"I had this image of Mom as a lake, with Jenny and me bobbing around on her surface, never dreaming, never even wondering about the green depths beneath us."
Maggie Dillon, the teenage narrator of Frances Greenslade's first novel, Shelter (Greenslade has published two memoirs), speaks the truth. Her mother, Irene, is a woman full of mystery, of "green depths," of secrets. Maggie spends the novel, and most of her teen life, trying to figure her mother out. Along the way, as first-person narrators often do, Maggie figures herself out.
The novel begins with Irene, a wonderful mother to Maggie and her older sister, Jenny. The family lives a rustic and simple life in British Columbia's Chilcotin region: no electricity, no running water, no toilet, but fresh food, stunning wildlife, peaceful existence.
When Irene's husband is killed in a logging accident, their pastoral life begins to disintegrate. Although this family is skilled in wilderness survival, the sudden lack of income sends them into a spiral. Irene must find a job and, after trying to work at logging camps, giving up her house and camping with the girls, she realizes that the only way she can make ends meet is to billet her daughters out. Maggie and Jenny are dropped off at the Edwards' house in Williams Lake. Irene disappears and gradually her letters stop. The money she is sending the Edwards stops.
When Maggie is finally old enough to set out on her own (three eventful years later), she begins to look for her mother. Maggie travels with friends, or hitchhikes. She eventually finds people who tell her the story of her mother, and Maggie slowly forms an image of what happened.
This first novel is lovely in its simplicity. Greenslade didn't try to put too much into this book, a common fault of some first-time novelists; instead, she has a plot and she focuses on it. This makes for easy reading, and it makes for a page-turning novel. "What happens next" always happens next, right where it's supposed to be. Greenslade knows the setting and describes the Chilcotin area with loving care. Many paragraphs are dedicated to the beauty of the region, and its harshness. It is an area in which people have to be self-sufficient and strong. Maggie is.
The last bit of the novel has an interesting structure. When Maggie hears the stories about her mother from different people, there seems to be an authorial nod to local, and perhaps native, oral tradition. Each person speaks at great length, pulling Maggie (and this reader) into their stories, breaking for food, continuing on late into the night. It feels like you are sitting around a campfire. Listening.
This is a slow, quiet, addictive read. Once you get caught, you find yourself caring about these characters, wanting to know what they will do next, how they will survive. I applaud Frances Greenslade for making me care. I also learned a lot about the Chilcotin area of British Columbia and its people. Greenslade doesn't romanticize the brutal conditions or the natural beauty in this part of Canada. This novel may make you want to pack up the tent and go camping, but it will also make you grateful for your electricity and running water.
Michelle Berry's recent short-story collection, I Still Don't Even Know You, won the Mary Scorer Award for Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher, 2011, and was short-listed for the ReLit Award, 2011. She is teaching creative writing online for the University of Toronto/New York Times.