There are stories, and then there are STORIES. The difference is that, although both can provide interest and entertainment, it is a STORY that will stay with me long after I finish reading it. STORIES like Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, which I read when I was a kid; Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron, which I read about forty years ago; The River Thieves, by Michael Crummy; A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry; and Mercy Among the Children, by David Adams Richards. These last three read about twenty years ago. And my all time favourite, Not Wanted on the Voyage, by Timothy Findley, which was a book that changed my whole concept of what a story could be. These just scratch the surface of the list of what I call STORIES.
Boredom is not a state that I am familiar with because one of my hobbies is reading, so there is always a book on the go. In the past there were piles of books in my office/playroom. There is still a large very full bookcase housed in the family room that holds many titles that I couldn’t part with. These days, eager not to bring any more stuff into my house, books are on the go on my iPad where I either purchase new ones or borrow eBooks from the library. I can’t remember how many books I have read over the years, but I do remember the ones that told a STORY. Recently, I have read two books that told STORIES that will stay with me.
The first is Beartown by Fredrik Backman. Backman is Swedish and is known for A Man Called Ove. I have read several of his books over the past couple of years and they are all very good. Plus they all make a point. His character development and story trajectory are quite unique and often humourous. As readers, we get invested in these characters and the story to the point that we don’t want to put his books down.
Beartown is much more serious than his other work. It centers around a small town where hockey is everything and hockey is expected to save the town from obscurity. When the star hockey player, known as a nice kid who works hard to improve and carry the team, is accused of rape by the daughter of the hockey program manager, lines are drawn. The young teenage girl, out of shame and panic destroyed all the evidence and waited a week before deciding to tell anyone.
By the time this happens, we are fully aware of and invested in all the characters and their backstories. Friendships are destroyed. Jobs are at risk. The hockey players are expected to close ranks to save the team and the town. Some can, others struggle. The rape victim is bullied, accused of lying and being a drama queen. She has nothing to offer in her defense. What makes this story so powerful, is how Frederik Backman has taken into consideration the effect that this incident has on so many of Beartown’s residents. It is not a story of a rape; it is a story of the varying aspects of human nature. And for that reason, it is a STORY that will stay with me.
The second book is The Wake, by Linden MacIntyre. MacIntyre, a former investigative journalist, is the author of several books including The Giller Prize winning, The Bishop’s Man. In The Wake, he tells the true story of the Tsunami that hit the Burin Peninsula of Newfoundland in 1929 and then the aftermath of this incident. And this is where the title comes from. The Wake. The Tsunami destroyed many homes and the waterfront infrastructure of several communities. It killed wives, children and husbands. I also decimated the fishery because after the Tsunami, the fish never returned to that area.
Enter a young American accountant who purchased the mineral rights for the area very cheap. He made several promises and convinced the people of the town of St Lawrence, Newfoundland, who were desperate for employment, to help him start a fluorspar mining operation. In the beginning they worked for nothing, then they worked for pennies in the form of store credit, or cheques that bounced. They had no proper clothing or tools, no safety equipment, no place to eat or use the bathroom, just a drive to make it work and a dream of some sort of future. There is a sentence in the book that describes a series of ladders that the miners use to descend 85 feet into the mine.
As the years go by, the accountant does not come through with his promises and even funnels money earmarked for mine improvements to a mine of the same name that he set up in Dakota. He made millions from the St Lawrence mine. The fluorspar was of such high quality that the U.S. government purchased it to use in The Manhattan Project. The miners saw little or nothing of this. These same miners and their wives rescued 186 sailors on February 18, 1942 when two U.S. Navy ships ran aground off the steep icy cliffs not far from St. Lawrence. The men hoisted the sailors over their shoulders and scaled the cliffs while the women warmed their freezing bodies and fed them. They gave the wet sailors what little extra men’s clothes they had, and some of the miners had to wear their wives’ underwear for the next little while until they could afford new ones.
The miners started to get sick. Various governments were involved and between red tape, politics and the bullshit offered by the accountant and his team, things improved at a snail’s pace. Miners began dying. The average lifespan of these miners was 48 years. Widows with up to 21 children, remember there was no birth control back then and they were all good Catholics, were left with no income. The children were left fatherless.
Eventually it is discovered that the miners were suffering from silicosis. But that’s not all, the miners were also dying of lung cancer at an alarming rate. After another long period, it was discovered that the water constantly running down the walls of the mine was releasing, into the poorly-ventilated air, daughters of radon, picked up from some uranium in the granite in the area. And still everything moved slow. Compensation was limited and eligibility hard to prove.
The people we meet in this book were real and good and just wanted to get off the dole and make an honest living. They didn’t deserve their fate. Like Linden MacIntyre, I couldn’t help but wonder about the circumstances created by that Tsunami. The wake of that particular incident. He, however, had much more reason to wonder because his father was a miner who spent some time in the St. Lawrence mine and then died relatively young. I find it difficult to understand how politicians and employers can deem certain people expendable. How do they sleep at night? For this reason, this STORY will also stay with me.
Thank you for reading.
Header photo: Anastasia Zhenina, Unsplash; Book Covers: Goodreads