Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees (1996)
This is a re-read for me, and the last of the books I’ve been reading and re-reading with 2010’s Canada Reads in mind. I heard a few people commenting on how hard (even how impossible) they found it to re-visit this book and that made me a little nervous, so I left it until the end. And then I orchestrated it so that it would be the only book at my disposal throughout 12 hours of train travel, even knowing that I’ve willingly stared out the window for the duration rather than read other books I’d attempted to force on myself that way in the past. I was expecting resistance.
But my concern and reader’s machinations were for naught: I didn’t need any encouragement to keep reading. I even missed my favourite viewscape as we travelled because that’s when <muffles spoilers that threatened to burst out> and the next time I looked up we had travelled for nearly a half hour past that point. Yes, the story has some very painful parts (okay, a lot of painful parts, countless even) but, for me, the quote from the Globe & Mail is accurate: “There is no resisting this story.”
And the author intends to transmit that compulsion to her readers. From the opening pages, she is set to spin a tale that feels archetypal, timeless: “A long time ago, before you were born, there lived a family called Piper on Cape Breton Island.” But on the same page you learn, “One morning, the day before his fifteenth birthday, James awoke with the realization that he could hit his father back” and you realize that this story will reveal the cruelties of life, in a matter-of-fact manner.
James is a presence throughout the novel, so although the story focuses on the Piper women, it is James who casts a shadow on them which is mirrored in the description of small-town Cape Breton offered in the early pages. “He looked way up and saw fire-bright clouds billowing out the stacks of the Dominion Iron and Steel Company. They cast an amber spice upon the sky that hung, then silted down in saffron arcs to swell, distend and disappear in a falling raiment of finest ash onto the side of town called Whitney Pier.” (9) It’s a hard life in every way.
Still, even the hardest of realities has some comfort and Ann-Marie MacDonald tells her story in simply beautiful language. “Moss is the consolation of rocks…” she writes and she also offers consolation in the form of characters whose endurance and determination counter the suffering and loss. (Yes, it was an Oprah choice, but not until 2002, long after it had achieved best-seller status elsewhere and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.)
I first read Fall on Your Knees nearly fifteen years ago, but I devoured it then and, again, with the same intensity this past weekend. It’s a seriously satisfying read and I wouldn’t hesitate to re-read yet again.
A FAVOURITE QUOTE: “Books were not an expense; they were an investment.” (21)