My cousin lent me Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald. I had never heard of the book, yet my cousin assured me that I needed to read it. In fact, when I was over at her house she disappeared and came back with a copy of the book then proceeded to find a paragraph that was sure to lure me into reading this huge novel:
“James and Materia moved into their big two-storey white frame house, with attic, a month later. But just because it was new, doesn’t mean it wasn’t haunted” (18).
Yep, I was hooked. My reading adventures of the East Coast continue.
These two images above haunted me and stayed with me the entire novel, and I’m sure for those who have read the book that you can relate instantly. The scarecrow and the cedar hope chest. Although I say that I don’t like things that are scary, actually I sort of do like them. I read Canadian ghost stories to my Jr High English classes every Spooky Friday (thank you Barbara Smith), I have watched (and own) every season of Supernatural and I loved the X-Files (I even used the first film in part of an essay for my Detective Fiction class in University). So once I cracked open MacDonald’s lengthy novel, there was no way I was putting it down unless I absolutely had to put it down! Who can blame me when the opening lines are, “They’re all dead now” (1).
Fall on Your Knees chronicles the lives of a family (mainly four sisters and their father) living on Cape Breton Island at the turn of the century and beyond. It describes the community going from empty land with a house, to a mining community springing up, to suddenly living on a street, to living in a named town (New Waterford), and also through the first world war, through the mining strikes of the 1920’s, through prohibition, through the depression, and the second world war.
One thing I have noticed after reading a few books set in the East is the mysterious/ancient/magical feelings that seem to seep from the rocks and the water in these novels. I’m used to isolation, loneliness, and space in the Prairies. I’m not used to ‘old world’ spirits that the East seems to have brought with them from Europe. It seems that the air is thinner in the East.
One of the motifs or themes that I enjoyed about this novel was the constant reference to music, specifically the piano. The idea of a piano tuner is interesting. There is a connection between the characters and pianos: tuner (father), silent movie/Vaudeville player (mother), and speakeasy entertainer (daughter), and more as the family tree grows. Music is what causes James to fall in love: James fell in love with Materia over C#. Music is also present with him in his death: “But the stroke itself was blissful” because he had a dream that his mother was “accompanied by distant but everywhere music. An old-fashioned tune on the piano, ineffably sweet and full of meaning, unnamable and yet as familiar as the beating of his own heart. He knows his mother is in the music” (418). Although the music seems to bring sorrow, violence, and pain, it was an interesting thread that I appreciated.
Lastly, since this is a book about family, I couldn’t help but think that my own Mom would be proud that as I was reading this I was thinking of Rita MacNeil. Rita MacNeil has a special place in the life of my family. Rita MacNeil’s “The Working Man,” which MacNeil often sang with the Men of the Deep choir, kept going through my head whenever there were scenes about the mining town and the role of coal in the novel. One day a member from my family will go to her Tea Room.
I think that music, which sometimes seems other-worldly, creates connections within people, perhaps with soul connections. Kathleen’s, James and Materia’s eldest daughter’s, main goal for singing lessons is to connect with the three thousand people in the audience all at once. Because of the mystery that surrounds the reactions people have to music, I can see how MacDonald was able to link between music and spirits and mystery within her novel. It is music that links all of the characters, even to the very last page. From Cape Breton to New York City, MacDonald weaves a family tree that is full of music, “distant but everywhere music” (418).
This book has it all: ghosts, secrets, dreams, murder, scandal, heart break, fear, terror, black cats, and music. From bagpipes in Cape Breton to jazz in Harlem, MacDonald chronicles the sad and twisted family tree of the Piper family in such a way that I didn’t want to put down the book.
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. (James 5:13)