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Monday, 12 April 2010

A Cure for Death by Lightning


This is a haunting, stunning debut … overlapping the mundane with the extraordinary, Anderson-Dargatz creates a multi-layered tale of considerable power and suspense. —The Toronto Star

I always find it interesting when someone talks about something as haunting like a piece of music. They mean it in a good way and yet most of the time when we think about someone being haunted it’s something they want to stop. A number of people who have read this book (and were kind enough to leave comments lying around online for me to read) talk about the way the events in this book stayed with them long after they’d finished it; it haunted them. It’s also about being haunted, literally and figuratively. And yet it’s not a ghost story, not in any conventional sense, but the ghosts of her past obviously haunt our narrator – now an adult – looking back on what clearly was a pivotal year for her, her fifteenth.

RandomHouse’s website has this to say about the author:

Her style has been called “Margaret Laurence meets Gabriel García Márquez” because her writing tends towards magic realism, but Anderson-Dargatz says the ghosts and premonitions in her novels arise from her family’s stories of [British Columbia’s] Shuswap-Thompson area, which she carefully transcribed. “My father passed on the rich stories and legends about the region I grew up in, which he heard from the interior Salish natives he worked with,” she explains. “And my mother told me tales of her own premonitions, and of ghosts, eccentrics and dark deeds that haunted the area.” –

Apart from “haunting” the other tag that has stuck is one the Boston Globe coined: "Pacific Northwest Gothic:" In an interview she had this to say about it:

The handle 'Pacific Northwest Gothic' always makes me laugh! It makes me think I should dress in black and wear a lot of heavy makeup (I'm a jeans and T-shirt girl). Not to mention the fact that from a Canadian perspective I live in the Pacific Southwest. ... I rather like the description now. It does seem to fit! – Serendipity

The thing is, you won’t find A Cure for Death by Lightning or any of her other novels in the ‘Horror’ section of your local bookshop and neither should you because it’s not a horror novel despite the fact that some horrific things do happen. At its core it’s a coming of age tale set in the close-knit rural community of Turtle Valley during World War II although the war is very far away. There’s hardly a character without some eccentricity, like Filthy Billy (‘filthy’ not because he doesn’t wash but because he has coyote Tourette's syndrome), Coyote Jack (the local hermit) or Bertha Moses (the old Indian who can’t quite let go of the old ways). Even some of the animals are a little odd: a three-legged dog, an albino crow and a black kitten called Lucifer.

Our heroine is Beth Weeks, just turned fifteen and more ordinary and level-headed than she’s any right to be considering her family: a mother who frequently sits and talks to her own dead mother and a shell-shocked and increasingly foul-tempered and unstable father who spends half his time ripping out his Swedish neighbour’s fences and putting up his own (which the Swede then takes down and replaces with his own). Then there’s her brother, Dan, who Beth discovers one night having unnatural congress with one of their milk cows. A part of me couldn’t help thinking of Marilyn Munster when I got into this book – remember she was the only family member elly_may_clampett who wasn’t ghoulish in appearance – although Beth’s more Elly May Clampett than Marilyn Munster if we’re being honest.

Despite the rest of her family veering between a little odd to downright scary at times, Beth’s life hasn’t been too bad up until now. Okay, she lives on a farm in the back of beyond and has to muck in (literally at times) but that’s to be expected; it’s all she’s known. Like all girls though she’s dreamt of film stars and the like but she nevertheless dutifully clambers into her brother’s old jeans and heads off to milk the cows when she has to.

The thing that gets me is once you’ve made a list of all the horrible things that happen in this book one really has to wonder how anyone could call it “haunting” in a charming way. Here are the bullet points: several murders, a number of missing native children, a suicide, rape, an attempted rape, episodes of child abuse, cases of animal cruelty (in addition to the incident of bestiality), bullying, arson, assault and that’s not even mentioning the minor infringements like covetousness, drunkenness, lying and theft. Then of course there will be those who would want to add lesbianism in there as a sin. And yet, when people write about it none of that is what they highlight:

It's written in a style that would be eye-catching if it was a painting - the closest I can get is "haunting" – Shane, Amazon Reviewer

Being the first book I read in 1999, and only reviewing it now, six months later, it haunts me to return to the story. – A Customer, Amazon Reviewer

Haunting and Atmospheric – Sheleen Hems, Amazon Reviewer

Haunting in a way that is uncomfortable, this book is one that you can't stop reading after you've started. – Rei, Goodreads Reviewer

Cleverly structured, the book was magical, haunting, stunning, mysterious. – Bonnie Poon, Amazon Reviewer

I think the reason for that is that our heroine is not the instigator of most of this. Bad things happen to and around her but she doesn’t lower herself to the standards of others. She’s a survivor. Something though is stalking her, something that’s not human.

Coyoteinacanoe The word ‘coyote’ crops us a lot in this book. There are the feral animals that attack the farmers’ herds; there’s Coyote Jack, the “half-crazy, bushed[1]” son of the Swede, who’s taken to “living all by himself in a squatter’s cottage on Bald Mountain” and who has “a way of sliding in and out of the shadows, disappearing and reappearing just like a coyote”, and then there’s Coyote, a trickster spirit the Indians talk about capable of possessing men and compelling them to do its bidding, When Beth talks to the young half-breed who befriends her, about her father’s increasingly violent bursts of jealousy, the girl, Nora, tells her:

“Bet it was Coyote. Granny says that. She’s scared Coyote’s back, sneaking around. Granny says if a man’s got something wrong with him, if he’s drunk or gets hit on the head or bushed or something, then Coyote can get inside him and make him crazy, make him do stuff. Bad stuff.”

I laughed. “Like Coyote Jack. I heard that. Dan told me you guys think he’s a shape-shifter.”

“Yeah, like him.”

“You really believe that?”

The girl shrugged. “Granny’s stories. Sometimes she swears it’s the truth. Sometimes she says it’s just stories.”

A girl is found dead at the start of the book and a bear ends up taking the fall for the attack but surely it had to have been an attack by an animal. Certainly no one in the book wants to believe it could have been any human and with a bear – although not necessarily the bear – dead that seems to be an end to that. Beth has the awful feeling that she’s being followed though. Initially she’s content to think she might be imagining it but then people start appearing, if not necessarily approaching, that suggest this is not all in her head: Nora, Jack, her brother, Jack, Dennis, Billy, Robert Parker – the list of suspects increases. Or it might be the disembodied Coyote. Only that’s daft talk. The problem there is that things start to happen that she can’t explain simply and rationally:

The thing that followed hopped onto Blood Road and followed me, I heard it, but I held my breath and told myself it was my own imagination at work, nothing more, and that time I came to believe it because the sound stopped. I turned then, more from curiosity than fear, to see if there were footprints following mine in the red dirt. There were none. Instead, a little way in the bush, I caught sight of a coyote nervously watching me. Since I had no gun I left him to his curiosity and went on walking. He followed me; I caught glimpses of him trotting parallel to me in the bush.

The transition from girlhood to womanhood is, I imagine, as awkward for females as the same transition is for males. Part of me is still convinced I skipped one or two of the steps growing up but there’s no going back. Beth certainly doesn’t want to go back. She more than happy to embrace this new side to herself if only it was a matter of flicking a switch and there she was. Because of her upbringing she already has a high degree of autonomy and independence. She wanders around with a rifle most of the time so no one gets into a tizzy when they find she’s headed off into the woods but that’s the easy stuff. Getting treated with respect at home is something else. The most obvious culprit is her domineering father but once you get to learn a bit more about Beth’s mother she’s also not blameless, she chooses to look the other way and live a lie even when it’s patently obvious everyone knows what’s going on, anything rather than tackle things head on; she’s even willing to let history repeat itself. Both her parents become increasingly unstable as the book continues until a crisis forces each of them to face reality.

A recurring issue in the book is sex. It’s a small community, Beth is a pretty girl, and everyone is sniffing around her skirts. From all accounts sex is not something that is on her mind. No one living in that kind of environment would be unaware of the ways of the birds and the bees but there’re no signs that Beth is desperate to fill in the blanks in her experience. She’s no objection to being kissed, although when The Goat, the town simpleton, chases after her looking for one, she runs a mile. She even responds to expressions of affection from Nora although I think only once is she the actual instigator. The two girls become close, much to the irritation of her bigoted father. Nora wants to up sticks and move to a city. She’s only fourteen but is convinced that they could both turn up at a factory doing war work, say they were eighteen and would be welcomed with open arms. She may well have been right but Beth, despite everything, drags her feet.

The blossoming relationship between the girls is probably the book’s real core and there are some really touching moments between the two of them. This is where Beth gets to be herself and to try out a new self to see if it fits. Reading in between the lines it’s clear that they do develop a level of intimacy but Anderson-Dargatz doesn’t dwell on that. In fact she doesn’t dwell on anything which is what sets this book apart from any horror novel which would go out of its way to shock its reader. Any reader with a decent imagination will do the work for an author if they provide the raw materials. That doesn’t mean she never tells it as it is because she most certainly does as this passage reveals in which, after being propositioned at a party, Beth rides home only to run across an injured sheep:

There were dark pools all around the ewe, blood. But she wasn’t dead. The blood was warm and she was breathing.

Coyotes go for the genitals and soft belly of a sick sheep. They nip like a dog at the legs and face until the sheep falls. Then they eat her alive. This ewe was still alive, and her genitals were eaten away. ... I went into the house and took the .22 from the gun cupboard, loaded it, and headed back to the ewe. I aimed the gun behind the ewe’s ear and fired, then shot the rifle into the air as a warning to the shadows. I slumped into the wet grass and cried for the sheep until the rain let up and the moon poked out of the clouds. A farmer’s daughter, and I cried for the loss of one sheep.

When I reached home the second time, Nora was waiting outside my bedroom window. I threw down the gun and swung out at her. I don’t know why, exactly. I was angry because of the bachelor’s offer to buy me, and because of the sheep with her cunt eaten by coyotes. She took both my wrists and held me like a squawking chicken until the rage passed and I collapsed against the house.

At the end of the year some questions are answered but not all. We see a real change in Beth though. She starts the book as a quiet, basically shy girl, who hides in the hollow of a tree and dabs old perfume on parts of her body her dad won’t be able to smell (like under her feet) but in the end her confidence has grown and we witness her beginning to stand up for herself. But there are things we don’t learn about. And that’s how real life is and it’s to the author’s credit that she didn’t try and neatly tie up every loose thread.

I’ve read few negative remarks about this book. It’s not perfect but people seem more than willing to overlook its failings beanderson-dargatz_turtleing compensated by a feeling of wellbeing; the underdog has survived although not unscathed. Anderson-Dargatz found herself drawn back to Beth when she wrote  her most recent book, Turtle Valley, in which we see the long-term effects on her. One thing she never recovers from is her “lightning arm”, a limb that takes on a life of its own after she is struck by lightning early on in the story.

For me, the most important image comes in the unnumbered chapter at the start of the book. In this prologue we get the cure for death by lightning, which I’ll come back to, followed by this:

The same page contained a tortoiseshell butterfly, pressed flat beside the cure for death so the wings left smudges of burgundy and blue on the back of the previous page. The bottom of one wing was torn away. My mother said that she’d caught the butterfly and pressed it between the pages of her scrapbook because of this torn wing. “Wonderful,” she told me. “That it could still fly. It’s a reminder to keep going.”

This, to my mind, is a symbol of how Beth must feel about herself which is why she chose to begin with this particular anecdote. She is going to be damaged by the events she’s about to relate over the next 300 pages but she has kept going. Her mother probably felt that she too should have kept going but the butterfly will have a different significance for her.

I mentioned Margaret Laurence earlier, one of Canada's most esteemed and beloved writers, but not well known elsewhere. One particular aspect of her writing was a source of inspiration for the young Gail Anderson:

The lives I knew weren't discussed in literature. The people weren't American men, they were Canadian women, farm women. Laurence's interest in them made me feel that their and my experience was important. – Publishers Weekly

Despite being compared to Laurence (and a host of other writers) Anderson-Dargatz maintains that her real inspiration comes “from the people and landscapes around me more than from other books"[2] and that’s one aspect of this book that I’ve neglected to mention, her gift for descriptions:

You approach each fruit, like each lover, differently. For cherries, you roll your sleeves up. Otherwise you’ll stain them purple. And look into the sun when you’re picking cherries, so you can see their dark silhouettes hanging there. And of course you must reach up, so find yourself a sturdy ladder. When you eat a ripe cherry straight from the tree on a sunny day, its juice is so hot, thick and red that it has the feel of blood running down your chin, staining your lips and filling your mouth. Once you’ve sucked all you can from it, you spit out the pit and go for another warm cherry off the tree, and another and another, because the cherry will seduce you every time. The cherry becomes a compulsion, a thing you must have, a passion.[3]

What we have to remember here, and it is easy to forget, is that it is a grown woman who is doing the writing here not a fifteen-year-old girl and so the perspective is occasionally more mature and perceptive than you might expect.

A Cure for Death by Lightning book sold 100,000 copies in Canada alone and was a bestseller in the U.K. In the U.S., it was billed as a Young Adult novel, and it sold a mere 2,000 copies which I think is a real shame; something similar happened with When I Was Five I Killed Myself as I recall. I’ve never really had a good grasp of what the YA demographic embraces but I tend to think about it as literature written specifically for a younger audience. That doesn’t mean it will shy away from any of the topics that this book covers but I’m sure this book was written with a larger audience in mind. Whether that was a predominately female audience I can’t say but the culinary aspects of the book were certainly highlighted when the book was marketed here no doubt leading to a higher than average female readership. It’s true there are a lot of recipes in the book, most contained within Beth’s mother’s scrapbook but not all are cookery recipes. Indeed the very first entry is a remedy:

The cure for death by lightning was handwritten in thick, messy blue ink in my mother’s scrapbook, under the recipe for my father’s favourite oatcakes: Dunk the dead by lightning in a cold water bath for two hours and if still dead, add vinegar and soak for an hour more.

There are so many recipes and household tips in fact that the last two pages of the book is actually an index including such choice entries as:

Boiling water, how to remember, 126

Crickets, as a love-charm, 107-8

Running fits, of dogs, cure for, 102

Spider, how to kill, 34

DaffodilCake_291_20080818-162842 as well as actual recipes for the likes of daffodil cake, raspberry buns, gingersnaps and beet wine.

This is not a hard read and I can actually see someone reading the whole thing in a single sitting if they got caught up in it. I’m sure in 1997 (which is when it came out in the UK) many women will have taken it on holiday with them. I probably bought my wife it then. I think classing it as “a good holiday read” would be doing this book a disservice though and if you did read it back then I would recommend getting it out and taking your time this time. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.


portrait Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s novels have been published worldwide in English and in many other languages. A Recipe for Bees and The Cure for Death by Lightning were international bestsellers, and were both short-listed for the prestigious Giller Prize in Canada. The Cure for Death by Lightning won the UK’s Betty Trask Prize among other awards. A Rhinestone Button was a national bestseller in Canada and her first book, The Miss Hereford Stories, was short-listed for the Leacock Award for humour. She currently teaches fiction in the creative writing MFA program at the University of British Columbia. She and her husband, photographer Mitch Krupp, live in the Shuswap, the landscape found in so much of Gail's writing, including her latest novel Turtle Valley.

You can read Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s blog here.

[1] If you take a walk in the bush, chances are you will be followed. Anyone who has spent time in the bush knows what the term "bushed" really means. It's there, in the bush, that you'll meet the most terrifying elements of your own subconscious. – Gail Anderson-Dargatz from an interview on CBC Radio, 14th October 2007

[2] Quote from the author’s biography on her official website

[3] Sharon Caseburg has some interesting things to say about the sexual elements in this passage in her thesis ‘The Erotics of Consumption in Postmodern Culinary Narratives’ on p27-29


Kass said...

It was hard to get a fix on what this novel was really about, but when you got to examples of Anderson-Dargatz's writing, I was smitten. The section quoted about the coyotes eating the sheep oh no I find myself wanting to say it was haunting, but let me try again - it was memorable - no, that doesn't quite do it - "I slumped into the wet grass and cried for the sheep until the rain let up and the moon poked out of the clouds." It's simply stated. The event wasn't like anything else, it just was. I like the idea of the recipes. It sounds like a quirky book - one I would like, and I'm not even one of those 2,000 young adults over here in the U.S.

Skip said...

I like your observation about the use of "haunting." Don't you think this has become something of cliche for talking about books of a certain kind?

What do we really mean by "haunting'? That it's scary? That it's a genre book?

I think it means that the work impinges on our consciousness in a vague, unclassfiable way. I resolve to striek it from my lexicon of book-talk in favor of more specificity.

Jim Murdoch said...

It is often difficult finding the right word to describe something, Kass. ‘Gothic’ is another that I keep running across and ‘surreal’ which has completely supplanted ‘unreal’ which worked perfectly well up until the 1920s. Anderson-Dargatz is an author I keep an eye out for because she’s a favourite of my wife. The same goes for another Canadian, Gaétan Soucy; I have a review of one of his books coming up in the next few weeks too. She’s also read everything he’s written.

The problem with words like ‘haunting’, Skip, is that they have become buzz words like the two I mentioned to Kass above. What’s wrong with ‘memorable’? Why do we insist on devaluing our words?

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Dave King said...

Only this morning, commenting on a post, I described a piece of music as haunting. I think the only other piece I have ever described so was the music from "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and it had much the same effect on me. Not scary but maybe other-worldly in a pleasant way. None of which fits your book, I think. It strikes me as one in which the book is not in the plot, but exists in spite of the catalogue of happenings. To that extent, I think it may be my sort of book. I wouldn't have called the book haunting - I don 't think, not having read it - but your post I just might, again, in the good way.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think the problem is, Dave, that we fall back on tried and trusted expressions. There are only so many words that people use to describe music and ‘haunting’ is one of them. And once, like me, you’re read hundreds of liner notes and reviews you develop a schema. All big books automatically become ‘tomes’ but I bet if you asked everyone you know what a tome is they’ll say, “a big book,” as if the two expressions are mutually exclusive terms.

I’ve just had a listen to the soundtrack for Picnic at Hanging Rock. I’d forgotten it was Gheorghe Zamfir, the guy we have to blame for loads of very bad panpipe albums (by other people I have to add but he started the trend). I agree the main theme is ‘haunting’ but I’ve forgotten the rest of the album and I’ve not even finished listening to it. The thing is, if you’re not going to use ‘haunting’ what are the alternatives? Memorable? Evocative? Dreamy? The thing is everyone knows what you mean when you say ‘haunting’, that’s why we say it.

Elisabeth said...

I finally got to this one, Jim, even as I notice you're onto the next.

Your review here has captured the haunting quality of this novel for me. And somehow it has latched onto my thoughts of today.

The image of the dying ewe with its genital eaten off by a coyote puts me in mind of circumcision.

It might seem an enormous leap, but I've been reading a book, nonfiction, about circumcision. See:,%20M.%20Paul/tellaboutcirc.htm

And this book coupled with the trauma experienced by this young girl (at least by inference) has left me feeling a bit hollow bellied.

As ever, Jim a terrific review.

Jim Murdoch said...

What struck me about the ewe was the girl’s practical attitude to the problem, Lis. It’s something that I’m sure all farmers’ families have, a realistic attitude towards life and death. What is interesting about the recipes in the book is that they provide a bridge between the mystic and the domestic, just the idea that there could be a cure for death by lightning that you could whip up along with the daffodil cake.

There are a number of traumatic events in this book. That the girl would not be affected is to ask too much but she’s a survivor as evidenced by the fact she’s writing this years later having “escaped” Turtle Valley. The problem with any review is not trying to give too much away and if I’ve left you feeling a little hollow then maybe I’ve not done my job right because that’s not how the book left me. My wife has all her books so I may return to her sometime in the future.

I had a wee look at that webpage and learned far more about penises that I ever wanted to know. Thank you for that. It’s not a big thing over here. Not like in America. I have no idea where Australia stands. When I learned about it in Bible studies I didn’t like it. I know there were clear health benefits to many of the things the Jews were required to do under Law but lopping off the foreskin seemed wrong. I know the reasons were mainly symbolic but I kinds wanted to say to God, “Hey, you gave us one in the first place and all your works are supposed to be perfect so how come we don’t need it now?”

Ms. Smartypants said...

Thanks for adding your write up to the Book Review Blog Carnival!

You really got me curious about this book.

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