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Reverberations: A Daughter’s Meditations on Alzheimer’s
By Marion Agnew
Signature Editions (Oct 1, 2019)
ISBN: 9781773240589 (softcover)
ISBN: 9781773240602 (Kindle ebook)
My mother recently passed away after a battle with Parkinson’s-related dementia, so I wasn’t sure what effect Marion Agnew’s book, Reverberations A Daughter’s Meditations on Alzheimer’s, would have on me. As I read, it soon becomes clear that the author had a difficult relationship with her mother, Jeanne LeCaine Agnew. Why wouldn’t she? The woman was an Ivy League mathematician, a neutron transport equations researcher during WWII, a university professor, and a demanding mother of five known by friends as “the meanest mom ever.” It’s also apparent, however, that when her mother began to slip away due to the ravages of a terrible, insidious disease, Agnew longed for much more. And as she shares her story of love and loss, I begin to recall the changes in my own incredibly strong mother.
The diseases aren’t the same, but the longing for more time and the sadness experienced from helplessly watching the slow erasure of abilities and personality are. I’m also drawn in by what Agnew chooses to share with us. Her meditations, often unflattering, are so very human and underline something she states in the mathematical language preferred by her mother: “Let d be the distance between us.”
Reverberations is a mémoire—a collection of essays that reflects the writer’s own experiences and memories. It covers various chapters of her life but always seems to come back to times she spent on the western shores of Lake Superior. As she recalls the summer weeks she stayed at the family’s Northwestern Ontario cottages each year, Agnew ponders how her life and relationships change within the framework of her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. There’s much sadness here, yet we also see humour (the many conflicting ways to make perfect devilled eggs), the defining and deepening of the author’s love for her parents, the realization of her dream to live full-time on the big lake, the kindling of an autumn romance, and the arrival of a certain understanding …
“Summer or winter or somewhere in between, when I’m outdoors I can hear sounds of our human life as if they’re present. Voices of the lake, and rowboats. Letters rustling, beach rocks plunking, music, leaking roofs. The voices of people, children and adults, related to me and not, who mow and rake and prune and dig and cut, who nail and paint and scrape, who sweep and bake and roast and polish the stove, who connect water lines and empty the outhouse pails, who row and paddle and pole and swim and splash. Who dream, and plan, and pay. And love. Perhaps somewhere, somewhen, my mother walks the beach and picks up a bit of granite or jasper, an agate, a piece of pink driftglass. Perhaps she thinks of me. We, and our echoes and reverberations, for better and worse, are part of the undersong.”
Marion Agnew has given us an honest and touching look at the human condition, and I recommend taking the time to read it.
Marion Agnew’s essays and short fiction have appeared in numerous magazines and literary journals, including The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, Atticus Review, The Walleye, The Grief Diaries, Full Grown People, and the anthologies Best Canadian Essays 2012 and 2014. She has been shortlisted for the Prairie Fire contest as well as a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Originally from Oklahoma, she realized her dream of becoming a Canadian citizen and moving to her family’s summer property in the Canadian Shield, where she had spent the most magical summers of her childhood.
by Roy Blomstrom
Publisher: Shuniah House Books (Nov. 23, 2017)
Paperback: 269 pages
Silences begins with the discovery of a man’s body dangling from a hanging tree on the outskirts of Port Arthur in 1955. One shoe on. One off.
The story shifts back to northwest Finland in the early 1900s. We meet two rural families, one Finnish speaking and the other Swedish speaking Finns. Things get complicated when a small shop owner is killed in what at first glance seems like a senseless attack. One marauder loses a boot in the process. The violence turns out to be a precursor to a civil war between the reds and whites, imported in part from Russia.
War envelopes both families in conflict, leaving some dead and others damaged irreparably by what they’ve lived through. It’s particularly cruel to a 15-year-old boy who volunteers for the white army as a cook. His older brother is killed in a brutal battle for Tampere. When his body is found, he’s missing one boot.
The trauma follows the survivors across the sea when they migrate to Canada. During the hot summer of ’55, two mismatched boots appear in the window of a local shoe repair shop. Appears the killer is in Port Arthur. The hanging is the culmination of the journey for one combatant.
Silences uncovers a devastating period in Finnish history. The magnitude of the tragedy is staggering. People who had lived in peace for years suddenly commit terrible atrocities in the name of ideology. The impact of external powers like Russia and Germany shows how smaller nations can be treated as pawns in greater geopolitical conflicts to terrible effect.
The story also gives a clear depiction of posttraumatic stress disorder. Long before such a diagnosis existed, the characters have to learn not to judge others or their behaviour. It’s a lesson that’s as true now as in 1955.
Silences kept me intrigued. I love a good mystery. It also appealed to my historical curiosity. But more so, it made me think of the human condition, the terrible consequences of war, and the incredible ability of people to cope with the unimaginable. The story made me think and feel. What more can you ask of a novel?
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