A fiction writer whose work focuses on ordinary people, Betty Jane Hegerat has come out with the Boy, a compelling, beautifully written, two-part narrative that sweeps the reader into the interwoven tales.
The first story, recounted in chapters called The Boy, is fictional. Louise, a schoolteacher, marries Jake, a man whose 12-year-old son, Danny, is already in the early stages of a path of petty crime.
After her marriage, Louise finds a box of clippings Danny's mother, Brenda, has kept concerning Robert Raymond Cook, the last man hanged in Alberta. Chapters titled Roads Back recount Hegerat's authorial journey into the Cook archives as well as the challenges she confronts while developing the intertwined stories. A third component of the book is the voice of Louise, who speaks with Hegerat during the creation of the manuscript. Their dialogue - presented like a script - loosely links the two tracks.
Louise's story is familiar enough. An optimistic woman with a chance as good as any to marry, she is caught in that uneasy family dynamic between husband and stepson and her own children. An ineffective father, Jake placates, coddles, feeds and repeatedly bails out his first-born son. He refuses to confront the fact of his delinquency but shifts the blame, denies responsibility and refuses to make his wife part of the parenting team. Louise becomes increasingly afraid of her stepson as he grows to adulthood. She feels safe only while he is incarcerated.
Robert Raymond Cook was executed in 1959 for the murder of seven people: his father, stepmother, three half-brothers and two half-sisters. The children were three to nine years old. The larger question of Cook's guilt and whether it was proved beyond a doubt remains unanswered.
As this historical tale also concerns ordinary, small-town folks much like the fictional Jake and Louise, Hegerat tries to find out who these victims were and reconstruct their lives before the murders. She wrestles with how difficult it is to imagine or to "fathom what could happen on one night to family that was well and alive and playing."
In between the alternating chapters, Louise taunts the writer: "Sometimes it's even scarier if you can only imagine what they [the delinquent sons in each narrative]are doing." In this way Hegerat stokes the reader's fear even as she confides her struggles with the fear that hinders her progress with the book. "Fear was at the heart of my obsession with the story. Fear kept pushing me away."
As Hegerat never fully articulates the particular nature of her fear, the reader is left to speculate. Is it that gruesome, tragic murders do happen to ordinary people peaceably living in little towns?
Or is her fear related to the idea that justice may not have been done in the case of Raymond Robert Cook? Or is it that truth is only attainable through facts which she won't find? Rather late in the game, Hegerat gives up; she is not an investigative journalist and she's not going down that track. Her domain is fiction.
This is after she has left readers with a trail that seems oddly like a polemic for Cook's possible innocence: investigators who dropped leads, a deceased witness who could not be recalled at Cook's second trial, a deathbed confession never taken into account, and the ill-fated timing of Cook's plea for clemency.
Hegerat also raises the question of a posthumous pardon for Cook. Perhaps like Steven Truscott - as well as others who have been subsequently exonerated - Robert Raymond Cook was found guilty by a system that failed him.
Fiction ends as the author designs. Real life ends at a grave. At the close of Hegerat's dual storylines, readers are left to ponder the questions and imagine what the scary truth might be.
Lynda Grace Philippsen writes about people, places and subjects that catch her imagination.