Catherine M.A. Wiebe’s Second Rising (1984)
Blue Butterfly Books, 2009

Thanks to Melwyk, who bookchatted about this first novel in such a way (at The Indextrious Reader) that I simply had to follow up. And in the immediate way. Not in the still-lingering-on-the-TBR-list-years-later kind of way. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that either, right?)

I’m particularly interested in reading books about memory loss this year (in January, I read Tangles and, in February, Ghost Stories, which is the middle book in Jeff Lemire’s Essex County trilogy), so it was a perfect fit. I believed that before I read it, but even more so afterwards, because Catherine M.A. Wiebe’s slim novel is very different from the other two books. It complements them beautifully.

Second Rising is fiction (whereas Tangles is a memoir) but told in the first person in such an intimate way that I had to check repeatedly to see if it was, in fact, a memoir. And it is a work of prose, so it complements Ghost Stories perfectly, too, because the power of Jeff Lemire’s work is rooted as much in images as in words, whereas the power of Catherine M.A. Wiebe’s writing is rooted in its lyrical use of language.

Here is the epigraph to the novel: “Was it important, anymore, to remember? Or is memory just the vanity of the forgotten, all our love for memory only a desire to be remembered?”

The story is rooted, too, in reflection, in rumination. Readers who prefer a book that insists on being held every moment, who crave fast-paced and plot-driven narrative on the page, will be disappointed. Second Rising demands to be put down occasionally, and though its sentences sometimes require wrangling, the story is as much about what does not exist on the page (and what, arguably, does not exist at all, in memory or otherwise) as it is about the narrator and her grandmother.

But it’s not all lyric and philosophy: the narrator and her grandmother are three-dimensional characters and their changing relationship is recognizable and credible.

Early in the narrative, we have a strong sense of both characters. The story is scenic, with the emphasis on the narrator’s memories of exchanges and time spent with her grandmother. The grandmother shares with her granddaughter what she has learned about baking and cooking, but also memory and aging, and not only about practical and physical changes, but psychological shifts too.

“Your skin will not always fit so perfectly, she says. When you are old, it will sag with the weight of your memory, thoughts that used to be in your mind will seep out through your skin. You will try to catch them as they drip away, making memories from paper and photographs, re-sticking them to the walls of your mind. You will tell stories to others for the benefit of yourself, sure that this telling will make it stay, will make it brighter instead of faint.”

What the grandmother has told her granddaughter does seem to fit with what she observes as the older woman struggles to remember things which came naturally once. But just as some of what she has heard is a warning, there is some comfort there too.

“She had told me once that when you begin to die, you must forget everyone you are leaving behind. […] It was much easier to forget while you were still alive, she said, because you could replace the living with those already dead.”

Forgetting offers respite of a sort. “She has no past, anymore, so she has made one for herself, as girls make stories for their dolls.” Some things are lost and others are discovered.

There are, as you would expect, some very sad aspects to this story. But there is something to the telling which makes it bearable.

“By the time the coldest days arrive, the year is already being born again — the chills are shudders of awakening, an engine turning over in the dark.”

The talk of baking in Second Rising inspires considerable warmth, and that might go a long way towards mellowing those chills. But a better part of that, rather than a single thematic element, is a sensitivity, an inherent desire to understand the unknowable, a vital curiosity that weighs in against fear.

What do you think?