1875 A ‘twisty turn-y story’
The Almost Widow
By Gail Anderson-Dargatz
Toronto: HarperAvenue, 2023
$25.99 / 9781443464482
Reviewed by Steven Brown
There may be trouble ahead. Piper’s conservation officer husband Ben was supposed to be home four hours ago. He took his boat across the wintry lake to investigate tree poaching in a proposed park area and hasn’t returned. Night has fallen and it’s snowing heavily. Ben’s been late before but Piper has always been able to contact him by cell or two-way radio; this time, he hasn’t responded to any of her messages. She’s getting very worried.
The fictional town is Moston, somewhere in the BC interior, an out of the way hamlet with one café and gas station and a smattering of residents, including unemployed loggers. Owen, an out of work logger and boozehound with a son named Tucker he mistreats, is a suspect in the tree poaching. Several old growth trees have disappeared in the last several months. It is hoped the park plan, featuring the area’s old growth, can become a tourist destination and improve the town’s moribund economy. That’s just one reason the tree poaching needs to stop.
Piper knows about abusive drunks. Her father, a police officer, was one. An altercation years ago in the family home with him drunkenly stumbling and hitting his head on a kitchen counter led to his death. Libby, her mother, was also present at the scene. Piper is estranged from her mother. She lives with Ben and Ben’s teenaged son Noah from his first marriage. Ben’s first wife succumbed to cancer.
By the next day Ben hasn’t returned and there’s been no word from him. A search is organized by Jackson, search-and-rescue specialist from Moston. Add a wild bushman surviving somehow in the proposed park and a rogue cinnamon-coloured grizzly bear that attacked and killed his young wife when the couple had been bouldering in the area (and causing him to lose his mind and become “The Green Man” to the locals) and you have the set-up for the prolific Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s newest entry in the mystery/thriller genre. On a “Thanks” page, the author mentions she got the idea for her fictional bushman from the true-life case of John Bjornstrom, an escapee who hid out in the Shuswap lake area for three years before finally being caught.
The Almost Widow is something of a companion to the author’s 2021 similarly titled The Almost Wife, although the stories feature distinct characters and locales. Anderson-Dargatz began her career with novels in a more literary vein starting with 1996’s Giller Prize finalist and Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize winner The Cure for Death by Lightning. With the jump to genre fiction and quite a few books published since, it won’t be surprising to see another “Almost…” somewhere up ahead. The author has also written a number of “Hi-Lo” books, short, easy to read volumes designed for reluctant or struggling readers, generally targeted at children or teens.
So what’s happened to Ben? It’s a bit of a mystery because the search for him turns up nothing. Then his overturned boat is discovered floating in the lake along with his life jacket, but he would have been wearing it, wouldn’t he? Definitely. He was adamant about water safety. So what’s actually happened here? No Ben and no body. He hasn’t been found on land; divers have been sent in and he doesn’t seem to be in the lake either.
It’s a twisty turn-y story. Expect the unexpected. The author’s penchant for the fantastic is not absent here either. Piper believes she spots Ben during the initial search but when she arrives at the area there’s nothing there. Then his figure appears right outside the house and Piper’s three-quarters convinced she’s seeing her husband’s ghost. The apparition reappears and speaks: “Find me.” It continues to snow and the search is called off. In spite of all this Piper is convinced Ben isn’t dead and decides to go back over to the proposed park area to look for him. She falls into a cavity at the base of a tree where the branches above have prevented the heavy snowfall from building up. A “tree well.” And she can’t get out. Enter The Green Man. He’s been getting by breaking into cabins and cottages in the area and stealing food. He’s carrying a rifle. Turns out, he’s not the only one on the mountain with a rifle today.
There’s something about feeling one is in comfortable hands, the soothing nuances of a guaranteed deal. It feels good. There’s no denying that a mystery/thriller, and Almost a Widow is certainly both, brings with it a sense of security. The story moves along with a reassuring pace and a feeling that a satisfactory wrap-up of the various plot elements is a certainty. Yes, we have a page turner. How are all these goings-on to be resolved? It’s a neat trick and an enjoyable ride.
“Books have ruined my life,” jokes Steven Brown. A professional in the book trade for years, he’s managed to retain a deep and abiding passion for books and first rate literature. He was born in Saskatchewan and grew up in Ontario and British Columbia. Vancouver is home these days. His reviews have appeared in Canadian newspapers, a literary review or two, and he has donated reviews to good causes. He’s written a couple of novels he’d like to see published. Editor’s note: Steven recently reviewed books by Patrik Sampler, Taslim Burkowicz, and Rhonda Waterfall.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
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