Tuesday, November 29, 2016

10th Canadian Challenge - 10th Review - The Cure for Death by Lightning

I have to admit that while it started off fairly well, in the end I didn't actually enjoy The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz.  It could be that I am worn down by work and the state of the world more generally.  (In that sense, I think about this a bit like a fairy tale, which I'll expand upon shortly, and I am in no mood for fairy tales right now.*)  Probably my biggest single issue with the book is that I don't mind flashes or hints of magic-realism, but I am not particularly tolerant of fantastic events contributing to main plot points in what starts off as a realist novel.  Others may feel very differently about this of course.

While this is a 20-year old novel, that doesn't mean it can't be SPOILED, if you haven't read it beforehand, so be warned.


We're introduced to the "spunky" and somewhat tomboyish Beth Weeks, the narrator of Cure for Death, as she reveals hardships of living on a farm in B.C. during the tail end of the Depression.  Most of the young men in town have shipped off for the Western Front, but her brother and a couple of hired hands are still around to keep things going.  Her father is clearly the chief liability that the family faces, as he is somewhat troubled in the head from a war wound from WWI.  (Beth's mother was involved in nursing him back to health and it seems most of her problems could have been avoided had she not married him when there were clearly more suitable options available at the time...)  Over the past couple of years he has started feuds with several people in town and then a long-running feud with his neighbour, the Swede, over a fence between their properties.  Beth was never a particularly popular girl to begin with (unlike her brother) and she becomes a bit of a pariah once her father gets into all these squabbles.

One thing that is somewhat strange is that in one-on-one interactions, Beth seems to be a bit of a femme fatale, and both the farm hands are interested in her, as well as a half-Indian girl, who wants to run away with Beth to find work in Vancouver, since women were desperately needed to keep the factories going.  (Had they done so, this would probably have been a more interesting story.)  There do seem to be a few flashes of Cather's My Antonia throughout the novel.

In any case, the book starts to reconfigure itself as a kind of dark fairy tale with Beth's father as the monster that must be slayed (and her brother running away from the situation to join the army puts her in even deeper peril!).  I think the moment where it became clear that her father was molesting her (and that Beth's mother, while strong in many ways, was willing to be blind to what was going on) was when the book turned sour for me.  He was clearly such an unfit person to begin with that the novel could have functioned with him as a sinister motivating force without going as far as it did.  Anyway, it should not be much of a surprise that the novel comes to a close with Beth getting the courage to push him away and say that he can never touch her again (while it does help he was sent off to a mental hospital for a while (for burning down the Swede's barn and trying to kill him!) and is a shadow of his former self, it still takes some intestinal fortitude on her part).

On top of everything else going on, there is a Coyote-figure who seems to inhabit different characters throughout the novel -- Coyote Jack, Filthy Billy and Beth's father.  I don't quite understand how if it can flit across multiple characters (such as in the movie Fallen, which I thought was totally unfulfilling for exactly this reason), then when someone commits suicide while inhabited by Coyote (which happened with Billy's father and then Coyote Jack) this is sufficient to drive Coyote away for 10+ years.  It seems like unbelievable sloppiness on the part of the author to not have really thought this through.  And while I try not to be a "special snowflake," I thought it was incredibly offensive to compare Tourette's Syndrome to being possessed by a demonic force.  (Billy's Tourette's disappears completely after Coyote Jack hangs himself.)  As I said at the top, a bit of magic realism here and there (Beth's grandmother's ghost hanging around their kitchen, for instance) is ok, but when the entire plot hangs on a mythological being, I lose interest fairly quickly.  Indeed, I turned against this novel in a big way by the end.  As always, individual mileage may vary considerably, and many people like this novel a lot, but I can't recommend it.

* I did finish To Kill a Mockingbird in the end, and this seems a bit of a positive fairy tale of Southern life, with one true prince (Atticus) trying to redeem an entire Southern town from its deep racism and general ignorance.  I'm sure that if I had managed to read this before the 2016 election results came in, I would have enjoyed it more.  As it was, it definitely feels soiled and despoiled, along with pretty much anything coming out of America right now.

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