Groundwood Books, 2011 Cover:Murray Kimber

Well, then, I’d be lying. Because nothing is like Anne of Green Gables, right?

But I’ll Be Watching gave me a lot of the same feelings that reading my battered copy of Montgomery’s story gives me.

That’s bound to sound hyperbolic, so let me explain.

Pamela Porter’s novel opens in October 1941 and introduces readers to the Loney family one by one.

Each of them has a voice, each of them is watching.

They — and the folks around them — are just watching as life unfolds in Argue, Saskatchewan.

The meaning of the title is not immediately clear, but what is recognizable straight off is that the Loney family is going through a rough patch.

Each member is struggling to find a place, collectively and individually, and each is searching for something like home, in the wake of overwhelming losses.

And Argue might be insulating for some (like Anne’s Avonlea) but it can be painfully isolating for others. In fact, the line between insulating and isolating is a fine one indeed.

As the schoolteacher observes:
“This town — how shall I put it — the welcome
I initially received has dried up
like a leaf in winter.”

Remember, it’s 1941: a man of German extraction like Franz Lahr faces new challenges in a town like Argue.

It’s wartime, but the Depression is still fresh on the prairie. So the oldest Loney boy, Randall, has taken months to find even part-time work on the railroad.

And what of the other Loney children?

Jim is a few years younger, but he too has just left school — in defiance, because his schoolteacher hadn’t heard about the discovery of Pluto, which happened in 1930.

Nora is desperately trying to fill the gap left by their mother’s death (a gap that is not being filled, but excavated, by their father’s second wife Effie).

Seven-year-old Addie hasn’t spoken since their mother, Margaret, died.

And their father, George, has hardly stopped drinking in that long.

“Losing that farm was George’s greatest failure
but wasn’t his fault. Gawdam drought.
Gawdam dust. Gawdam government.”

So says Elmer Spanner, who is the proprietor of the Buffalo Bar. Elmer doesn’t speak/observe much. There are several townsfolk who make only brief appearances in the narrative.

You might think this would fragment the story, but the Loney family is clearly at the heart of I’ll Be Watching, so  including these other voices/viewers has the opposite effect: cumulatively they create a sense of community in the story.

(As indicated, this is not always a comfortable feeling, but more important than comfort is the sense that Argue really exists. In fact, there are some truly awful feelings.)

Even though the Loney children are bound in the experience of fresh grief, it is actually through the experiences of other characters that emotions are most often explored in their rawest form.

“Something in me died, too,
in that place.
When they returned for me at last,
I wore a stone face
and eyes of glass.”

The language is unequivocally simple, and perhaps out of context it does not resonate as it does within the wider narrative, but it captures the intensity of the story’s events perfectly.

And the simplicity is superficial, for there are subtle layers to the story that only become clear as one reads on. For instance, the way that Ran describes his experience learning to ride a bike is striking:

“Outside in the dying light
I tottered, crashed, and pushed off again
until the air held me in its fist.”

But it’s even more powerful when you revisit that “simple” passage after reading the book for the first time. There is another layer to that image, which only settles into place with hindsight, just as the title’s meaning is not fully understood for some time.

Before I actually read Pamela Porter’s novel, I thought that I would do some research on verse novels; I’ve only read a couple, and I realize it’s a form that’s much more popular now — especially for younger readers — than it was when I was a younger reader myself.

But almost immediately, I forgot that I’ll Be Watching was in a form that I don’t regularly read; storytelling is storytelling, regardless of line-breaks. If you’re put off by the idea of verse novels, let this novel adjust your thinking.

Though, as I said before, the strength of this work was, for me, not the thinking but the feeling. Just as it is when I pick up Anne of Green Gables to re-read for the nth time.

The plot is not original — what binds us and what breaks us — but there is something remarkable about the author’s voice.

This passage is actually drawn from a solid plot point, but I think it has a wider meaning for me:

“I never wanted this for my children.
Of course I didn’t. Why, oh, why,
when the doctor lays that new baby,
all bloodied and fussing
on a mother’s belly, the cord
still attached and pulsing,
she believes, if only for a moment,
the world will grow kinder
simply because she birthed a child?”

And here’s where that feeling that I get when I read Anne of Green Gables comes in.

Reading I’ll Be Watching made me believe —
if only for those moments —
that the world will grow kinder
simply because this tale is in it.

Have you read Pamela Porter’s work? Are you planning to?
Do you have a favourite book that makes you believe that?

PS Black Coffee Poet has also published an interview with Pamela Porter, which speaks to her literary accomplishments.