Reflections on Day 47 of isolation

Excuse me while I put in the free headphones I got with my old iPhone to drown out the music from The Descendants (made for TV movie, according to the soundtrack listing) for the bazillionth time this week. Surprisingly, it’s working and I can find some moments of peace to write about the past few weeks at home.

It’s been awhile. The last time I wrote was over 20 days ago! I know we are all in disbelief. So what’s changed? What has hindered my creativity and access to time, you ask?! Well of course you know the answer to that, but I’ll put my personal twist on it to (hopefully) entertain you and maybe make you feel a little less alone in all of this.

I’ll start with my husband most likely having a mild case of Covid-19, which was full of uncertain moments, anxiety, and acquiescing to his needs (mostly coffee). It started with what seemed like a stomach bug, but then digressed into a mild fever, headaches, chills, and general aches with much exhaustion. When this was all happening, the CDC had not yet added these symptoms to their Covid-19 list, and the testing was not nearly as available in BC as it is now.

“It could very well be another virus, there’s lots going around,” the nurse on the phone said, our doctor said, his (former-GP and generally very intelligent) mother said.

Despite this, and under the direction of these health professionals, we took the necessary quarantine precautions for about 11 days (the first 3 days it was shrugged off as a stomach ache and exhaustion from the stress of it all), and even when he came back into the fold, it was only for brief periods and at a distance. 20 days later, he’s still avoiding many hugs and getting no kisses (poor guy!), and has moments of exhaustion as the virus lingers in his system. He hasn’t left the house except for a brief walk with the family and an outing to a local beach. So we are being safe. And the rest of us are healthy, thank goodness. And I am so grateful his case was mild and didn’t devolve into hospital time or respiratory issues.

I felt like a pariah in that time though, fearful of telling other people, worried they might judge us or avoid even dropping anything off at the house. I realize this is ridiculous, but when you are the only one in your close community whose household has been affected by the pandemic, you do feel like a bit of an outlier. I considered painting a red “X” on the door at one point (not really, but can you imagine?! Also, did you hear the story of the person who dressed as a completely terrifying plague doctor in the U.K. and walked around a suburban neighbourhood? Why?!).

At the time, we weren’t even sure if he had Covid-19, and probably won’t ever know for certain (if you want to know about the difficulties of testing, send me a PM and I’ll tell you why he isn’t getting the test). It still feels unreal.

Still, I managed the solo responsibilities relatively well, with only a few minor breakdowns and tears (on my part – the kids are crying all the time!). Someone once told me I couldn’t really handle anything, but I can confidently say that I can definitely handle A LOT. Working part-time from home in a completely new situation, while taking care of the kids full-time and a husband in quarantine, getting everyone fed and feeling loved – I did it!

We are now a week into things returning to our family’s “normal”. Except for the new school schedule for our 7-year-old (they now meet on MS Teams every day! At 9 a.m.! Which worked out really well for my staff meeting also starting at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, and of course, technical difficulties). Last week’s schedule is no longer valid, but I keep hearing that having regimented schedules aren’t good for kids anyways, so yay! Except for now the weather has turned into a typical Vancouver spring: chilly and cloudy and rainy, so convincing them to go for walks is more of a non-starter. Except for now my creativity is sapped and I have less energy to keep the kids entertained. Except my 4-year-old has ramped up the meltdowns and the screaming.

It was 8:15 p.m., past her bedtime, but not too far past. I should have been more careful given her early wake-up that day. She was painting a very detailed colouring page I had printed from the Internet (anyone else doing that? It’s a great strategy to keep them busy! But maybe not right before bedtime…lesson learned), and had made a small mistake. The unicorn had blue on it’s face, which according to her is a “boy colour” and she just couldn’t get past the fact that she had painted outside the lines. She was inconsolable and allowed herself to be rocked in my arms, sobbing. For the first time in about six months, she mentioned her milk bottle: “I wish I was three so I could have my bottle!” she shouted through tears.

I kept apologizing and telling her I loved her, holding her, and trying to calm her. I offered to help her the next day. “But I know how to do it! I can do it by myself!” She was caught between yearning for a more innocent time and being independent. My heart almost broke in two when she finally calmed down and pointed out a kit her older sister owns. It’s from Scholastic, which we order through her school. “Well, we can get you the same one when you’re in kindergarten,” I promised her. Her face crumpled into the saddest little face I’ve ever seen and she started bawling again. “I don’t know why I’m crying! I didn’t know it was going to come up!” she said to me. I rocked her tighter and it was all I could do to stop myself from crying too. She was finally consoled and we slept most of the night together (I *may* have snuck into her room at one point and lifted her out of bed into mine; she rested her head on my pillow with a huge smile and my job was done).

I know this is likely her way of dealing with things, even though she barely mentions daycare or other activities (she’s living her best life at home with mommy a lot of the time). And I know it doesn’t sound like it, but I really am mostly okay. We are working, fed, and have online community supports. Several things have helped me through this time:

  • Zoom wine nights with friends
  • Ordering meals from Say Mercy restaurant to take the pressure off of cooking and planning (plus, I get to drive for almost an hour by myself and blast old NSYNC songs, so it really is a win-win-win).
  • Physically distant coffee dates in abandoned parking lots with close friends
  • Discovering new walks and beaches in my area
  • Listening to DJ D-nice on Instagram live
  • Rewatching Friends from the beginning (there’s a real 90s theme going on here – maybe we are all yearning for a more innocent time!)
  • Connecting with friends across the country and the continents
  • Meeting with my colleagues on a weekly basis (some face-to-face time goes a long way)
  • Positive connections with students who are showing resilience and success despite this craziness
  • And nothing beats the extra kisses and snuggles from the kids

If you made it this far, I am so grateful! I hope you are finding your ways to cope with week 7 of this isolation. I am assured the light at the end of the tunnel is approaching, so here’s hoping. Much love and light to you all!

Reflections on day 25 of isolation

*This post isn’t my typical comedic tone. Just reaching out to see if others are feeling the same way. Love to you all in your corners of the globe.*

Sleep is elusive these days, although that’s not completely new for me. The notebook on the bedside table to compose midnight lists helps a little, but the temptation to scroll through the melee of information or to pop open the laptop sometimes wins. And this gets the brain moving in unhealthy ways, so I often give up and get out of bed at 4 or 5 a.m. There’s always something to work on or to do. Or to worry about.

This definitely feels like it’s getting both harder and easier as we go deeper into this home isolation. On the one hand, we have adjusted to one another, taking on new roles in the household and working as a team to keep things working. Food prep is more of a shared responsibility, and the kids are asked to practice more independence and to help with chores like laundry and tidying up. These skills are going to serve everyone well in the long run. We are more mindful about meal planning, grocery shopping, and unnecessary car use. We are grateful for our living space and surroundings. Plus, there is more time to connect with each other, to enjoy nature together, and to be creative. I see the kids growing up in fine detail, in ways that may have been overlooked in the rush of daily life.

Creating artwork together.

On the other hand, being back to work after Spring Break has been a rollercoaster of emotional and mental energy, where it’s a tug-of-war between accomplishing work goals and taking care of the kids. I no longer have the capacity to stay up late to finish work like I did when I was younger, and even after my first-born. I never want my girls to feel like they are second fiddle to work, but unfortunately that’s often what happens. Trying to catch an important part of a meeting when your daughter comes in, so quiet and innocent holding a doll and me saying “Now’s not the time” and her walking away. I don’t love that. Maybe I should skip some of the less mandatory meetings, but seeing colleagues and supporting each other is important too, right?

Some days it feels like I’m trying to run a daycare and teach high school at the same time. And guess what? I’m not very good at doing either from home, let alone concurrently! And when the patience runs out, it’s my own young kids who have to deal with it.

Feeling this huge responsibility to connect with over 100 students every week in a digital capacity is taking its toll. These are students I have worked with for 7 months, many of whom I know quite well and look forward to seeing in the classroom. The best time of the year has been lost, the time of reading Shakespeare together in the outdoors, or of team building through games in the sunshine. Gone is the time of celebration and the reward of watching a never-before-seen movie, filled with comedy and drama to satisfy even the most skeptical personalities in the class. I want them to know I’m still here for them, but things are a bit of a pressure-cooker over here right now.

Still, I am grateful and practicing gratitude in these days for not only my own, safe situation, but also the essential workers putting their lives and families on the line to get through this surreal situation. There is much grieving and loss around the world that we are all feeling in some capacity.

But in this little corner I’m looking for a bit more grace in juggling it all and working on letting go of expectations even more. And please, tell me how to find the time to navigate the wave of information that came from elementary school yesterday, and turn that into valuable learning for my child!

Thinking of you all as you navigate new waters and unexpected situations. This too shall pass, but with a lot of discomfort (and maybe beauty) along the way.

Reflections on Day 15 of isolation: settling into home life and thoughts on returning to work

It’s a Saturday and it does feel a bit different given that my husband isn’t working full-time in the home office, and we aren’t so closely tied to the daily schedule. My older daughter is the schedule’s biggest fan, but she’s showing flexibility today and allowing us to set other boundaries around screen time (we all know that’s the major point of contention, right?).

In a lot of ways, we are settling into isolation life over here, and this is the impression I’m getting from other people too. Meal planning for seven days – check; enough flour to bake every day for 4 months – check; toilet paper to get us through until May – check; finding all the incredible craft supplies and/or getting creative with what we have – check; Messenger Kids installed – check; wine and beer supplies – check (well…the wine is disappearing quickly, but hey, BC wineries are currently delivering for free, so – check); dancing in the laundry room to live Instagram DJs while drinking wine – check; not worrying about the scale but well aware that I’m on my way to gaining the Covid 15 (like the Freshman 15, but less fun?) – check.

Baking is typically my domain here, but I’ve passed along the reins to my husband so I can have a break and he can spend some time with the girls (click here for a recipe for awesome Chocolate Crinkle Cookies). I encouraged them: “Daddy will be great at baking! He’s so good at following instructions!” to which he responded: “Ya, I’m good at following the rules”. I don’t think it was a correction, but it does make more sense that he is rule follower over an instruction follower (read: my instructions often go in one ear and out the other, but if it’s a rule…). But truly, he has been a hero in this crisis, doing the groceries, installing the bike rack, taking a few hours off on the sunny days to spend time with us, and putting up with my wine “meetings” that last from 5-10 p.m. on Thursdays (yes, you read that right, 5 hours). I eat grilled cheese and chips while sipping red wine, so I guess in a lot of ways it is like university.

Granted, this has been my Spring Break from teaching high school, so next week is going to be a whole new adaptation. I’m a little nervous, but feeling supported by my district and peers, and just really looking forward to hearing my students’ voices, even if it’s only through the written word. To be honest, although I really enjoy the face-to-face interactions and camaraderie of the classroom, writing is one of our greatest communication pieces in English/Social Studies classes, so we will continue that significant connection. The provincial message to educators primarily focuses on well-being, health, and connection with students as we navigate this new territory in education. Planning will come, but first, let’s evaluate what’s most important as a team.

I know that my students are resilient and creative, and I’m looking forward to hearing their opinions on what has manifested during this uncertain time: what have they learned about themselves? About others? How do they think life will change once this is all over? I’ve asked them to keep a journal (optional) of these events to look back on, and I’m curious to see if any of them decided to write over their Spring Break. I’ve also been posting positive stories and funny videos on Google Classroom for some much-needed distraction from all the noise and statistics that can feel terrifying. Hopefully it helps, but posting on Classroom can feel a bit like writing into the void, so maybe I can establish more discussions as we move to online learning.

A new home schedule will be put in place, and my husband and I will need to take turns on the childcare front. This will inevitably put stress on the entire family. If anything, my own children have been examples of adaptability in all this. They still get rangy and in each other’s faces several times throughout the day, but overall they have adjusted to this time at home. My younger child is getting unprecedented attention from her older sister, and is over the moon with their continued imaginative play. My older daughter is connecting with friends on her device, and I don’t mind the silly video games and videos for now. She did comment this morning that if she could have three wishes they would be: that coronavirus didn’t exist; that she could have playdates and sleepovers with friends; and that the playgrounds weren’t closed. Sigh.

I haven’t finished a book or television series* in these two weeks, which might come as a shock to those who know me well. I do miss this quiet time, but I have replaced it with writing, coursework, painting, dancing, and going on trips (by speedboat) to New York with the kids in our imaginations. And yes, perhaps spending a bit too much time on social media or news sites (thanks iPhone, but I don’t need to know that my screen time was up 400% last week), but that has dwindled a little as each day passes and I get more comfortable with my circumstances.

Hope you’re coping okay with the change in circumstances wherever you are, or whatever those may be. Thinking of all the essential and healthcare workers out there who are making incredible sacrifices to keep the rest of us safe. To the rest of you, keep poking your heads out with pots and pans at 7 p.m. to cheer them on!

On a final note, send me a PM if you need toilet paper. I’m happy to throw it out my window as you run by.

*with the exception of episodes of Ozark – there’s always time for Jason Bateman’s priceless facial expressions and acting in that show. SPOILER ALERT: Here’s a great video summary on his genius (has SPOILERS up to first episode of Season 2). And let’s not forget Julia Garner (pure acting genius) as Ruth Langmore (expert character writing).*

Reflections on Day 11 of isolation

The kids are (mostly) alright, and surprisingly haven’t said much regarding lack of playdates or playground time. They do miss their friends, of course, but are happy to be at home rather than the busy schedule of daycare and school. There are several minor altercations throughout the day over sharing toys, giving each other “looks”, saying something like “I’m a banana”, and who gets to wash their hands or stir the batter first.

In some ways, I’m more patient, recognizing we’ve got time to make mistakes or do things at a snail’s pace; at other times, the cacophony of screaming children (fighting or not) puts me right back into panic mode, where I tend to yell. I’m trying to be easier on myself given the circumstances (this also applies to consumption of baked goods and wine, in case you’re wondering or asking for a friend).

There’s rumours that people’s houses have never been more organized, and kudos to those who have done that! But over here, I’m taking it easy, not worrying too much about laundry piles, and reminding myself that when the kids entertain themselves for a half-hour, self-care is just as important as tidy countertops. And I think about you too, exercise (we all know mental health is closely tied to physical health) and I promise you’re first on my list once my body heals!

We’re lucky that both kids are at an age where they can be somewhat independent, and that the older one (age 7) is creative and often comes up with her own projects and ideas for adventures. Last week, she suggested we make “Explorer goggles” with toilet paper rolls, which we painted silver and gold, tied together with brads, and then attached ribbon to hang around our necks. When I stumbled across a Family Photo Scavenger hunt by @hellopeachphotography (pictured below), posted by a friend on Instagram, it was the perfect fit for our homemade binoculars.

I magically printed off one copy for each kid (otherwise – fights), from my phone, just one example of how technology has been the saviour of this isolation. Each kid got their own little explorer book, which we took with us on a walk through the neighbourhood and some trails. We explored (walked) for almost an hour, which is relatively long for my four-year-old.

We used a shadow as a reflection of yourself

This activity happened last week, when playgrounds were still open, so we did end up at the local school play area during our exploring. Even then, I was nervous, admonishing myself for not bringing hand sanitizer, and cutting off their play after about 10 minutes.

“Secret Park” or Rockland Park, as of this morning, March 24.

It was no real surprise when they closed the district playgrounds and parks on March 20, but my reaction showed otherwise. It was the last piece in a week full of stressful situations arising from isolation, where one of the only respites was playing at the park with the kids. I didn’t react right away, but I know it led to the big blow out that evening with my partner. But times of isolation call for quick resolve, and although arguing with one of the few people you are in contact with is normal, it can’t last if you want to retain some sanity.

We worked it out and have changed our focus on what we can do during this time. As the shops around us began to close quickly last week, we managed to sneak in two important purchases (purchased in small shops, and book-ended with much hand sanitizer and hand washing): one, a bike for me to complete the family bike crew; two, a bike rack so that said bike crew can go explore. The girls still have training wheels (and I have finally accepted that this doesn’t matter, even as younger kids roll by without them), but we are fostering a love of bike riding, not forcing the skill. Biking as a family has always been on our radar, but we didn’t prioritize it. Now we can be active together while enjoying the great outdoors, which should really always be a priority.

Other things that keep us active are Cosmic Kids Yoga and GoNoodle on YouTube. The seven-year-old is really into it, but keeping the four-year-old’s attention for more than approximately 8 minutes is more difficult. She lies down and says she’s tired, and then 2 minutes later is upside down or using the furniture as parallel bars (I *may* have asked her to do her “gymnastics move” for this photo).

Not okay/I’m tired.
2 minutes later

Whatever you’re doing in your respective corners of self-isolation is great. Don’t be hard on yourself and find ways to keep your sanity (I find Zoom “meetings” with girlfriends or family and a glass of wine to do the trick ).

Reflections on early days of self-isolation

“I sent you four emails,” the salesperson from Trail Appliances tells me, but they’re not in my Inbox either on my phone or laptop.

“That’s strange,” I reply. “Okay, well I guess we can try my work email…”

I’m trying not to panic, but I can’t help thinking of the scene in the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale where June comes home to her husband and child complaining that her bank card isn’t working. With the flip of a switch, June finds out that she no longer has access to her money. And so the story begins…

I realize that Atwood’s fictional world where an archaic government takes over, reverting society back to times of ignorance and injustice is not the same as what’s happening here with CoVID-19, but the swiftness with which things are changing feels familiar.

Schools were quieter than normal for the last day of classes before March Break amidst fears of this new disease; at the time, I couldn’t help but feel that this was just another ploy for students to miss school, but now it seems like the right move taken by cautious parents.

The day before, Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer in British Columbia, had announced that all travellers to Canada, or coming home to Canada, were encouraged to self-isolate. Even from the United States. When I broke this news to my parents, who were in Washington State on vacation at the time, they were shocked. They had been offline since the morning and were not aware of the developing situation.

“So what you’re telling us,” they said, “Is that the situation has changed in the last six hours?!”

An urgent, “Yes,” I replied, telling them to go straight home to the island rather than make a pitstop to visit us in North Vancouver for the weekend. I ended the call with my cautious mother and conflicted father, relieved when they sent an email detailing their new plan to take the ferry from Port Angeles to Victoria instead.

I reassured them, “Missing this weekend isn’t a big deal. We’ll see each other at Easter. And it will be great.”

Now I’m not so sure.

Easter is just over three weeks away, and I’m not convinced things will have significantly improved by then.

Since the end of school on March 13, self-isolation has been the order of the day. Non-essential travel is no longer allowed, and now even the U.S. border will only be open to trade and for essential travel purposes. Canadian travellers have been urged to come home immediately.

March 17, bars and restaurants in Vancouver were ordered to close. The College of Massage Therapists has ordered its members to stop practicing for two weeks. My physiotherapist has been cancelled. Every day my inbox is inundated with messages and updates from retail stores closing, many for two weeks, some indefinitely.

Schools are closed until further notice in Alberta and BC.

People have been told not to hoard since it’s really not necessary, but when you go to the grocery (and liquor!) stores, the shelves are starting to look empty. This exacerbates the problem, because when you see these yawning blank spaces, you might think “I better stock up now while there’s still stuff left.” It adds to the hive mind that this is going to get worse before it gets better (which it very well might, but trade routes are still open and working).

There is a lot of negativity online, but also a lot of positivity and support. Find your support groups, start a group chat, plan for video calls and meetings with friends. Share ideas for keeping the kids busy and entertained, loosen the rules around screen time, and try to take time for yourself if possible.

Revel in the small moments and the wins, like this story out of Venice, where swans and dolphins have returned to the canals typically rife with boat traffic. The water is clear and Italy’s air quality has improved significantly with social and work life coming to a standstill.

The natural world is improving.

Start a new hobby or go back to an old one. Create something new and just for you or something to share with others. Organize your photos and make albums. Call someone on the phone you would typically just text or email. Or just sit back and relax, with no expectations at all.

Onwards and upwards…

Book Recommendations for Spring 2020

I’m currently struggling with my own reading choices right now, so I wanted to share some of my favourite recent titles with you in case you’re feeling the same way. There is quite a range of genres here; diversity in reading material has always been appealing to me. A lot of these titles push the boundaries of novel writing in some way, forcing the reader to get a bit uncomfortable at times – but this is good for you, I promise!

If you would like, please comment with book suggestions at the end of this post.

This post is not sponsored.

Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey

This novel set in an off-the-grid town where a teenage girl, Pony, is trying to figure out why her mom left, how to navigate new love, and how to best rock 1980s fashion. This book is definitely “out there”, with chapters narrated by Pony’s dog, and a sci-fi undertone of blurred ethics and morals. For me, the 80s references, plot twists, and spot-on character development of the teenage girl trying to navigate her strange, small town full of secrets, made this one a page turner. It also showed originality in its narrative structure, and takes risks with the best results. Going to re-read this one soon.

Screen Shot 2020-03-17 at 7.14.54 AM

The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

This one is for the murder mystery fans, and especially for readers who love a good British crime story (Midsomer Murders, anyone?!). Anthony Horowitz is a prolific author responsible for writing narratives for both screen and print, including the beloved Sherlock that stars Benedict Cumberbatch, and the Alex Rider series for young adults. An esteemed author in his own right, Horowitz writes in the vein of Agatha Christie, and is a master crafter of plot and character. This somewhat epic tome will keep you entertained for hours, as you barrel towards the final reveal. I’ve read this one twice already, and will likely pick it up again!

Screen Shot 2020-03-17 at 7.21.02 AM

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

This is one of my favourite books of all time. Part historical fiction, part murder mystery, this is based on the true story of Grace Marks, a servant who was accused of killing the head servant and master of the house in small town Ontario in the mid-1800s. The novel moves back and forth between the present day in the story, where Grace is being analyzed by a mental health doctor (a relatively new profession at the time), and the past, with flashbacks of Grace’s life as a newly arrived Irish immigrant who works as a servant in various households.

From tales of innocent (and more serious) superstitions, to the overarching symbolism of quilt making, to the fine details of a simpler life in early Canada, Atwood’s retelling of this story is both intriguing and entertaining. Grace’s guilt in the murder is the central question in the narrative, a question with an ever-changing answer as you make your way through this formidable novel. It looks like the original print cover (left) is no longer available through Indigo, which is a shame!

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid 

This fictional novel reads like a non-fiction account of singer Daisy Jones and how she came to work with the wildly popular rock band The Six in the 1970s. Taylor Jenkins Reid has achieved a tour de force with the structure of this novel – written as interviews with individual band members that have later been woven together to give various perspectives on events, there is a seamlessness and tension that develops characters and conflict with expertise. At times difficult to read given the self-destructiveness of the main character, I still found this novel very rewarding and entertaining.

Screen Shot 2020-03-17 at 8.56.27 AM

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

I picked up this novel in the Book Club section of our local library a few years ago. It is the tale of four brothers growing up in Nigeria in the 1990s, and how they accidentally get involved in various controversial and political events, with some unfortunate outcomes. At times it reminded me of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, another great read, but a challenging one emotionally.

The writing left an impression on me, but it’s been awhile since I read this one, so I’ll insert this summary from Amazon: “Told by nine-year-old Benjamin, the youngest of four brothers, The Fishermen is the Cain and Abel-esque story of a childhood in Nigeria, in the small town of Akure. When their father has to travel to a distant city for work, the brothers take advantage of his absence to skip school and go fishing. At the forbidden nearby river, they meet a madman who persuades the oldest of the boys that he is destined to be killed by one of his siblings. What happens next is an almost mythic event whose impact-both tragic and redemptive-will transcend the lives and imaginations of the book’s characters and readers” (Amazon.ca).

Screen Shot 2020-03-17 at 9.06.38 AM

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

I was obsessed with recommending this book after I read it. It is a non-fiction work that follows the true crime story of Edwin Rist, who broke into the British Museum of Natural History and stole hundreds of priceless bird specimens. Some of these birds had been collected by Darwin’s contemporaries under dire circumstances, with no chance of ever being replaced.

With ties to the traditional fly-fishing “flies”, lures made through pain-staking hours of technique and sourcing of rare materials, this is a fascinating story of greed and obsession with perfecting the art of the “fly”. Give this one a chance – I found the first 80 or so pages difficult, but once you’re in, you’re hooked. Not unlike the fish lured by the master fly makers of the 1800s…

Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice 

Written by rising First Nations author Waubgeshig (Wab) Rice, this is a beautiful and devastating novel that leaves an indelible (unsettling) impression after reading it. The story is set in an Indigenous community that survives outside of typical metropolitan life, so when the apocalypse hits and people start moving North to seek food and shelter, chaos ensues in this small community.

Yet, this is a beautifully constructed story about family, love, and coming together as a community to help each other through difficult times. The central character, Evan Whitesky, has such a tenderness for his family and becomes a true leader throughout the story. The main conflict is also a caution to trust your instincts, especially in the face of the unexpected. If you’re feeling sensitive to world events right now, this may not be the read for you.

Screen Shot 2020-03-17 at 9.29.09 AM

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

I struggled a little with this novel at first, but like many good literary masterpieces, the rewards take time. A post-WWII story set in London, this revolves around two teenagers who are abruptly left behind by their parents, given a vague and unlikely explanation for their move to Singapore.

Forced to grow up too quickly amidst a group of criminals and misfits, the narrative follows the lives of Nathaniel and Rachel, but focuses more on the former. As the story unravels, Nathaniel aims to uncover his parents’ secrets and grapple with an absent mother, even though she has returned to them physically. In typical Ondaatje fashion, the prose reads like poetry, full of moving imagery, extended metaphors, and symbolism to satisfy any literary guru and delight the general reader!

Screen Shot 2020-03-17 at 9.43.02 AM

Boyden captures the brutal essence and contradictions of Canadian history with The Orenda

Joseph Boyden’s novel The Orenda, which made the Scotiabank Giller Prize long list this year, is another masterpiece that explores the inevitable changes, both palpable and subtle, brought on by the collision of two very different societies. Unlike Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, which both take place in the last 100 years, The Orenda is set in 17th century Canada. It was the era when European settlers, traders, and missionaries were making themselves known, and the Native populations, with resistance and curiosity, were left to deal with the consequences.

One of the most fascinating things about Boyden’s talent is his ability to narrate authentically from varied perspectives. In this case, he has developed three characters to tell the story of The Orenda: an important Huron war leader named Bird; the young Iroquois girl Snow Falls, whom he has kidnapped; and the Jesuit missionary Christophe, referred to as Christophe Crow or Crow (for his black robe as much as for his uselessness) by the Huron people.

It is a true epic, both in its proportions and other literary elements, such as beginning in medias res (the middle of the action). The war between the Iroquois and the Huron is already deeply entrenched, with death tolls, tortures, and resentments building up on each side. The story here begins with the Huron advantage over the Iroquois – and since Bird has lost his wife and daughters to the war, he steals Snow Falls to raise as his own. This recalls the epic story of the Trojan War as told in The Iliad, where Helen is stolen from Menelaus, the king of Sparta. This is the catalyst for the war between the Trojans and the Greeks, and in the same way, the Iroquois are incensed by the capture of Snow Falls. The violence in this story is also reminiscent of Homer’s epic; bloody descriptions of war and torture are par for the course in The Orenda.

In Christophe’s point of view, we see the frustrations of coming to this new land of the sauvages, but also the dedication to spreading the word of God. He reminds me of Christopher Marlowe in Heart of Darkness, by name of course, but also because Marlowe similarly navigates his way through unknown lands that lack civilization, but are full of mystery, wonder, and violence. Many times throughout the novel, Christophe leaves himself in the hands of God, understanding that whatever torment awaits him is meant to be. His character is a testament to the will of the missionaries, many of whom gained little ground in converting the Natives, but who remained, fought a war, and suffered greatly too. This is one of the many strengths of the novel; it does not dwell on one-sided hardships, but explores various perspectives. There are many harrowing and tragic situations, but very little judgment.

From Bird we get the voice of the Huron people. It is a voice that also expounds frustration and the desperate need to preserve a culture while keeping and strengthening trade relationships. Bird realizes that some of the tools and implements from foreigners have made their lives easier. But he also understands the tragedies brought by new disease and access to ammunition and the “shining wood”. He spends much of his time preparing for long journeys involving trade with the Europeans, or involving warfare with the Iroquois. He is a war chief who is very important to the survival of his people.

Snow Falls provides a foil for both Bird and Christophe, because she too suffers as an outsider who understands the difficult losses associated with war. The Hurons have killed her family, echoing Bird’s loss, and she must live among these people who are her enemy. Snow Falls never forgets her roots, but is also forced to survive and adapt to a new environment, like Christophe. Although this relationship breaks down throughout the novel, the two characters are connected through their “otherness”, and through religion (albeit Snow Falls is a gifted actress in this regard, and uses it to her advantage when necessary). She does find her own path and successes amongst the Huron, but ends up back where she began, in her special way.

Indeed, this is a novel of cycles – the cycle of life and death, the cycle of birth and renewal, the cycle of the seasons, and the cycle of returning home, whether it is physically or spiritually. The Orenda is also a novel of “threes”, a number Boyden has used thematically before in Three Day Road. In this new novel, there are three sides: the Huron, the Iroquois, and the Europeans, although the Europeans do eventually choose sides, the cultural conflict is always there. There are also the Three Sisters that are planted and harvested each year by the Hurons, three women who are simultaneously pregnant, and three Iroquois taken prisoner. On the Christian side there are three missionaries, three converts, and the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is a number that crosses cultural boundaries.

The climax of the story takes place during the final battle between the Iroquois and the Hurons. It is likely based on the true events of 1649, when the remaining Huron were forced to leave the safety of their palisades to take shelter on an island. Boyden demonstrates his incredible power for description during these final scenes; as a reader you are sitting amongst the Huron, fearful, and watching the world fall apart before your eyes.

Amidst all the blood, torture, and warfare (and it gets very gruesome in parts) this is a story about relationships and love. Love for your people, for the land, for your beliefs, for your family, and for your way of life. It is a story about how the soul (the orenda) is never lost; the Hurons demonstrated an unparalleled reverence for their dead (described so beautifully during the Feast of the Dead) and believed strongly in reuniting with lost friends and family in the afterlife. The fear of not meeting your family again was one of the major barriers to changing the Native belief system. It was seen as a betrayal that would last an eternity.

Boyden has once again captured the fine intricacies of cultural conflict, so integral to the shaping of Canadian society. He is a dedicated researcher, who is committed to the whole history and also to his craft. In The Orenda, Boyden intimately understands and reshapes the contradictions, the ironies, and the relationships that emerged during this time.

Other Canadian historical novels worth reading:

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

Kanata by Don Gillmor

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Other historical novels worth reading:

The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Josephine B Series by Sandra Gulland

Please share other historical novels you enjoyed and/or your opinion on The Orenda. I would love to hear your thoughts!