the reasons was the way magic realism was used in the book. 

In an interview with the now defunct magic realism magazine Serendipity the author is quoted as saying: Magic realism is so very useful in exploring the deepest parts of our psyches. Our dreams, after all, are full of magic realism elements, the uncanny. Magic realism draws from, and speaks to, the soul. In the end, though, what drew me to magic realism is the fun. Who doesn't like the chill of seeing a ghost? The thrill of being chased? The wonder of flowers falling from the sky? I love the freedom of knowing that anything can and will happen on the page.

English: Anthropomorphic Coyote trickster, fro...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The major magic realism element is the Coyote, a mythical trickster spirit of the Native Americans. Nora, the young half-breed, who is Beth's friend (lover?) explains the Coyote thus: Granny says if a man's got something wrong with him, if he's drunk or gets hit on the head or bushed or something, then Coyote can get inside him and make him crazy, make him do stuff. Bad stuff.

Beth senses that she is being followed by Coyote, she sees the path through the grass as something unseen chases her. The Coyote is blamed for taking possession of a young Indian man when he gets drunk, of Beth's father when he is violent or sexually abusive, of Coyote Jack the local recluse who attacks Beth, of Beth's attempted rapist, and for giving Filthy Billy Tourettes syndrome and fits. Well that's all right then - it's not the individuals involved, it's that nasty Coyote. Is this how magic realism should be used?  I feel really ill at ease with this. Maybe it's my west European sensibilities that are to blame, but maybe not. 

Perhaps part of the problem is that the author is combining two traditions - the Coyote trickster with the European werewolf and the hybrid Coyote is therefore more evil. The Native American Coyote is not evil as such, indeed he can be a force for good. Nora's grandmother says: Coyote also clears away the rules when they get too muddy.... It's good sometimes to turn everything on its head. 

Do things change for the good? Yes, by the end of the book Beth has come out stronger and more confident. But is the change due to Coyote? 

The book opens with a description of the page in the scrapbook kept by Beth's mother which features the cure for death by lightning. Also on the page is a tortoiseshell butterfly: My mother said that she'd caught the butterfly and pressed it between the pages of her scrapbook because of its torn wing. "Wonderful," she told me. "That it could still fly. It's a reminder to keep going." Is this butterfly how Beth sees herself: the survivor - the butterfly flying despite a torn wing or is she struck about the irony in her mother's words - the butterfly is no longer keeping going due to the cruelty of humans? This uncertainty runs through the book and left me unclear what to make of the novel.

by Zoe Brooks

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alberta ross said...

I too found the book full of angst however maybe I am just too old for this world:( I didnt find too much to be credible - there are whole socities (usually small,isolated ) that are dysfunctional -

Within large towns and cities these dysfunctions can be better hidden - many of that list go together - self harm is a cry against many of the subjects covered -

I read the trickster to be a way of people living in such a place to make sense of what happened around them - of events they had little control over - I believe most of the 'creation' type myths and legends were put in place for this reason - seeing grass move could have been here real (magic) or imaginary (stress) - I was wanting more magic realism from it more like Kaffka on the Shore or . . .lemon cake - it read more like an ordinary tale of dysfunctional supersitious people to me:(

However I did enjoy it - is enjoy the right world for such a gloomy book I wonder - the girl will make it and that is good to know:)

Zoe Brooks said...

Thanks Alberta. I think maybe it's my professional background showing through - over 20 years working with disadvantaged people and communities. I have dealt with some of the issues in this book. And this response, however valid, of externalising it to some supernatual force is a cop out. I would rather see magic realism used to tackle real problems rather than avoid them.

alberta ross said...

a cop up to you and moi but people don't always agree -

I don't think the 'magic realisim' worked in this book for that reason - it was using a creation myth to load angst onto - I want my magic to be just that - a time traveling husband - a talking cat - a boy morphing into a chair and it all sound normal - I am enjoying your challenge and have put some of the books onto my TBR pile _ how come those piles never get any smaller?

Zoe Brooks said...

I know what you mean about TBR piles. I went to a bookshop today and found three more books for the pile. In fact I am about to put a dozen more books to that add a load more books to the booklist.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your review - I found myself thinking many of the same thoughts in reading this book. The Coyote Anderson-Dargatz describes is nothing like the coyote I've heard of from the First Nations people I've worked with - and I too found myself thinking this displacement of blame isn't helpful. Coyote the trickster reveals what we hide - s/he doesn't cause mayhem for its own sake, or glory in evil or suffering. I enjoyed the developing relationship between Billy and Beth, and thought the characterization of Maud was well-done - but that's about it. Despite the fascinating scrapbook, I would not read this again, nor recommend it.