1197 The orchardist’s daughter
by Barbara Lambert
Madeira Park & Amsterdam: Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2021
$20.00 / 9780978005474
Reviewed by David Stouck
Most of the fiction written by Barbara Lambert has been set outside of Canada. Her prize-winning stories, collected as A Message for Mr. Lazarus (2000), take place largely in Costa Rica, her full-length novel, The Whirling Girl (2012), in Italy. But her new book titled simply Wanda explores her roots in BC’s Okanagan Valley where her parents settled in the 1920s and where she herself grew up. But this is not the story of a happy childhood exactly, rather it is one complicated by the issues of that time, specifically the racism that attended the non-English settlers — the Russian Doukhobors, the Japanese, and especially the pre-war German immigrants to Canada. The German-born father of Eva, the girl at the centre of this story, has prospered as a young orchardist with an English wife, and he enjoys the respect of the community at large, but his status as Canadian is challenged by the war in Europe.
His daughter Eva, a stand in for the author perhaps, is described as a child of six “but eight years on.” Her friend Wanda, “a strange little creature” with a Cockney accent, is also knowing beyond her years: she knows that her mother “drinks,” she knows about “Japs,” and she knows about boys. In fact in this novella there are many plots in embryo. One that stands out is the mother’s attempt to be a portrait painter. The mayor’s wife recognizes that she is talented, but the latter is a vain woman who presses for a more flattering portrait which Eva’s mother refuses to do. In this context there is an interesting glimpse of the local art scene when an elderly, irascible, “Group of Seven”-like figure appears and praises the mother’s work, but heaps scorn otherwise on the local art scene.
The story moves forward when Wanda tells Eva about a cow being bred; “it wasn’t half scary” she says, and Eva looks at a bull’s parts and wonders how they work — and if the cows liked it.
On a family trip to Bridesville in ranch country northeast of Osoyoos, Eva joins a group of children in a haymow who are playing “doctor.” Eric, a sweet-natured boy of twelve, takes his pants off and, proudly erect, he tells Eva she can touch him. His older brother who is watching from above “with the face of God” proceeds to tell the family what he has seen. Punishments and a dramatic storm of thunder and lightning follow that night. When Eva is questioned about her “wicked ways,” she says it was Wanda who taught her.
An outline of the story does not do justice to its considerable artistry. The style of writing is simple and luminous, but what especially interested me was the artful arrangement of single, double, triple and quadruple paragraph spacings, These shifts allow the story to move smoothly without chapter breaks, preserving the unity of time (one summer) and space (the Okanagan Valley). I commend this little book highly.
David Stouck is an editor and biographer. His latest book is Arthur Erickson: An Architect’s Life (Douglas & McIntyre, 2013). His earlier books include Ethel Wilson: A Critical Biography (University of Toronto Press, 2003) and Genius of Place: Writing about British Columbia (Raincoast Books, 2000, co-edited with Myler Wilkinson). Editor’s note: David Stouck has also reviewed books by Theresa Kishkan, Laisha Rosnau (with Mary-Ann Stouck), Kevin Spenst, Clea Roberts, and Eden Robinson for The Ormsby Review.
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