Thursday, December 04, 2008

Turtle Valley by Gail Anderson-Dargatz

My memories are so like that hat full of butterflies, some already deteriorating the moment they are collected, some breathed back to life now and again, for a brief moment, by the scent on a passing wind–the smell of an orange, perhaps, or a whiff of brown-sugar fudge–before drifting away, just out of my reach. How much of myself flits away with each of these tattered memories? How much of myself have I already lost? (Turtle Valley, p. 289)

Kat has returned with her disabled husband and young son to her family’s homestead in Turtle Valley, in British Columbia’s Shuswap-Thompson area. Fire is sweeping through the valley in a ruthless progression toward the farm and they have come to help her frail parents pack up their belongings. Kat’s mother, Beth, (the now elderly protagonist of Anderson-Dargatz’s first novel, the award-winning The Cure for Death by Lightning) is weighed down by her ailing husband, Gus, and by generations of accumulated detritus. But there is something else weighing her down, a secret she has guarded all her life. Kat is determined to get to its source before fire eats up all that is left of the family’s memories.

Kat has her own burdens. Her father is dying, and the family has chosen to keep him home as long as possible in defiance of the approaching flames. Beth is showing signs of early dementia. And her husband, Ezra, is a husk of his former self, stolen from her years ago by a stroke and now battling frightening mood swings and a trick memory. Once filled with passion and hope, their relationship has become more like that of nursemaid and invalid.

Now thrust into contact with her parents’ neighbour Jude, her lover before Ezra, Kat finds his strength attractive, as well as his ongoing passion for her. As she considers her choices in love, Kat discovers that her grandmother, Maud, to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance, was once faced with a similar dilemma when forced to choose between the capricious violence of her shell-shocked husband, John Weeks, and the rugged constancy of their neighbour Valentine Svensson. Leafing through Maud’s scrapbooks and long-hidden love letters, Kat begins to unravel the mystery of her grandfather’s disappearance in the mountains. She is to find that like most family secrets, this one is tangled amidst generations of grief.

As sparks rain down upon them, Kat tries to hold her family together, soothing Ezra’s rages, comforting their son, Jeremy, tending to her mother’s fragile mental state and striving to keep her father at home and comfortable as he nears death. Masses of ladybugs swarm through the house and panicked birds smash windows. Shadowy ghosts flit in and out of the encroaching smoke. All around them the landscape burns and terrible choices must be made. What can be salvaged? What will survive after Turtle Valley has burned?

Turtle Valley is a novel of reconciliation and hope in the midst of terrible loss. Part ghost story, part mystery, part romance, the novel transcends these genres and carries its readers into new territories of forgiveness and acceptance of the difficult choices we all must make in finding our way through life and love.
One thing I can say, while I haven't read as much as I normally do this year, I have been doing a very good job at cleaning off some of the books that I have really wanted to read and never got around to. I have had this book almost since it came out because I had heard such good things about it, but it took me all this time to get to reading it. I had heard of the author before, but this is the first time I have ever read her. I probably will look into her backlist after this though, because this was a very enjoyable book. Especially since one of the earlier books is about the main character in this books mother.

I always like the history of family. The secrets that are hiding in the closet or the mysteries that have never been solved. This book deals a lot with this idea, which is a lot of the reason why I liked it so much. Katrine is coming to the conclusion that there are things that happened in her past that she does not know the whole truth about. When a forest fire threatens her childhood home, she finds herself back to help her aging parents collect the important things from their home. While searching through years of memories, she uncovers the truth about who her grandmother and grandfather were. Saving the memories before the fire wiped them out forever.

I was really surprised by how much I liked this book. I was a little worried at first. I am not sure what it is, but children in novels tend to grate on my nerves much more than they do in person. So, I did find Katrine's son, Jeremy, annoying at times. I think it was also an extension of the fact that she babied her husband because he was recovering from a stroke. Too many children under one roof, or something along those lines. It was enjoyable to be along for the mystery, and I very much liked the ghost story elements. They seemed to fit right in and didn't seem strange to me at all. In the face of terrible tragedy, there is rebirth. This is Katrine's time to find herself, and lose parts of herself at the same time.

Overall, a very well-written novel! I strongly recommend it!


  1. I won a copy of this book a year ago AND a carpet bag handmade by the author. I still haven't read it and I feel guilty. Sigh. I need more time to read.

  2. Cool! I really enjoyed this book, but I had it for like a year before I read it.

  3. I really like the sound of this. I'll keep it in mind for the Canadian Challenge next year. Perhaps I'll start with the first book though.

  4. I plan to pick up her other book in the New Year. It was very good, though, Nicola. I look forward to your thoughts when you get a chance to read it.


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