1268 Back in Salmon Arm
Light on a Part of the Field
by Kevin Holowack
Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2021
$21.95 / 9781774390146
Reviewed by Brett Josef Grubisic
“We’re free,” Gayle announces midway through the first of eight sections in Edmontonian Kevin Holowack’s likeable debut novel. While Gayle’s speaking in earnest, her insight turns out to be naive and premature. Freedom is elusive, she comes to learn; and once clasped it’s tricky to hold.
Light on a Part of the Field, historical fiction that’s set primarily in 1962 and 1979 (but with one questionable chapter set in the sandal-clad kingdom of Moab, circa 1300 BCE), centres on questing characters, figures that pass through onerous territories and circumstances in their halting movements away from social environments that have defined and stymied them.
On the afternoon of Gayle’s declaration, it’s 1979 and she’s new to wintry Edmonton — “Deadmonton,” she’s been told, rings truer. A few months before, a dishevelled stranger — young like herself, “maybe eighteen, twenty, twenty-three,” she’d decided, an adult and juvenile at once — showed up at Gayle’s isolated family farm near Salmon Arm, BC. A wanderer and dreamer fleeing a coastal city where his father towered, Lewis was hitchhiking across the country with the aim of reaching “[f]ar, far east”; his beloved aunt had called Nova Scotia the “best place in the world” and promised her nephew “an easy life, quiet and free” was still possible there.
At the run-down farm, Gayle’s distracted, insular, troubled, and protective mother informed Lewis her daughter was fragile. After accusing him of being an abductor, Ruth bribed Lewis with bus fare and issued a warning: “Go far. Don’t ever contact my daughter again.” Following a series of impassioned letters, Gayle pawned jewellery she stole from home, caught a ride to Alberta, and arrived at the conclusion (after exactly twelve minutes of sex) that her prayers had been answered: her life, the real one, had begun at last.
Homeless for a time, racked by coughs, residing in the dingy basement of a ramshackle house that’s messy, run-down, and filthy in equal measure, and having drawn at least two conclusions (“This city’s a — shithole” and “We have a lot ahead of us”), Lewis, a convenience store clerk, kept any misgivings to himself.
Soon enough, they’re dumpster-diving to supplement meagre incomes. The action isn’t unwelcome: neither are hugely interesting — thoughtful, observant, animated, colourful — as characters; the plot lags when they’re hanging about in a romantic haze.
Back in Salmon Arm, Ruth worries about her daughter. And for herself: she determines that Gayle’s leaving had “cracked utopia.” Riven by pain and memories, Ruth begins stepping outside her narrow, comfortable routine.
For mother and daughter, holding patterns make way for upheavals.
Holowack’s novel tracks these tumultuous changes. For Gayle, Ruth’s utopia represented an imprisoning stasis. Her mother’s driving need was to protect herself from the world and the damages experience has taught her it inflicted. Young Ruth’s marriage, to an older poet with a university job, had inaugurated a momentum that eventually resulted in her isolation in BC’s Southern Interior; for Gayle, in contrast, her father was an absentee “kook” in Edmonton, her mother a kindhearted warden, and the farm an airless crypt.
Counterposing 1979 (life before and after the appearance of Lewis) with the early 1960s in Victoria, Holowack explores the ups and downs of domestic routines.
Diefenbaker-era newlyweds Ruth and Al discover that impulsive infatuation may not be the strongest of foundations for a marriage. In the ‘60s Ruth takes a stab at “queen of the house,” choosing paint colours, rearranging the furniture, and making holiday meals using Betty Crocker cookbooks. She tries out philosophy classes and painting, but without much dedication and with seemingly few results.
In 1979, Ruth, a waitress and then a hotel dishwasher, takes up smoking to take the edge off. Soon, she “is stoned as often as possible.”
(A poet plagued by scoffing reviews, professional setbacks, and then writer’s block, Al plays a larger role in the novel’s final half. His spiralling career prompts a cross-border motorcycle trip. While the trek covers far more geography than the consciousness-raising efforts of Ruth and Gayle, Holoweck confidently weaves Al’s “pilgrimage” and attempts at completing a “never-ending masterpiece” of love poems into the poignant ending of Light on a Part of the Field. There, the three central characters make choices that mark ends to long fallow periods.)
Holoweck’s historical settings are a welcome choice, but marred on occasion by a surprising number of anachronistic terms, such as “first responders,” “barista,” and “asshat.” In 1962, a character refers to Stockholm Syndrome, which entered the lexicon in the mid-1970s. Between the author and editor, these terms should have been weeded out. Holowack isn’t purporting to write postmodern historiographic fiction, with its ironic winks and purposeful irreverence about History. As a result his anachronisms lessen the credibility of his historical settings. If characters in the ‘70s are talking about wheat ales and sushi bars, then what else is the author mistaken about in his exploration of past historical eras?
Meditating on the costs of self-protection and the risks of big changes, Light on a Part of the Field depicts figures painted into corners. A loosely-knit family that’s fearful and yet brimming with utopian yearnings, each one manages to take steps forward. Holoweck’s depth of vision doesn’t allow for easy outs. Ruth, Gayle, and Al break their patterns, yes, but their movements forward are anything but guaranteed successes.
My Two-Faced Luck, the fifth novel by Salt Spring Islander Brett Josef Grubisic, was published in October 2021 with Now or Never Publishing — and reviewed here by Geoffrey Morrison. A previous book, Oldness; or, the Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O, was reviewed here by Dustin Cole. Editor’s note: Brett Josef Grubisic has also reviewed books by Sarah Mintz, Cedar Bowers, Glen Huser, Dustin Cole and George Ilsley for The Ormsby Review.
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