Oh, the trees! If you, like me, grew up with Anne and Emily naming and loving trees in L.M. Montgomery’s novels, you will love Hilary Scharper’s novel Perdita.
There are many other reasons to respond to this story: a love of history, parallel storylines across the years, the diary excerpts, elements of mystery and the supernatural, and complex female characters.
But the Bruce Peninsula is arguably the main character, the others existing most vividly and determinedly in relationship to it.
“Our beautiful Peninsula is filled with stories, is it not?”
In Marged’s diaries, for instance, she describes her father in relationship to the Georgian Bay (on the eastern side of the peninsula):
“I like to look at his face the same way I like to look at the Bay. The Bay is best in the evening, just as the sun is sinking and a sort of deep grey begins to spread across it, and somehow it is both reasonable and beautiful all at the same time. Tad seems wise and impenetrable to me, and yet somehow I am not disturbed by my ignorance of all that he must know about the world.”
(To continue the Montgomery allusion, Marged’s love for Tad reminds me of the way Anne feels about Matthew, and the way that Emily feels about her beloved father: unwavering fondness and trust, even while recognizing a certain vulnerability.)
It is no small part due to Tad’s support that Marged grows to be the sort of young woman who can challenge a patriarch, who can insist on her view of the world faced with this privileged and abusive neighbour.
“‘You think I am a silly young girl, don’t you?’ I told him. ‘Perhaps my life is small and unimportant in your eyes. But I have had more experience of the world than you might think. I have seen little compromises that poison people a drop at a time, each day, as they rise and go about their work and share the day together. And I have seen something more foul – something that destroys innocence and goodness by violating a sacred trust.’”
This foulness? Readers do not fully understand the dimensions of Marged’s statements yet. The novel contains both overt and subtle hints of lingering uncertainties. Some of these are discovered as the story develops, but even the uncertainty is mirrored in the landscape of the story.
“They [holiday vacationers] do not understand – one can never see the Bay completely. One never knows its full face. Those passengers have not seen, as we have, how a day may suddenly change….”
Although there are two storylines unfolding in Perdita, both sets of characters experience this changeability.
At the heart of the novel is Marged Brice, who may or may not be 134 years old. Readers learn of her story through her diaries, which she passes to a young historian, Gareth Hellyer. (Well, Gareth is 40something, ‘young’ compared to Marged, even if the date she claims as her birthdate is unsubstantiated: this mystery persists throughout the novel.)
Readers discover many parallels between these characters’ experiences, not only Marged’s and Gareth’s, but those with whom they are and have been intimately involved.
At first, the storylines appear rather distinct, in the late 19thCentury and the early 21stCentury, but the intersections accumulate: shipwrecks and swims, canine companions and sidelines supporters, soirees and gatherings, medical treatments and damaged paintings. (It would be spoilery to discuss them, when it is such fun to discover them.)
And, consistently, this sense of something grand, something awesome in the traditional sense:
“I do feel sometimes as if I lived next to some great, slumbering beast that lulls me into thinking of it as just rocks and water. And then, every once in a while, it awakens and I realize that it is alive and powerful and that I am a tiny, helpless creature next to it!”
The diaries cover many years and afford Marged the opportunity to come of age. Her Uncle Gil says that she is becoming more and more of a lady. She believes: “Each day I seem to find more and more of myself!”
Ironically, the experiences that she has away from the Peninsula, when she travels to Toronto to assist in her mother’s receiving medical treatments there, affect fundamental changes in Marged’s worldview.
Not only must she adjust to a household in which she has a servant (when she is accustomed to performing these very tasks herself, daily, at home on the peninsula), but she also engages with an element of society that she has very limited exposure to on the Bruce.
With her beloved country far away, she develops a new perspective and understanding of the importance this place has for her. The debate she has with Mr Sparke, over whether her neighour George’s paintings “capture” the spirit of the place, is revealing and key.
“George’s paintings never do that – as if to cage a wild creature. They are not just ‘beautiful things’ that give a passing pleasure. You do not like these pictures because they are not tame.”
Whether this is true (Mr Starke insists he does like them), Marged’s statements reveal the primacy she places on the peninsula’s wildness, on the elements that cannot be tamed and contained.
These elements are also at the root of Perdita‘s love stories. (The significance of the novel’s title is one of the most satisfying mysteries contained in the story; it will add another layer of satisfaction for those readers who value a good literary allusion — especially one with a secret past.)
Perdita is preoccupied with storytelling.
“Not just with people’s stories, but with the stories of all the forests, the stones, the sky and wind and waves. Mine is just one story, but I haven’t known how to tell it – until I met you. And so, if somehow we do not meet again, I want to tell you about my beloved Perdita….”
Perhaps a work of art cannot truly capture the spirit of a place, and certainly Perdita is no cage, but it is an engaging and passionate story. One which feels peculiarly appropriate to read in the summertime, when memories of shorelines and rockfaces tug most determinedly on readers’ hearts and thoughts.
Is this on your summer reading list?