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Oakville, Ontario’s Dorothy Ellen Palmer has written a brilliant debut novel. She has tackled some difficult and challenging issues in a humorous and tender way in crafting her rollicking narrative. The Canadian literary scene has a new bright light and we trust that she is here to stay for a long while. Much like the book’s main character, fifteen-year-old Jordan, Palmer was likely conceived during Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and adopted as a three-year-old. Dorothy grew up in Toronto and spent her summers in the Kawarthas, near Fenelon Falls. In her 23 years as both a Drama and English teacher, she taught in a Mennonite colony, a four-room schoolhouse in Alberta, and an adult learning centre attached to a prison. These eclectic experiences are reflected in the book with the richness of the characters and their nuanced voices.
The main story takes place at the March’s family cottage near Fenelon Falls during the summer of 1969 – pivotal to North Americans for so many reasons from the Armstrong moon walk to Woodstock. Jordan is trapped at the cottage and she spends much of her day memorizing CHUM hit lists and lyrics, and avoiding her destructive adoptive cousins. She is also drawn to a caged bear, Yogi, who lives up the road and is a main tourist attraction for visitors and a powerful symbol of neglect and outright abuse by many locals, including some of the March family. Woven into the novel, and central to what happens over the summer, are chapters from Jordan’s diary in which she works through some of the scant ‘facts’ of her adoption. Palmer’s narrator has us questioning everything – and Jordan imagines dozens of different scenarios for the night of her conception during Hurricane Hazel and some of the events that follow certain scenarios. The diary becomes crucial to the narrative when Derwood, Jordan’s wealthier cousin and greatest tormenter, finds it.
The playfulness with language; punning, mixed metaphors, constant debating among several characters – particularly Jordan and her brother, the narrator – and that most of the interplay is between older children defines Palmer’s writing style in the book. The language is stacatto-like, with alternating bursts of energy between the novel’s characters from start through finish. Marchport’s (the family compound is likened to the Kennedy’s Hyannisport) parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are often at a loss for words while Jordan’s language, filtered through her diary, is often clever and acerbic. Language is power for Jordan and is the one thing that allows her to defend herself. Her physical and emotional limitations diminish when she can use her tongue like a rapier against her aggressors – almost every single March outside of her brother and grandmother. Music also provides a protective membrane for Jordan and Palmer has achieved what many writers cannot – a steady, background current of sound that acts in much the same way as a Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino soundtrack does, if the reader allows it, to contextualize the narrative and the character’s actions. While their circumstances are quite different, I found myself comparing Jordan to Thebes from Miriam Toews’s, The Flying Troutmans. They now rank as two of my favourite young, female characters in contemporary Canadian literature.
In this excerpt, Jordan’s brother describes food at Almost, their nuclear family’s cottage; a reference to their marginalized status in the larger Marchport:
In Almost, the purchasing, preparing, consumption and clean-up of food was pure Protocol, never pleasure. Monday: bangers and mash. Tuesday: Salisbury steak. Wednesday: chicken potpie. Thursday: Spam or Spork. Friday: fish and chips. Saturday: bubble and squeak. Sunday: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding if you’ve been good. If not, Spam tastes just as good reheated. What we ken first we know best.
For years, I honestly believed every family ate like mine, believed that all mothers buttered their kids one slice of day-old white bread each and plated portions in untouching triangles: potatoes mashed or boiled on the right, canned vegetable on the left and meat below. Food got served on Melmac green or brown, and you ate it. All of it. No questions asked. No Biafran children necessary. No Oliver Twist audacity. The very concept of asking for more, of more existing to be asked for, never occurred to us. Mom’s special spatula had already scraped every morsel, drop and crumb. It rendered the question of sharing moot. Those who never learn generosity at the family table are unlikely to offer it to others. They never extend it to themselves. Here’s what they ken first and best: they don’t deserve it.
Despite undeniable strengths, the book is not perfect. At times, the narrator’s voice, meant to be nebulous from the book’s beginnings, is very challenging to follow. The initials for so many people and activities, while both humorous (MC for Mother Control) and at times troubling, may be distracting for some readers. Some of the Hazel chapters are so brief and cryptic that some readers may not make the effort to try and decipher them. This would be a shame as I found the Hazel chapters to be the most imaginative, while at times, the most disturbing. Dorothy left me wanting more at the end of these chapters; possibly her intent, but more in this case could have meant more, not less. They all hold a very visual quality and deserve to be read more than once in most instances. Finally, please do not turn to them before you read the rest of this intriguing novel, but I was disappointed in the final two chapters. I think that I understand much of what Dorothy was attempting to do in this final section, but the chapters may leave many readers feeling ‘handled’; while some readers may gain something from them, most will feel as if they have been escorted to the Marchport woodshed.
Notwithstanding these drawbacks that are trifling in comparison to the overall quality of the book, Palmer has crafted an extremely moving first novel. Older children, of at least upper middle school age, ‘almost’ adults and the rest of us who once were children could and should read this book. It is neither a simple nor a straightforward read, both emotionally and intellectually; but we have enough of that type of writing in our everyday lives. While the book could be devoured as the compelling plotline induces a high reading speed, I would argue that both time and care should be taken in enjoying this book. It asks a great deal from its readers on many levels; responding to these challenges will be rewarding for all readers. I highly recommend When Fenelon Falls and hope to see more from Dorothy Ellen Palmer in the near future.