The Holding

by Merilyn Simonds
ISBN: 0771080654

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A Review of: The Holding
by Cynthia Sugars

What is it about Canadian women and gardens? There certainly does seem to be a Canadian tradition of women cultivating their gardens in the colonial backwoods and sowing an inheritance for future generations. Worthy precursors in this tradition include: Catharine Parr Traill's naturalist observations and drawings in her settlement narrative, The Backwoods of Canada (1836); Anna Jameson's Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838); and, more than a century later, Margaret Atwood's famous account of Susanna Moodie's "bush garden" in her poem sequence The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970). More recently there are Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries, Jane Urquhart's Away, Helen Humphreys's The Lost Garden, and Merilyn Simonds's The Holding.
Merilyn Simonds received acclaim for her 1999 collection of short stories, The Lion in the Room Next Door. Her current work, and her first novel, is a national feminist fantasy-of settlement, of beginnings, of the attempted recovery of Eden. The novel traces two distinct but palimpsestic time-lines: one is the account of Margaret MacBayne, a Scots woman from the 19th century who, with her three brothers, reluctantly travels to the New World to seek her fortune. The other is Alyson Thomson, hippie back-to-the-lander who, in the 1990s, has bought a "holding", a plot of land in the Ontario bush, to live in secluded paradise with her equally starry-eyed, self-engrossed husband, Walker Freeman. The palimpsest is enacted when Alyson discovers the remnants of Margaret's diary stuffed inside the wall of an abandoned log-house. They have both, it turns out, settled the same plot of land. For Alyson, this is the only place she has ever truly felt at home. But once she is able to "settle" the land with an imaginary ancestor, her identification with it is secured. What develops is an extended fantasy, a haunting, in which Alyson attempts to reconstruct the strange fate of Margaret MacBayne- from shy younger sister, to entrepreneurial herb planter and healer, to crazy lady of the backwoods. Margaret's fate, and the traces of her eerily persistent garden, haunt yet also legitimate Alyson's sojourn on her holding. Without Margaret, Alyson's project is pure self-indulgence; with Margaret, it becomes a reclaiming of ancestors.
The novel is evocative, haunting, seductive. Simonds writes beautifully, imbuing the landscapes she describes with luxurious detail, especially in her account of Alyson's attempt to replicate an early settler's garden. But there are so many loose ends. Included in the mix, for instance, is a gratuitous (and convenient) witch ancestor, tossed in for a bit of local Scottish colour, who serves little purpose (other than supposedly lending validity to Margaret's charms). The elliptical details about Alyson's depressive and suicidal father are plain silly. Similarly, the revelation of Walker's secret identity as a possible teen-aged pyromaniac is unconvincing, perhaps because it comes so late in the story, and hence doesn't allow the reader to fully appreciate the series of maimed sculptures he plans on interring in the landscape. There is potential for some fascinating imagery here, but it is never fully realized. Likewise, the account of Alyson's growing lunacy, and eventual healing, following the death of her child seems overly sentimentalized. Yes, we are supposed to see the links between her tortured relationship with her taciturn husband and Margaret's series of disenfranchisements at the hands of her autocratic brothers. Yet the mapping is heavy-handed: from the isolation of both women during the men's absence on the bush farm during the winter months, to their loss of a loved one, to their herb cures, and finally to the threatened selling off of their gardens in the name of progress. Somehow, it all seems too easy.
Perhaps the apparent self-evidence is strategic. In her acknowledgements at the end of the book, Simonds implies that Alyson has imagined the entire story of Margaret, yet nowhere in the text is this made clear. Alyson attempts to reproduce Margaret's garden in the hopes of enacting a kind of symbolic return to origins, and the novel as a whole does seem to be indulging in a quest for authentic "Canadian" beginnings. It may be that on some level we are supposed to be sceptical of Alyson's idealization of her project, although this is never altogether clear. She is a flake, but nevertheless, how are we to interpret such rhapsodies as this?: "A wilderness. . . . she'd clung to the word, for the wildness in it, . . . but also the wilder, as in bewilder, for that was what enthralled her, the way the landscape after all those years still refused to deliver all its mysteries." For someone seeking the recovery of untainted beginnings, Alyson is curiously derivative. Moreover, she seeks "origins" that are neither politically correct nor, precisely, "originary", since Margaret has herself carved out her holding on the lands of the displaced Ojibway people who truly haunt the landscape. Because Margaret's brothers are jerks, as is Alyson's husband (he has assumed a false identity which she only discovers by accident at the novel's conclusion), the narrative assumes that we will be carried along by the fate of these women. True enough, the paired narratives pick up pace and we are tricked into believing in the murderous, yet nevertheless pardonable, capacity of both protagonists. . . . there is that witch ancestor to contend with, after all. But just because they're women doesn't mean we have to like them. The story of Margaret is captivating, though her clandestine friendship with the elderly Ojibway woman is overly romanticized and seems derivative of a very similar scene in Urquhart's Away. Alyson, on the other hand, is sulky, vengeful, naive, and holier than thou. I don't care if she does have a green thumb, she's a pill.
Because of their experience of subordination, women, it is assumed, share with the wilderness, and with aboriginals, the experience of being colonized. This means that they're automatically on the "good" side. I'm being facetious. What I regret about this novel is the lack of critical distance from its feminist impetus. Because they're women, because they love the land (and identify with the aboriginals who live close to the land), because they are themselves displaced persons, the reality of their presence in the Canadian wilderness is obscured: they, too, are complicit in the forces of imperialism they strenuously decry. Margaret, like her brothers, like Alyson, and, yes, like the solipsistic Walker, seeks to inscribe a new identity onto the landscape. For all of them, it serves as a fantasy space. It bends to their will. Margaret is the champion tree-chopper, after all.
The Holding is an example of colonial nostalgia if I've ever seen one. Normally, this kind of nostalgia might have negative overtones (such as in those plentiful cases of Raj nostalgia so predominant in British literature of the 1980s). Somehow, though, we're supposed to think that in this case it's fine since the story is told from the perspective of female settlers. Simonds does pay homage to the settlement narratives that informed her research, yet if I were to set this novel in the context of some Canadian equivalents, I would align it with two earlier, and in my view more successful, Canlit female settlement fantasies-Atwood's Surfacing and Urquhart's Away. Like the protagonist of Atwood's novel, Alyson has to go back to nature and into the past to find the clues to her present predicament, clues which in both instances are scattered by a series of dead ancestors. Like the women in Away, Margaret is romanced by the land: she holds it; it holds her.
Perhaps all of these narratives are instructive. We seem to hunger for something in our national literature: a retreading of historical ground, a delineation of new ancestors, an assertion of the links between identity and geography, a re-generation. This novel is seductive for all of these reasons, but its perspective on this desire is not clear. It's true that Alyson comes to realize that she has overly romanticized Margaret. This may-and I emphasize the may-serve as an admonishment to the reader who is similarly seduced by the past. Indeed, there is something of a will-o'-the-wisp quality about the novel. We never do learn the truth of Margaret's "revenge", nor are we ever quite certain what Alyson has invented, what she has left out, or even if we've been reading her thoughts at all. Perhaps Alyson misreads the final years of Margaret MacBayne, purposely sanitizing and deromanticizing them as a way of ensuring her own sanity in the face of her looming confrontation with her husband? Who knows, that witch ancestor might have made a comeback. That said, perhaps I'll append my own conclusion to the novel and suggest that Margaret MacBayne did murder her three brothers, and that she did so out of all-consuming vengeance and irrepressible greed for complete mastery over the property. After all, a woman must have her garden.

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