I’ve loved the idea of a character named Maybe since I read Katheen Martin’s novel, Penny Maybe, about a sixteen-year-old girl working out all the possibilities ahead of her.
Isn’t it just perfect for a coming-of-age story? And, indeed, in Andrea MacPherson’s novel, Maybe Collins is eleven years old and “caught on a fine precipice”.
Her being named Maybe, however, sees to be more about what her mother, Camille, saw as her own possibilities. Possibilities or limitations.
“All these constraints. All these expectations,” Camille protests. In the early 1960s, Camille Collins did not want to be stuck in a kitchen, making lunches and cooking roast beef.
Motherhood (and wifehood – the two inextricably intertwined) was at odds with Camille’s self-actualization.
Maybe she would have a baby. Maybe she would find herself.
So many maybes. Too many, apparently.
For meanwhile, the baby Maybe has been left behind in Oak Bay, being raised by Gigi, Camille’s mother. Who packs lunches reliably and adopts the identity of motherhood that her own daughter has declined.
In 1971, Camille returns to Lear Street. It’s summertime and Maybe, at eleven, is both desperate for and suspicious of her mother’s return.
As conscientious and loving as Gigi has been as a care-giver, part of Maybe yearns for the kind of mother her classmates seem to have. “Mum. A word that had been noticeably absent in their house until now. Mum.”
Yet, the idea of being abandoned is unshakeable and Camille could disappear again, as suddenly as she reappeared; Maybe seems poised to be disappointed. “When she read a book where everyone turned out happy, content, blissful, she felt cheated.”
She is between yearnings. So, too, are other women in this novel. Some, in the past with Camille. Like Robin, the mother of Maybe’s best friend in the neighhourhood. Robin, who planned to be a nurse, but became a wife and then a mother instead.
Nursing had worked for her. “She liked the precision of it all – the tip of the needle, her words on a chart, even the way she imagined her uniform would fit: taut, creaseless.”
Wifehood and motherhood worked for Robin, too. But she hadn’t expected those states to remain exclusive. It just happened. She settles between the states of loving her husband and resenting the constraints of wifehood, motherhood.
All that work. All those expectations that Camille had resisted, refused. “That she would do it all, because she always had, and so had the other women before her.” Which, ironically, Camille expects of another woman – her own mother.
And Robin does judge Camille for having left Maybe with Gigi, resents her having pursued the very goal which Robin later laments having abandoned, resents Camille blaming a system which pushed women in a particular role while simultaneously ensuring that another woman take her place in it.
Robin knows, first-hand, the sacrifices that would have been required, and privately condemns Camille for refusing to make them, and also openly judges her in one instance.
Robin’s single statement of clear judgement is made about the book Camille has written in her absence from Maybe’s life: The Other Mother. (even though her anger is rooted more broadly).
There are other books, declared to be important in this era of changing roles for women, books by Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer and Kate Millet and Gloria Steinem.
Everyone in the neighbourhood seems to recognize them, and Camille’s is considered in that context but, with a single word, Robin declares that Camille’s is “derivative”.
Her word choice is significant because over and over, it’s the same theme, playing out in the lives of the women in the neighbourhood: “She wanted the impossible.”
Even the artist in the neighbourhood who, from the outside, appears to have flouted convention, reaches a similar conclusion. It’s all derivative. “She’d hoped it would happen with the saints, but she’d found herself bored by their sameness. Was this necessary for goodness? All these beautified women with their tragic, horrible stories. And they merged together, indistinguishable in their very sameness.”
Every neighbourhood woman’s backstory is touched upon; in fact, some of these stories are more detailed than either Camille’s or Gigi’s, although this pair continues to feel dominant because of the narrative focus on Maybe.
Across the generations, there are stories which hint of quiet sacrifice and endurance, a whiff of thwarted dreams even when the positive is accentuated. And, through Maybe’s story, a focus on absence and loss seems more deliberate.
This is a story worth telling. But how does one make this story of 1971 resonate with readers in 2017, who might not have read the books these characters are struck by, or the volumes written by Rich and Rukeyser whom the author also credits in her acknowledgement.
What We Once Believed with its very title suggests this is a novel of another time. It is set in the past. Readers glimpse this other time, but I longed for the kind of historical detail that works by Marge Piercy, Magie Dominic and Marilyn French have included in their powerful stories about women’s lives.
The occasional references to popular culture and the public’s romance with Pierre Trudeau and Maggie, for example, seem casual and distanced; more detail could have created some interesting parallels with the present-day.
After all, how convenient that we can now admire Justin Trudeau and Sophie and photos of their family vacations on social media, and marvel at how much the role of wife and mother has really changed in the public eye. (Or, has not changed.)
Which, of course, is directly connected to how we live our lives in private. Or, at least, directly connected to how we construct our stories about how we as women live, how we believe that other women “should” live, the kinds of choices we expect them to make.
As the story plays out, readers move from August to September. Soon, the leaves will be changing and other changes will be coming beyond 1971, although without a more vivid ‘then’, Maybe’s story cannot as powerfully resonate with the ‘now’. Nonetheless, the focus on women’s stories is necessary and exciting.
Too often, women’s stories are relegated to the back pages of history. Pleating their narratives of discovery and yearning can inspire all sorts of readers to reach for something more, to insist upon another kind of truth. As Gigi and Camille have constructed their stories, As Maybe learns to construct her story. As readers construct their own herstories.
In What We Once Believed, characters construct and reconstruct, as do we all. As we all have done and still do in 2017. And, for always.