Being quite new to Nelson, I assume it’s a little unfair that I made local author Anne DeGrace’s fifth novel, Flying with Amelia, my introduction to Kootenay literature. I say this because it’s setting the bar perilously high for me.
Flying with Amelia is a fantastic little book about one of the biggest things on Earth seen through the eyes of some of its most modest inhabitants. It has no main character, no linear story arc, no single climax, no grand villain. Instead of a main character, DeGrace gives us Canada and all its beauties, struggles, inconsistencies, and stories. Instead of watching a character grow and change, we witness the evolution of a country.
But this isn’t your textbook history of Canada. Anne DeGrace is a librarian, and it shows. She knows that the real heart of a place isn’t in its grand news headlines, but in individual struggles and stories of the people living there. Sure, we get reference to the FLQ October Crisis, but it seems like a needless distraction from the much more important narrative of a group of girls growing up in Ottawa. We experience the 1930s labour disputes, but through the burgeoning love-letters between Peg, a young woman in Nova Scotia, and Martin, an unemployed school-teacher from Saskatchewan.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is that every chapter is an experiment in form and structure. Some take on the air of the magical, with long-dead figures revisiting the world of the living to discuss century-old questions . Some stories are juggled by multiple narrators, some more reliable than others.
Flying with Amelia loosely follows the branches of two family trees that weave around each other. DeGrace uses these threads as a way to paint a picture of the larger forest, of Canada. This country is a big mess of people, stories and memories, and (if we’re going to continue this tree/forest metaphor) DeGrace has done a tremendous job at finding the buds of stories and letting them bloom.
And well, the bar is set.
Eli Geddis is a writer and educator whose first novel is awaiting a publisher and whose second novel will be written this weekend as part of the 3-Day Novel Contest.