Mouse Bradford, the central character in Susan Swan’s The Western Light, first appeared in The Wives of Bath (1993), and I fear my enjoyment of this new novel was hampered by knowing what happens after the events in it.
Here, 12-year-old Mouse is trying desperately to connect with her widowed father, Morley, a dedicated doctor who has given over raising Mouse to his housekeeper, Sal, since his wife’s death eight years earlier. But Mouse’s grandmother, Big Louie, decides that Sal is ineffective, so she dispatches her daughter, Little Louie, to help raise Mouse.
Swan captures the 1950s time frame as well as the setting of Madoc’s Landing, a tourist town on Georgian Bay. Mouse is the narrator, and while it’s clear she has grown up, most of the story is told from her perspective as a girl, not an adult. She is a delightful character – intelligent, thoughtful and curious. She wants attention from her father, but he spends nearly every minute on his patients. And when he’s not practising medicine, Morley coaches the local hockey team. He loves his daughter, but cannot carve out any time for her. It’s no surprise when Mouse befriends an older man, a father figure.
But her choice is unexpected. The town has a psychiatric hospital, where John Pilkie has been incarcerated for killing his wife and baby daughter. Swan’s clever twist is that Pilkie was a star National Hockey League player, and some people, including Morley, believe Pilkie’s violence stems from hockey concussions. Pilkie is a charming man and a snappy dresser. And he treats Mouse with kindness and respect. It’s no wonder she responds so favourably.
The tensions the novel builds on are the parent-child relationship, messy love affairs, the limited (or perhaps non-existent) rights of people deemed insane and locked up in mental institutions for crimes, and the national love of hockey and the damage the players are helpless to avoid. And Mouse is going through a touchy time. She’s on the cusp of physical maturation, and she’s resisting it. She has one leg damaged by polio and worries about how people perceive her.
The novel delves deeply into Mouse’s relationships. Swan develops Mouse’s strength while never losing sight of her youth and that she cannot solve her problems by herself. Neither can the other characters, including Pilkie, who is frantic to get his case reviewed. Clearly, Mouse and Pilkie are parallel in significant ways: Both are damaged, and both need the attention of someone with more power than they have. While I could mostly quell the voices in my head reminding me of subsequent events in Mouse’s life, I couldn’t ignore the erratic punctuation, redundancies and infelicities of the novel. The weak editing is a distraction.
Fortunately, Mouse, Pilkie and Morley remain in the mind long after thoughts of the editing disappear. The timely subject of hockey concussions is absorbing, as is Swan’s consideration of broken minds. The rigour of being a dedicated small-town doctor before socialized medicine is fully wrought, and while readers can sympathize with Mouse’s need for her father, the hurt and sick of Madoc’s Landing also need him. At the heart of the novel is a girl’s thoughtful deliberation on the mysteries of good and evil, and how they can be combined in the same person.
Candace Fertile teaches at Camosun College in Victoria.