At first it seems simple. One scene after the next.
Imagine them, jotted on yellowed, soiled, stained pages from eighty-someodd-years ago.
Scattered across time and space, you quietly order each of these moments in your reader’s mind.
You think you are assembling a timeline, affording these scenes refuge in what you imagine will take the shape of a row, perhaps columns as other characters’ experiences emerge.
And then you realize that it’s nothing like a grid. You’re flipping back, reexamining passages you’ve already read, recognizing alignments and intersections, discovering the complexity of it all.
Arley McNeney’s novel offers a kaleidoscopic perspective on the lives of Edie, Slim, and Belly.
Edie spirals in and out of memory and as she tells stories to her son, Belly — and considers the stories that she chooses not to tell him — she examines and revisions her past, her parents’ past, and Slim’s past, relying as heavily on invention as remembrance.
At the root of The Time We All Went Marching, however, is not only a story. It sounds like it, yes.
Remember that fact we all went marching?1935?
Left the 20-cent-a-day-make-work-project government camp, where we’d been lugging rocks from one place to the next?
Travelled down to Vancouver to protest? Then rode the rails to Regina?
It could have been just that. A story, told, as this snippet is, from Slim’s perspective.
“And, of course, he’s been down to the mine: a different kind of freeze. Three years in work camps and you’ll know what it is to be cold, what it is to be bored, what it is to go years without the sight of a woman’s face. He knows he could use the padding: some meat to fill in the space between his ribs, soften his elbows, hips, even those fingers.”
And it is built from stories, but the On to Ottawa Trek is on the historical record. (The author explains in this interview that she did rely on personal narratives rooted in the event as well as historical works.)
Thousands of men travelled east to Regina and a handful travelled on to Ottawa to represent the masses, trying to bring an end to the injustice, by meeting the prime minister, R.B. Bennett.
The movement wasn’t immediately successful, however, although the men’s efforts did contribute to a wider swath of change.
It’s important to note that, because the series of frustrations that the men faced historically is mirrored in Edie’s experiences in Arley McNeney’s novel.
Edie followed Slim from site to site, overtly supporting his efforts to eke out a living, sometimes from the sidelines, sometimes taking a hand in the work herself. She even followed him underground when he had to determine where to timber the next path.
Edie was as much of a rebel as the men on the march later would be. Women had no place underground, no place following a man where he needed to go.
“No miner would have set foot in the elevator had he known a woman had been there before. By her very presence, Edie could inspire thousands of men to riot.”
Indeed, there is a riot. But this phrase appears on the novel’s second page, long before the reader has been acquainted with that reality.
This is just another example of the subtle crafting that shifts this book into the eminently-re-readable column of this reader’s mind. The disappointments and challenges that played out on the political scene echo in Edie’s life as a daughter-wife-mother.
(To comment on this directly would spoil some of the story for those who have yet to discover it, but here is another early example. “[Edie] is gone from a man who for ten years was as straight and hard in her life as a spine.” And Edie also has a scrap of a man’s spine which another man gave her years before, part of a skeleton which had emerged from beneath the earth.)
Like Edie and Slim, Belly too, is something of a rebel. A segment of the story is told from his perspective, which is refreshing and informative as it reveals from a different perspective some of the aspects of Edie’s life that have left her feeling so trapped.
(The men in the mine worried about being trapped underground, but Edie is trapped above ground, by the demands of femininity and social and economic realities. Belly, too, is trapped, on a train and in some confusion.)
It’s interesting to see how Slim’s voice, which appears in the quote above, translates to a boy’s ears and combines with Belly’s own voice. The shifts in language and tone are skillful and nuanced.
“The train runs so fast for a thing with no feet — on wheels but not like car wheels, wheels that look too small for something so big — but anyways his dad has said that trains are nearly the same as flying, right, and a man who can hop a damn-bloody boxcar — he’s not supposed to say damn or bloody and especially not both together — and live to tell about it can fly a fighter plane no problem.”
The multiple voices from a variety of characters is impressive and adds substantially to the reader’s experience of The Time We All Went Marching.
But what truly takes the work to another level is the synthesis of Edie’s varied perspectives and constructions as the novel progresses. There are multiple versions of the same story; Edie has lived and is living them all.
Here’s one: “”The train’s movement thrums beneath her fingertips, and she cannot help but picture her husband the way she likes to remember him: the wind reddening his cheeks and fraying the cuffs of his jacket as he rides on top of the boxcar in 1935.”
But then there’s this: “She knows this Slim better than the one passed out grey-faced on their bed. The Slim who was there. The Slim who took part. She cannot help trying to reassemble him.”
(The three passages quoted here — one from Slim, one from Belly and excerpts from one of Edie’s — hint at the breadth of styles and voices, but there are also some beautiful, lyrical bits that the reader will discover herein.)
With this focus on the value of storytelling (personal, political) Arley McNeney rewards the reader substantially. The Time We All Went Marching is beautifully written and not only worth reading but re-reading as well.