1338 Waiting for Hernando & Wally
The Errant Husband
by Elizabeth Haynes
Regina: Radiant Press, 2021
$25.00 / 9781989274583
Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy
This debut novel treats the reader to a third-person narrative of a female quest with Jungian undertones. The Errant Husband scrutinizes gender relations as it dissects the anatomy of a marriage against the backdrop of historical and early 21st Century Cuba. While it is earnest and literary (rife with references to many disciplines, from literature to geology, and demanding intellectual curiosity of the reader) the story is also, thankfully, refreshing and buoyant.
Protagonist Thelma Dangerfield, born and raised in Kamloops, is a middle-aged Calgary office manager and the primary breadwinner in a marriage with Wally, the primary homemaker and a writer working on a novel about Hernando De Soto, the 16th Century Spanish conquistador and husband of Isabel de Bobadilla, whom, in 1539, he left to govern Cuba while he went off to conquer Florida. The novel’s present time (2005) in Cuba is layered with Thelma’s distant past in Kamloops and more recent one in Calgary.
As she juxtaposes the historic and fictional marriages, Haynes deftly weaves Cuban history into the mix. When Wally goes off to Cuba to research the novel, Thelma soon follows, only to find a note replacing her husband at their Havana hotel: he has encountered an expert in Spanish-Cuban history, and the two have gone off to Cienfuegos to meet with a De Soto expert. Suspecting — with some justification — infidelity, if not desertion, Thelma is not content to take a course of action that Isabella reputedly took, memorialized at the top of a tower on one of the four forts guarding Havana’s harbour, where a bronze Isabel scans the ocean — which, legend has it, she did daily in search of her absent husband, who never returned. Waiting is not for Thelma.
Isabella’s life is especially rich fodder for Thelma’s imagination because, in contrast to De Soto, little has been recorded about her. Thelma wonders, if Isabella did accept abandonment by De Soto, “Did she also accept the cruelty, fornication, torture and murder of the native peoples as the right of the conquerors? And if she didn’t accept these things what could she do? What other choices did she have?” (p. 122).
Thelma exercises choice. She initially enlists support of colleagues back in Calgary and hotel workers in Havana. When Wally doesn’t return on schedule and remains incommunicado, the unmoored stranger to Cuba becomes even more resolute in her quest — ostensibly for him, but, more deeply, into her own interior. In her journey to the past, she relives not only the complications of their 20-odd year relationship — including an apparent miscarriage and failure to complete her archaeological studies she has kept secret from her husband — but also her youth in Kamloops, idyllically steeped in the natural world until, at age 11, she was jarred into harsh reality by the death of her beloved geologist father. Forty-something Thelma carries the baggage from adolescence and early adulthood with her on this expedition.
Also accompanying her on the road trip to Cienfuegos is a trio that takes life less seriously. Cubans Tomás, her driver, and Jorge, his sidekick, click with Cathy, a Canadian who herself has experienced desertion. The three function as both foils and catalysts, drawing out Thelma’s long-suppressed more light-hearted, adventurous and romantic qualities, as well as nudging her to confront serious unresolved issues. The vividly depicted landscape, replete with heat, caves, and culture — rum and dancing feature prominently — also fosters Thelma’s quest. The process of getting there entails harrowing driving conditions, car repairs, detours, and lengthy delays, and Haynes richly mirrors inner and outer worlds as the story crescendos.
Tenderness, anger, bitterness, and compassion characterize the complicated reunion of Thelma and Wally. Initially acting as an inquisitor, Thelma gets at least some of the answers she seeks from Wally and admits her own culpability in their less-than-honest marriage. As importantly, she witnesses devotion in his actions, which, in this case, do speak louder than words, as a life-threatening event brings things to a head.
The Errant Husband is a worthy first novel, notable for a fresh authorial voice that engages readers with the protagonist but still maintains a distance that encourages us to analyze and critique protagonist Thelma. While we root for Ms. Dangerfield, with her wry interiority and diffident but independent behaviour, we note (often before she does) her shortcomings. This handling of the narrative in a slightly detached, or at least balanced, way is a distinct asset.
Part realistic love story and part romantic travel novel, The Errant Husband treats an archetypal theme, one often explored by Canadian writers as diverse as Margaret Laurence, Thomas King, Alice Munro, and Miriam Toews: in order to progress, one must come to terms with one’s past. Like these Canadian literary antecedents, Haynes tinges that exploration with autobiographical elements and inextricably ties it to place.
Ginny Ratsoy is Professor Emerita at Thompson Rivers University. Her scholarly publications (co-authored and edited and co-edited books and numerous peer-reviewed articles) have focused on Canadian fiction, theatre, small cities, third-age learning, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Her recent focus has been on maintaining a growth mindset and promoting third-age learning as a corrective to societal ageism. In the winter of 2022, she will be teaching a course on Alice Munro for the Kamloops Adult Learners Society, as well as coordinating and taking a host of other courses in disciplines such as philosophy, art history, and anthropology. Editor’s note: Ginny Ratsoy has recently reviewed books by Alice Munro, R.M. Greenaway, Barbara Black, J.G. Toews, Iona Whishaw, Wayne Grady, Angie Abdou, and Josephine Boxwell.
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