By: Kathy Ashby
DreamCatcher Publishing, November 2009, 206 pp, Paperback $18.95 CDN
Reviewed by: James Onusko
Author Kathy Ashby has written an important and vibrant novel about environmentalism, social activism, and sisterhood in the fullest sense of the word. Ashby’s crusading and likeable protagonist Carol is supported by male characters throughout the novel, however, the narrative is shaped and driven forward by her and her supportive female friends. It reinforces an important aspect of social movements across the globe, both historical and contemporary – women were and are there, and more often than not, lead these movements on many levels.
Kathy Ashby lives in the Muskoka region of Ontario. She is an accomplished artist as well as being both an environmental and social activist. She is a graduate of Sheridan College in Mississauga. Her area of expertise in the visual arts is the art of blowing glass. While this is her first novel, she has been published on CBC and in other print publications.
The narrative of the novel is not complicated. The story is told from the point of view of Carol exclusively. From the outset, a proposed snowmobile trail begins to be built right next to her family’s property without any consultation of the local landowners, nor with the appropriate local government’s approval. The individuals doing the work begin the work in a haphazard manner with little regard for the surveying that has been completed – this also seems to have been done poorly. From there, Carol begins a quest, with the support of her husband and a tribe of other women, to stop the construction of the trail. The support that Carol receives is on multiple levels – financial, social, and emotional. Her husband’s support is at times limited and lukewarm though. The always growing alliance uses various methods, generally within their legal rights, to halt the ongoing trail construction. At times, she puts herself in grave physical danger while engendering a great deal of contempt from much of the surrounding community and in particular, the local snowmobilers’ association. Ashby does a very good job of maintaining suspense throughout the novel and the novel has a staggering and tragic twist right near their end – there’s a good hook for all readers.
One of the greatest strengths of the book is that despite the force of Carol’s convictions, Ashby is able to convey her moments of doubt in a meaningful way. Her relationships with her brother, husband, and son are tested throughout the novel and it is clear that Carol is fighting a battle on more than one front. Another strength is that Carol is also forced to explore some of the lifestyle choices that she and her family have made in choosing to live their lives according to some key values, not necessarily aligned with the consuming, industrial-capitalist life that most of us have succumbed to. There are profound moments where her fight against the trail induces a very real internal battle. Without question, readers will empathize with Carol and this internalized struggle. Finally, the book will likely make most thoughtful readers evaluate what they might be able to do, at a local level, to make some changes that will help preserve the environment with an eye to a future beyond next week. The novel is implicitly a call to action that may inspire people to realize that the lonely voice can be heard with a willingness to risk some of the things held most dearly.
In this excerpt, Carol is attending a public Town Council meeting to discuss the proposed alternate snowmobile route:
Carol feels her eyes heavy, separating from the upper lids, draining downwards as she registers the moment of their stumble pass.
As if the meeting is now in fast forward the mayor calls out, “Time for a vote.”
Carol stands. She forces a stretch with her mouth, pulling it downward in an attempt to stop the tremble in her cheeks. “What?”
All those in favour of the club adopting the alternate route say, Aye?”
“Aye,” comes a quick roar.
Then the mayor asks “Nay?”
No one speaks.
John Bennie puts up his hand.
“One abstain,” says the mayor, “noted,” nodding towards Donna Hill to do her secretarial duty.
John Bennie’s head stays down.
Shame thinks Carol.
The Wall-Gang, the Muskogee Sledders, as if one collective unit get up and move toward the door. Club President, Tom Long, throws Carol a look of triumph before they exit the council chambers.
“Next order of business,” calls Mayor Langdon and rubs the back of his neck.
The cold evening air that hits Carol when she exits the building feels refreshing on her burning cheeks. Her body feels heavy sitting in the van next to Bonnie, both of them silent the whole drive home.
In the dim bedroom light, Carol looks down at her sleeping son, then at the tissue sticking out of a book. She picks the book up, smiling that Logan used a tissue for the bookmark and notices that he’s three quarters of the way through the ‘Never Ending Story’. Carol goes back downstairs and lights the paper garbage in the wood stove. There’s enough packed in there, with the dampers open just a little, it will take the chill out of the house for the remainder of the night.
Carol ‘A Woman’s Way’ is not without weaknesses. At times the writing seems overly saturated with the emotion of some characters, principally Carol. While in some ways this could be viewed as a strength there are times that this, coupled with the enlarged print to emphasize the thoughts of Carol are heavy handed. As readers, we understand the importance of certain events, discussions, and consequences to these events and discussions. Therefore, some of these techniques come across as juvenile. Another significant drawback is that there were no scenes of release insofar as tension was concerned. I understand that the subject matter is serious, but the novel would have benefited from some moments of levity. Readers need time to gather at certain moments and a novel’s characters can then be seen in a new and fuller way following these lighter scenes.
None of this should dissuade you from reading this good novel. It is inspiring, moving, and highlights an ongoing and integral response to the flouting of laws, by-laws and rules in the pursuit of unadulterated pleasure-seeking or profit gain by certain groups. We can never have too many individuals seeking to ensure that despite the efforts of many, pockets of resistance can develop for a broader and more long-term good for all.
*A copy of Carol ‘A Woman’s Way’ was sent to me to read and review by DreamCatcher Publishing. It was not purchased.