The Cure for Death by Lightning

by Gail Anderson-Dargatz,
384 pages,
ISBN: 0394281578

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First Novels - The Knopf Four
by Eva Tihanyi

The Cure for Death by Lightning is a family saga of a somewhat different sort. Beth Weeks, now an adult, reflects on a pivotal year in her life, the year she turned fifteen. It was "the year the world fell apart and began to come together again," with the Second World War raging in the world at large and the Weeks family war raging at home.

Beth's life had been, by her own account, fairly average, almost idyllic, on a farm in rural British Columbia where she and her older brother Dan attended school, helped with the daily chores, explored the surrounding countryside. All this changes suddenly after her father's almost fatal encounter with a grizzly in the bush. The terrifying experience pushes John Weeks over the edge, changes him into a cruel, abusive man who drowns kittens, cuts the ovaries out of a cow, obsesses about destroying his neighbour's fence, and overall turns his household into a domestic hell with his aggressive sullenness. Eventually, his behaviour ostracizes the whole Weeks family from the community, and this too becomes part of the increasing turmoil Beth has to deal with.

All this, however, is only the surface of a richly layered story. One of Beth's classmates, Sarah Kemp, has been-supposedly-killed by a bear, but there is an air of uncertainty about what might have really happened. Is there something or someone else out there in the bush? Beth often feels as though there is someone following her, and at the nearby Indian reservation the belief is that Coyote, legendary trickster, is on the prowl. The tension increases when children go missing from the reserve.

Meanwhile, the harassment of Beth escalates on every front. Her best friend Nora wants her to run away with her to the city; her mother renders herself oblivious to her developing sexuality; she is attacked by her schoolmates.

In all this turmoil, the one anchor, the sole remainder of Beth's lost reality-almost a character itself-is her mother's cherished scrapbook, her "mother's way of setting down the days so they wouldn't be forgotten." It is a collection of recipes, remedies, newspaper clippings, and funeral notices, an "objective correlative" of sorts to Beth's own memories and subjectivity: "No-one can tell me these events didn't happen, or that it was all a girl's fantasy. The reminders are there, and I remember them all." Anderson-Dargatz sets down these remembrances, in the process tracing Beth's rite of passage to womanhood, with precision and empathy. The result is a powerful novel that, much like Fall on Your Knees, illuminates the myths at work in personal lives.


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