Reviewed by Erika Ritter
Among other worthy preoccupations, Joan Thomas’s first novel, Reading by Lightning, explores the potent fantasy of being snatched from familiar surroundings and deposited in a completely alien realm, far from home. That is, I think, a common childhood conception, and one that strikes most of us even now as alternately terrifying and tantalizing.
For those of us who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s (including Thomas), nightmares of sudden and terrible change were fuelled by warnings of imminent nuclear holocaust on our black-and-white TV screens. However, television of that time also offered happier new domains accessible by magical means—including, in those perennial broadcasts of the movie The Wizard of Oz, the literal expedient of being blown out of a onochromatic Kansas landscape and into a multi-coloured dream.
In Reading by Lightning, young Lily Piper is a child of the Great Depression, born too soon for duck-and-cover drills and into a drought-stricken place too Straitlaced for the frivolous fancies of L. Frank Baum. But even the Fundamentalist religion foisted upon her gives Lily access to the idea of instant evanescence, via stentorian promises—or threats—of the coming “Rapture,” as well as a Sunday school story about a man “who was suddenly taken away in a whirlwind while he was just walking along a road minding his own business.”
Lily appreciates both the precariousness and the appeal of fantasies that feature the universe turning on a dime. On the one hand, she terrifies herself with the thought that her father will be snatched away, by Rapture or whirlwind—or by the mysterious epileptic “fits” he suffers. On the other hand, the rebel in her longs to be torn from the avid and angry grasp of her rigidly religious mother.
Lily cannot, for the life of her, imagine from what quarter such deliverance could come. Yet it does come, in an unexpected request for Lily to leave rural Manitoba and care for her aging grandmother in the north of England.
Through this profound cleft in Lily’s 16-year-old life, Thomas seeks to requite the pain of displacement, disappearance and loss in rich dividends of recollection, imagination and invention. It is quite a task the author has set for herself: not only does she view two vanished worlds of the 1930s through the eyes of the farm girl who travels between them, but she directs that girl to reimagine the early life of her reticent father, who himself left home on a ship bringing British settlers to the Canadian prairies in the early 1900s.
It is her father’s maddening diffidence that compels Lily to construct these narratives of a past that he never supplies. “I feel a fierce longing,” she tells us early on, “to pry him open and see what’s inside.” What that longing, in turn, compels Thomas to do is to imagine Lily imagining her father, thereby creating a layer of narrative-within-narrative somewhat akin to the girl on the label of the old Dutch Cleanser can, holding a can with a label depicting an even smaller girl holding an even smaller can with a label depicting … and so on.
That Thomas succeeds beautifully for the most part is a tribute to details that seem less imagined than remembered and images that appear to come from felt experience rather than from some self-conscious file labelled “Symbolism.” For instance, when Lily’s father, William, prepares to embark for Canada as one of the “colonists” recruited by clergyman Isaac Barr, he and his parents watch the baggage of the passengers being swung by crane onto the S.S. Manitoba at dock in Liverpool. Before their eyes, a tin trunk—identical to William’s—hits the hull of the ship, breaks apart and spills its contents into the Mersey. That one small, sad detail not only encompasses the misconceived nature of Barr’s disorganized enterprise, but also deftly foreshadows much else lost, left behind and swept away in the course of the novel.
During the voyage, the herding dogs accompanying would-be farmers to their claims unexpectedly disappear from the Manitoba’s deck—covertly thrown overboard, it turns out, by crew members fed up with their barking. On another voyage, almost 40 years later, Lily’s English cousin George vanishes, just as mysteriously, from the deck of a wartime troop ship, into a sea made all the darker and more dreadful by a lunar eclipse.
Whether on the broad prairie or the open Atlantic, life is hazardous and fleeting. But Joan Thomas anchors both her reader and her protagonist in the worlds she has conjured with the meticulousness of her observation. In front of the stage in the tent in which Lily is “saved” at a revival meeting, the author tells us, bodies of moths “that have battered themselves to inevitable death on the lamps” litter the ground. In the family farmhouse on a dark winter afternoon, Lily melts the thick frost inside the windowpane with the heel of her hand, as she recalls the frequent accounts by their hired man (another Barr colonist) of an early prairie sod hut with three pickle jars worked into the walls as spy holes.
Perhaps Reading by Lightning rings with a particular truth for those of us who grew up on stories of prairie survival, come hell or low water. Joan Thomas, a Winnipegger, was presumably raised on the same lore, and she has used it to good effect, to vivify Lily’s Dirty Thirties childhood and to make her father’s experiences a generation earlier equally palpable.
As well, Thomas understands the affinity for the “old country” of those forced to leave it for a raw, new land. She evokes small-town life in Lancashire before the Second World War with the same careful specificity as the Manitoba prairies, deftly capturing the disparity between the garrulous proximity of the family Lily’s father came from and the vast, silent severity of where he ended up.
Only occasionally did I feel Joan Thomas’s sure-footed technique falter and threaten to tap dance off the edge of the stage. “An eager, self-conscious young woman with a savage battle between God and his enemy ready to flare up at any moment in her heart,” is how Lily describes her religious self. Yet her spasmodic attitude to her rigid fundamentalist upbringing—which she alternately embraces and resents, then finally repudiates—struck me as a species of conflicted faith not wholly believable either in the breach or observance.
Similarly, Russell Bates, a banker’s son turned communist, who appears and reappears at intervals throughout the narrative, feels like a device applied to a screenplay rather than a bona fide someone arising organically from the pages of a novel otherwise full of finely individuated characters. In fact, the extent to which I found Russell wanting was in direct proportion to the degree to which I revelled in Thomas’s characterization of Lily’s cousin George, who bristles with such lively idiosyncrasy that Lily can’t help falling in love with him when he lures her into his garden shed of treasures, not to give her—as she anticipates—a kiss, but rather a piece of fossilized hyena dung.
Like George, Reading by Lightning is full of unexpected gifts. For prairie folk, there is special joy in recalling old westernisms—like a davenport referred to as a “Toronto couch” (although in Saskatchewan, we called it a “Winnipeg couch”). But the richness and authenticity of Thomas’s writing goes far beyond regional references. Like the man in the whirlwind, the reader of this fine novel is snatched away, deposited in a different place—and profoundly changed by the experience. Reading by Lightning rings with a particular truth for those of us who grew up on stories of prairie survival, come hell or low water.
Erika Ritter is most recently the author of a nonfiction book, The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships, published by Key Porter (2008).