Friday, 9 March 2012

Ethel Wilson's Swamp Angel

I first read this book a long time ago; I can tell by my name written on the inside cover in rounder, more careful handwriting than I have now. And I found a folded note inside that reads: Damon, Just gone for a walk. Help yourself to a cupcake. Slap some icing on it (them) L. And a phone number in different ink (not my writing; I never crossed my sevens). The note, written by my long-time friend Laurie who lives in Winnipeg and is still with her partner, Damon, suggests that either I lent this book to her, or I borrowed it from her, kept it and eventually wrote my name in it, thinking it was mine. Then again, I rarely write my name in my books unless I'm lending them.

The book smells like an attic and someone has written in it, in ink GUN=SELFHOOD, POWER. That was neither me nor Laurie because neither of us would do that to a book we loved. Whoever did it also underlined "Burrard Inlet," "Stanley Park," "Lion's Gate Bridge," "golf course," "New Westminster" and "outraged endurance," but then the underlinings peter out and past chapter nine, it's clean. I feel an instant dislike for the person who did the underlining. It's as if the book was mined for uppercase meaning then abandoned once it'd given up its goods. That's probably unfair; it's not like I've never approached a book in such a businesslike way. Just not this book.

Skagit River at Sumallo Grove


I remembered little of this book except that I liked it and that it traveled into the firs and pines of the BC deepwoods and that it made the familiar a little exotic and I liked that. Re-reading it tonight, I was delighted to find that when Maggie leaves the home she had loved but now hated, she stops at Hope and reflects on the two roads forking into the interior of BC and she chooses the Hope-Princeton. I always choose the Hope-Princeton too, though it's a home I love that I'm heading to. And she stops by the river, which she calls the Similkameen. And the Similkameen does run along that road, but first you pass through the wilder transition from the coastal rainforest -- the huge cedars and salmonberry undergrowth -- where the road runs along the Skagit River. That's the river I always stop beside (at least when the road in is passable, which is from about May to October).

I was re-reading Swamp Angel because Shelter has been shortlisted for the BC Book Ethel Wilson Prize and when I heard, it reminded me of the book and of the writers like Wilson and Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy and Adele Wiseman and Margaret Atwood, who I read when I was in my early twenties, those iconic McClelland and Stewart New Canadian Library books. I envied Margaret Laurence her cigarettes and coffee at her desk overlooking the Otonabee River and I wanted to do that. I don't have the river or the cigarettes but I spend my days writing at my desk looking out on the hills around Penticton and I feel a kinship to those writers who wrote things like "'I shall be all right. Just set me down near the river.'" (Ethel Wilson, Swamp Angel, 1954)


  1. "I feel an instant dislike for the person who did the underlining."

    Interesting. I underline things all the time. In fact, I recently used underlining in a work for specific reasons. It never occurred to me that it could cause instant dislike. Now I know.

    Congratulations. Shelter is a wonderful novel.

  2. Oh I feel bad for saying it that way now! I think it's because of what was underlined, but even at that I should have said that I do underline in books I'm reading too, but in pencil. But maybe that's cowardly and I'm afraid I may want to erase what once moved me. Once I lent a philosophy book to a friend who gave it back full of dark ink underlinings and scrawled notes and exclamation marks etc. I was shocked.

  3. Your last paragraph reminds me of "Black Coffee", Francie!