And I say this because, despite the ongoing debate amongst booklovers about the significance of Oprah’s Bookclub, she has featured many of my favourite writers (e.g. Jane Hamilton, Ursula Hegi, Rohinton Mistry, Barbara Kingsolver, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Isabel Allende, Carson McCullers). Whether or not you personally back her efforts, she has picked some amazing authors and found countless new readers for deserving books. And I’m certain that, had she been making those efforts in 1954, she would have waved Ethel Wilson’s novel in front of millions.
I’ve recently read two of Ethel Wilson’s earlier works, Hetty Dorval and The Innocent Traveller, as well, but although I enjoyed them very much (and although I still hold that The Innocent Traveller would be a perfect match for Persephone‘s reprint series), Swamp Angel stands alone. As does its heroine, Maggie.
It is, in many ways the story of a woman’s self-discovery, but although there are elements that you might identify as conventional in that regard, there are others that are surprising. (As Mrs. Severance tells Maggie, “Everything happens again and it’s never the same.”)
And, speaking of surprises, there are several in this novel, so I’m going to watch what I say. In fact, I’ll start with a quote from George Bowering. (Have I mentioned lately, how much I love the New Canadian Library‘s practice of having Afterwords rather than Prefaces, so that you’re not tempted to read them before the novel and end up spoiling the discovery of the novel itself?)
“Swamp Angel is a short novel and a highly complex one. On re-reading it we are rewarded with the assurance that we will never be able to tell anyone what it is all about. Wilson’s feigned simplicity is the most complicated trick of all. For a careful reader the text is as difficult as this world our home.”
I agree. And even though on re-reading it myself, there are some things that I could pull out and tell you, if someone else had pulled out those elements and told me about them, I don’t think I’d have found them that intriguing. For instance, if someone had told me Maggie is a fly-fisherwoman, I surely would have let this book settle to the bottom of my TBR pile, but in the context of this novel, her ability is not only understandable but admirable.
Even the epigraph which explains one meaning of the term “Swamp Angel” wouldn’t have caught my attention. But rediscovering the small, nickel-plated revolver with its pearl handle, being spun in the hands of an old woman is an image I won’t soon forget.
“Mrs. Severance twirled the Swamp Angel as if absentmindedly, then like a juggler she tossed it spinning in the air, caught it with her little hand, tossed it again, higher, again, higher, spinning, spinning. It was a dainty easy practiced piece of work, the big woman with the Swamp Angel.”
Maybe even out of context, you’ll find this a little interesting but, trust me, if you could see the rest of the scene, see the other people who are nearby and understand the effect that seeing this gun spin in this old woman’s hands has on them, understand what led them to surround Mrs. Severance that night in the first place, you would be even more interested (although I think that would have happened before page 30 anyhow).
Even within a few pages, Maggie took hold of me unexpectedly. Just as she did Mr. Spencer. “[He] now regarded the young woman with some respect. She was unpretentious. Her gray eyes, rimmed with dark lashes, were wide set and tranquil and her features were agreeably irregular. She was not beautiful; she was not plain. Yes, perhaps she was beautiful.” (8)
You’ll see that the language is straight-forward and I could see some readers complaining that it’s repetitive in some instances (as with all that tossing and spinning) but, for me, her prose has a rhythmic quality, as though she read it aloud whilst composing, and I love the way the sentences ebb and flow and the way her descriptive passages bring British Columbia to life. “In the daytime you will see that some of these motor hotels are set in old orchards, and among the rows of neat homogeneous dwellings stand old cherry trees, sprawling and frothing with white blossoms in the spring.”
It was also fun to see Lytton appear in this novel as it had in Hetty Dorval, which finally inspired me to see if this town actually exists and it most certainly does. “People tell me there’s two great rivers in Europe act like that but I’ll bet they’re no prettier than the Thompson and the Fraser flowing in together….I’ll show you where when we get to Lytton,” says one character travelling on a bus through the province.
But that’s all I can say without spoiling Swamp Angel for future readers. I am juggling too many books, too many challenges (this one counts for both the Canadian Book Challenge 3 and the What’s in a Name Challenge), and I am perpetually Buried In Print, so whether I should take time to re-read this novel was something to consider, but now I’m so glad that I did.
What about you: are you tempted to read Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel?