By: Tom Crothers
DreamCatcher Publishing, November 2010, 354 pp, Paperback $19.95 CDN/US
Reviewed by: James Onusko
Toronto’s Tom Crothers has written a superb second novel and its recent successes in being nominated for several prestigious awards are unsurprising. Crothers’s narrative is spellbinding, and his characters are both captivating and believable. His writing style is fresh and clear; not unlike the P.E.I. air that provides life for the book. Ferns are key as symbols in the novel and are a great illustration of Crothers’s abilities to work on multiple levels as a novelist. Crothers may be a Toronto resident, but his obvious admiration for the P.E.I. landscape and its people are palpable from the book’s beginning to end. Irish-born, Tom holds a Master’s degree in Creative writing from the University of New Brunswick and a Master of Divinity from the University of Toronto. He has had a diverse working life: actor, labourer, teacher, minister, and author. This background is reflected in the richness and nuance that Crothers brings to both his characters and the novel more generally.
The novel’s central place is the fictional New Skye, P.E.I. and a farming community that is splintered by the murder of a rum-running farmer by a ‘simple’ neighbour, Charlie Ewart. Crothers, like many contemporary writers, has chosen to tell the story from multiple viewpoints and at varying points in time. The town’s minister, Mark Kerr, is central to many of the stories that are woven into the novel, and ultimately he serves as a focal point for the emotions of several of the characters in the book while dealing with personal anguish. The multiple storylines lead us back to secrets about Mark’s father and his indiscretions during the First World War, through to the love triangles that emerge in New Skye in the 1920s. Crothers has broached many of the major themes of exemplary literature: love, family, greed, betrayal, scorn and redemption. When not focusing on Mark, much of the novel revolves around Charlie and the efforts by those that love him to see him acquitted of his murder charge. The book traces several strands of the lives of the characters that hold both a vested and passing interest in Charlie’s trial.
In the following excerpt, Myra Swanson’s store and her skills in spreading community gossip are explored:
Her store smelled of paraffin, malt and bran and was stocked with every conceivable item: needles, buttons, fishhooks, nails, iron files and larger tools such as hammers and saws. Cans of paint and boxes of food lined the walls. Clusters of pots and plans were tied to hooks in the ceiling; and shirts, dungarees and suits swung from the ceiling like hanged men. Every bit of space was used. She moved around with surprising grace and agility, and never knocked anything over with either her ample bosom or backside. A small room upstairs where she measured and fitted women for foundation garments and wedding dresses had a handwritten sign saying, LADIES ONLY.
She bantered shamelessly with the farmers who liked to “cabbage” a bit of extra time chatting in the intimacy of the small store. If a woman was “upstairs,” they passed sly glances to each other and mumbled innuendoes. Each time Myra followed a woman for a “fittin” she threw the men a knowing glance as if in some sexual conspiracy with them.
She knew everything about everybody: personal habits, favourite dishes, scandals, or potential scandals; and if there was something she did not know about a person, she could make it up with surprising accuracy.
Myra had a talent for saying something about someone without ever mentioning names or facts. No one was safe from her, yet everyone wanted to be allied to her. She was fun at parties and when they had “times” at the community hall, she could send them into “fits” with her fund of monologues such as “Bessie’s Boil.”
Crothers has the very real talent of being able to breathe life into a character that could easily become a mere stock character. This is one of the strengths of his writing – that while many of his characters may seem familiar to the reader in some way – there is a richness to them by the end of the novel because of the skills that he applies in crafting them. Most of us know someone very similar to Myra Swanson, but no one exactly like her. She is but one example of this as Crothers has created a slate of characters that are highly convincing. The author’s abilities to capture the relationships and what for many can be a stifling and debilitating atmosphere in rural, farming communities are brilliant. Nothing seems to remain unfound by at least one small-town inhabitant in any time or place is what Crothers seems to be arguing for in the novel.
While it is obvious that I thoroughly enjoyed Sandfires, there are some flaws. There seems to be a move to increasingly shorter chapters by many contemporary authors; Crothers has succumbed to this push by having one chapter comprised of one paragraph. I understand that he was using this as a literary device in that particular instance, but writing of this quality seems somehow diminished by the incessant need to fracture the narrative into such short pieces. Some readers may feel they have accomplished a lot by reading three chapters in less than fifteen minutes, but do not count me as one of those claimants. While not enough to do more than stretch credulity, certain circumstances did seem overly convenient in the lives of characters that the author has created. Some readers may find certain twists to be too contrived, almost to the point of being contrived. I do qualify it with almost as I do not believe it ruins the novel, simply weakens it.
In the final analysis though, none of this should dissuade readers from reading Sandfires. Crothers is an excellent storyteller and the pace of the novel fits well with both the landscape and the time to which the reader is transported. It would have been very easy for Crothers to sentimentalize in a number of places in the novel, but he resists this at all turns. In terms of readership, there is absolutely no reason why readers in their mid-teens who enjoy a challenging read cannot engage with this book and I believe it offers broad appeal to most adult readers. I highly recommend Sandfires and trust that you will enjoy it as much as I have.
*Sandfires was sent to me to read and review by DreamCatcher Publishing. It was not purchased.