Category Archives: Summer Reads: 2014

“Small Island”: determined to hope

I love to dance. Throw in a celebration like my dearest’s cousin’s wedding and I am on the dance floor! My cousin married into a Jamaican-British family and the dance at their wedding was so much fun. One person starts a move and people learn and dance as they go. Then, someone else would jump in and give a new move. Perhaps it is not something done a lot in Jamaica (I have no way of knowing), but the Jamaicans I was around that night sure knew how to move!

As I was reading Small Island by Andrea Levy I couldn’t help but think of my cousin’s new in-laws and if their family were treated the same way as the Jamaicans in London during and after WWII.


Throughout the novel, Levy writes from the perspective of four individuals and how they become part of each other’s lives all because of WWII. Queenie and her husband Bernard live in London. When Bernard goes off to fight for England in WWII, Queenie starts to take in renters to make ends meet, and also to feel less alone. Hortense and her husband Gilbert move to England from Jamaica after the war, where Gilbert went to fight alongside the British and the Canadians.


As I’m sure you can predict, London is not so welcome to anyone but the British after the war. For Gilbert and his new wife, life is very hard. People ignore them. People stare at them. Children run up to touch them. People mock them and yell at them. People humiliate them. People treat that worse than animals. All of this for a man, and his wife, who fought alongside the same men who now turn him away from work. Yet Levy includes a few moments of hope: an elderly woman picks up Gilbert’s dropped glove, has a conversation with him and then offers him a candy; Queenie welcomes both Gilbert and Hortense into her house and begins a genuine friendship with them.

I have to admit, I watched the BBC adaptation before reading the book. The story was so interesting and new that I couldn’t help but find the book.

In both the BBC adaptation and in the novel, there are a few things that have stuck in my mind.

1.) Optimism. Even after being denied so much, the characters in the novel, specifically Gilbert the young Jamaican RAF veteran, still maintain hope for a better life. They take the insults and the punches and they continue to make a life in England.

2.) Acceptance. Throughout the entire story, Queenie, the London wife left alone during the war, accepts the Jamaicans that land on her door step. She will speak with these West Indies men in the street. She will go to the shops with her Jamaican border. She even has an affair with a Jamaican man.

3.) Telling a forgotten story. I’m from Canada and we love to tell stories about how great we are, and we are pretty great. Yet, Canada has a lot of things that should make all Canadians enrages. Things like internment camps, legalized racism when it comes to real estate, using race as a wage determiner, barring certain races and religions from immigrating, and pretty much every Treaty and deal with the First Nations since the 1800s into the present day. That is why I appreciate Levy’s story. It doesn’t gloss over the racism and resistance during WWII and just after in England toward different cultures, specifically those from Jamaica.

4.) Realizations. Hortense dreams of moving to England. She spends her whole life studying England and everything about it: how to cook, geography, production, exports, shops, history, and language. Her dreams are shattered once she realizes that the country she has dreamed of is dirty, ill-spoken, and rude. Yet she decides to stay and make the best of her new life. Just as the immigrants who came before her, Hortense realized that expectations aren’t always reality.

“Why you wan’ the whole world when ya have a likkle piece a hope here? Stay. Stay and fight, man. Fight till you look ‘pon what you wan’ see.” (Andrea Levy)

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” (Romans 12:12)



“Big Bear” and “Indian Horse”: seeing beyond

Last week I read Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians biography Big Bear by Rudy Wiebe. Penguin even put together a video about Big Bear’s time. I was born and grew up in the Treaty 6 area near the Battle River. Growing up, my Grandpa would take us to see the Ribstones near Viking. In the fields my Grandpa was given through the Veterans’ Land Act, over the years he found arrow heads and tools. I find it a bit ironic that years after the buffalo disappeared, destroying the way of life for the Cree and Blackfoot (and others), that the Government established a large National Park in Wainwright in 1907 full of buffalo purchased from Montana for visitors to see. My Grandma remembers going to see the last round up of the buffalo in 1939 before the park turned into an army base (Camp Wainwright which is still there today and even has a buffalo paddock) and the buffalo were sent up to Wood Buffalo Park. Although I never went to the area, Old Man Buffalo’s (the Iron Creek meteorite’s) original location was close by in Sedgewick/Hardisty. Yet, living near all of these Cree areas, I didn’t see a Native person until our family moved to Winnipeg.

Reading Wiebe’s account of Big Bear’s life was heartbreaking. According to Wiebe, Big Bear was a peaceful man. He worked hard to find peaceful solutions to problems and sought to talk first, act later. For years, Big Bear tried to talk with the Cree and Blackfoot and the government agents in order to help the bands in the Treaty 6 and 7 areas to start a new way of life after the buffalo disappeared. Yet over and over again, Big Bear was let down and betrayed. In an article from the Edmonton Bulletin from October 21, 1882, Big Bear is quoted as saying, “Although we trust to the law to help us, we never got the benefit of it, because our word is as the wind to the white man” (Pg. 120). Big Bear foresaw the blood and knew that things were changing, yet he could not get help in trying to lead his People into a new way of living. Yet Wiebe did not finish Big Bear’s story in despair. Wiebe finishes his story about Big Bear in a powerful way that honours Big Bear:

The buffalo and the bear might be fenced in, like his People, but they would not die out. What he had done, what he had tried to do but failed to: the Creator’s world remained and People belonged in it. His believed People would not vanish, no matter what Whites forced upon them. They knew the place given them by the Creator because they knew the stories of this place, and they would live, raise their beautiful children, and a hundred years from now the sun and the moon would still shine upon them, the rivers run. (Pg. 211)


This weekend I read Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, the story of Saul Indian Horse. Just like Big Bear, Saul Indian Horse is a peaceful person. Throughout the novel, Wagamese takes his readers through Saul’s life as Saul writes about his experiences while in a treatment facility for alcohol abuse. We learn that Saul’s parents abandon him because of their grief at having their eldest son, Saul’s older brother, stolen and put into a residential school, only for their son to come home and die. Saul survives with this Grandmother in the bush of Northern Ontario until winter hits. Saul is found at a railway station in the arms of his frozen and dead grandmother and taken to a residential school. The novel is Saul’s story of his experiences at the residential school and then his anger and hurt while trying to understand his place in the world.

Just as I felt while reading Big Bear’s biography, my heart broke for the pain and suffering that so many people experienced because of a dichotomy and misunderstanding based on race and culture. In his novel, Wagamese writes so clearly about Saul’s experiences at the residential school: “When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness. That’s what they inflicted on us” (Pg. 81).

Saul’s only escape away from the pain is his love of hockey. Saul becomes an amazing hockey player who eventually plays for the Leafs’ farm team the Marlies. His ability to see the plays and understand the other team makes him a dynamic player because he can read the plays and make amazing passes. The ability to see life differently is a skill he remembers his grandfather having. Yet the crowds cannot accept Saul as a good player. He is constantly referred to by his race, not his skill, and the taunts and reviews make Saul so angry that he starts to spend most of his time in the penalty box. His rage makes him leave hockey, the game he loves, and become a drunk drifter. As Saul searches for answers and to figure out what actually happened to him as a child and the anger consumes him, he realizes he is not remembering the full story: “There was a part of me that desperately wanted to close the gap I felt between myself and people. But there was a bigger part that I could never understand. It was the part of me that sought separation. It was the part of me that simmered quietly with a rage I hadn’t ever lost, and a part of me that knew if the top ever came off of that, then I would be truly alone. Finally. Forever. That was the part that always won” (Pg 187).

Although Wagamese allows his character to go into dark places and to live a hard life of drifting, Wagamese also allows his character to find some healing. At the end of the novel, Saul begins to understand what happened to him and he is able to reconnect with the things that made him feel whole: hockey and family:”I want to get back to the joy of the game. That’s for sure. But if I learned anything while I was at the centre, it’s that you reclaim things the most when you give them away. I want to coach” (Pg. 218). Saul realizes that he can never be the player that he was. He realizes that he can never go back to life before his brother died. But he can move on and create new experiences within his community.

“I understood then that when you miss a thing it leaves a hole that only the thing you miss can fill” (Pg 219). Saul finds comfort in walking through the northern Ontario bush and in playing hockey. His ability to reflect and learn about himself is something that Big Bear understood better than those around him. As Big Bear was trying to negotiate and communicate with the government, he understood that his way of life and the way for life for all of the nations living on the prairies was over and that nothing could fill that void. I think that is why so many people respected Big Bear; he was able to look beyond his anger and see, just like Saul Indian Horse could see, that not everything is as it seems. The wisdom to look beyond the present must be frustrating to those who have that gift.

From reading about both Big Bear and Saul Indian Horse, one real and one fictional, I am left with a wonder for people who are able to be in a situation and look beyond it to the outcome at the same time. Healing needs to come from within. Healing is something that others can offer, support in, and encourage, yet as Wagamese reveals, healing can only come from within a person’s spirit and is therefore an individual experience. I wonder what Big Bear was thinking those days after he was released from prison before he died. Like Saul in Indian Horse, I hope that Big Bear was able to see beyond his suffering and pain and find healing.

“We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship – we change the world, one story at a time…” (Richard Wagamese).

“Love others as well as you love yourself” (Mark 12:31).

“Fall of Giants”: world changes

I love history. Maybe it’s the fact that I love people watching or that I tend to be a bit curious about the lives of others. Or maybe it’s the politics and the decision-making that I find interesting. Whatever the reason may be, I loved Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants because it included all of those things.

Follett’s novel follows a few characters who connect throughout the novel from all different countries: England, USA, Russia, Germany. Through these characters, he describes the start and duration of World War I from several perspectives.

Over the years, I have become interested in a few eras and different people in history:
1.) The story Franz Joseph and Sisi
2.) The story of Nicolas and Alexandria
3.) The Russian Revolution
4.) The Suffragettes movement

As you can see from this list (if you have read the book), it is not a surprise that I dove into Fall or Giants with gusto. I couldn’t put the book down!

More recently I have become interested in the Famous Five. As I have mentioned before, I live close to Nellie McClung’s house. Yet I found an interesting connection between Emily Ferguson Murphy and one of the characters in Follett’s novel.

Emily Murphy was a woman who fought passionately for Canadians, and specifically those who couldn’t help themselves. When she moved to Edmonton, Alberta, she became known around town because she would often walk around on Jasper Avenue and see how much people needed help and support from the Government. She wrote several novels. She helped to establish the Victorian Order of Nurses in Alberta (my Grandma was in the Victorian Order of Nurses). She even went as a representative of Canada to a League of Nations meeting on narcotics. She inaugurated several movements for women and children in Edmonton and Alberta (movement for the election of women as school trustees in Alberta, movement for public playgrounds in Edmonton) and either directed or sat on numerous committees, councils, and boards (Sanders, Byrne Hope. Emily Murphy: Crusader. 1945. Pg. 345-348). Yet she was best known for her work in women’s equality.

Murphy recognized inequality in several areas of government and sought to right them. In fact, because of her appeal that women being tried in court should sit before a female judge, Hon. C. W. Cross, Attorney General, appointed Murphy as Canada’s (and the Commonwealth’s) first female magistrate. Yet a pesky lawyer continually argued in her court that she was not actually a ‘person’ and therefore not able to be a magistrate (MacEwan, Grant. Mighty Women: Stories of Western Canadian Pioneers. 1975. Pg. 133).

In Sander’s biography of Murphy, she quotes Murphy as saying: “There is only one thing worse than a guilty custom—and that is a guilty acquiescence” (Pg. 212). Although Murphy is speaking about the drug trade into Canada, her sentiment of passively allowing injustice to happen permeates her decisions and actions. Because of her convictions, Murphy was one of five women who petitioned the government to consider women as ‘persons’ under the BNA Act. With the help of her lawyer brothers, Murphy was able to work with four other women and bring their petition that women should be considered ‘persons’ and therefore able to sit in Senate to the Canadian House of Commons. In a devastating blow, the government denied their petition. That did not stop these women! They took their petition to England and the Privy Council. Murphy when over to London and eventually the Privy Council in London ruled that women are indeed ‘persons’ and should be included in the BNA Act as ‘persons,’ meaning that they could now sit in the Senate and represent Canadians in every way that a man can.

Although Murphy did not sit as a Senator in Canada, she continued to work tirelessly to support and champion women and social reform in Edmonton, Alberta, and Canada.

In Follett’s novel, he writes about a female character, Ethel Williams Leckwith, from a small Welsh town who goes from a housekeeper to a Labour Party M.P. Throughout the novel, Ethel fights for the rights of women. She is a Suffragette. She organizes rallies, meetings, and demonstrations. When women are denied Solider Credit because of ‘questionable behaviour’ while their husbands are off fighting, Ethel goes down to the Solider Credit office and demands that the women not be judged on their behaviour, especially based on hearsay of other women. Eventually, Ethel and her comrades are able to get the woman her Soldier Credit money.

Through the help of Ethel, the newspaper she starts, and the women around her, she is able to get the House of Commons to vote in favour of giving women the right to vote (at first if they are over thirty, married or widowed and then eventually to all women). Her tireless effort to support equal rights, equal pay, and equal treatment allows her to become known in her community and eventually chosen to represent her area of London in the House of Commons.

Follett’s story of WWI has so many exciting, terrifying, intriguing, and interesting moments that it is hard to put the book down. His grasp of the politics of the time shows how much research he did in order to write this book. As a lover of history and as someone who has a general knowledge of WWI I really enjoyed reading Follett’s novel, yet as you can tell the story lines that I enjoyed the most were of the Suffragettes and how they strove to bring equality in a time of uncertainty.

Both the fictional character of Ethel Williams and the real-life Emily Murphy are inspirations. They both fought to have their voices heard. They both pioneered in fields that were typically filled by men. They sacrificed personally in order to bring reform for the greater good. And best of all, they were both able to see and participate in the changes and justice that they sought, one as a magistrate and one as an M.P.

(Here is a link to a video of Emily Murphy’s accomplishments.)

Follett could have easily ignored the women’s story in his novel, yet Fall of Giants truly shows the shift that did take place in the Northern Hemisphere during and after WWI, which includes the changing role of women in the work force, in the home, and in the government.

“Whenever I don’t know whether to fight or not, I fight” (Emily Murphy).
“So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all . . . ” (Galatians 6:9-10a).

“Something Fierce”: emotional evolution

I’ve had Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter by Carmen Aguirre on my bookshelf for a while. I love Canada Reads on the CBC and I love Shad, so of course I had to buy the book that Shad defended in the 2012 CBC Canada Reads debate. I bought it, then shelved it . . . until now.

I know next to nothing about the politics of South America. I know that the US liked to interfere with coups. I know that there is a lot of corruption. I know that the drug trade is huge. I know that there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Next to nothing. Yet my sad knowledge of South America did not stop me from devouring Aguirre’s memoir. Aguirre writes about her experiences of the underground revolutionaries in Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil from the time she is a young 12 year-old girl until she is an adult. The politics of these countries and the horrors that revolutionaries experienced are seen from a personal perspective.

At the beginning of the memoir, I couldn’t help but think that Carmen and Mindy, from the TV show The Mindy Project, are very similar. Carmen is a boy-crazy young teenager. In a hilarious description of herself just after moving from Vancouver down to the South and on the Inca Trail, Carmen writes:

There was a full moon lighting our passage, and my knees were wobbly from excitement as we clambered down the steep stone stairs: one of the boys from the Indian family had been peering at me across the fires . . . Halfway down the steps made by his ancestors, I looked back, and sure enough, there he was, standing at the top, hands in his pockets. When his eyes met mine, I smiled and leaned into one of my hips, just as Olivia Newton-John had done after John Travolta collapsed at the sight of her in Grease. But I’d leaned too far, because now I was rolling down the stairs . . . [I] resumed my Sandy stance. I looked for the boy, but he was no longer at the top (pg 25-26).

Throughout her memoirs, Aguirre includes several stories about her teenage awkwardness and her boy-crazy antics. At one point, she becomes known in the neighbourhood for kissing all the boys. So much so that the mothers on her street gather, write a letter to her parents, and deliver the letter about Carmen’s behaviour.

So for those of you who have seen The Mindy Project, you can see the similarities!
Sources: and

Yet what I love about Aguirre’s memoir is that as Carmen grows in years and matures, she also grows in her passion for the underground revolutionary movement to bring change to Chile. Aguirre was born in Chile, yet moved with her parents to Vancouver when they were exiled from Chile. Even though she was young, Aguirre developed a strong love for and bond with her home country. In a scene where she describes her Chilean grandparents visiting Vancouver, she writes: “They’d brought Chile with them in their pockets, their suitcases, their eyes and voices. I’d smelled a country on them when we greeted them at the airport, a country that still clung to my own skin and hair. It was something fierce, that country” (pg 63).

Aguirre’s love and passion for Chile is part of who she is as a person. Although she witnesses horrible events in her streets, hears about the torture of revolutionaries, has absentee revolutionary parents, and risks her life as a teenager, her love for Chile and the people of Chile inspires her to act courageously in order to better the lives of the people living in Chile. As a adult, her life is devoted to the underground revolution and to bringing equality and hope to the country she loves.

Her love for Chile comes at a cost. Throughout the memoir she describes her fear as a rat crawling up her spine. She realizes that if she is to continue the freedom-fighting work, she will have to compartmentalize herself: soul, heart, work. The state of living in constant fear and terror of being caught and tortured was too much for those in the underground to shoulder. Aguirre’s experiences with fear and the face of courage she put on in the midst of that fear reminds me of Farley Mowat’s reaction to being in WWII in his novel And No Birds Sang. In his novel, Mowat describes his experiences as a solider in Italy. In a particularly grisly battle scene, Mowat describes his fear as a worm growing in his gut and taking over:

The scouts were brewing tea in a nearby cow byre. They watched me without expression as I briefed George Langstaff and two other men. They knew I had at least glimpsed the valley in daylight and so was the logical one to lead the patrol. What they did not know was that the mere prospect of descending into that ominously shrouded valley was paralyzing me. I was convinced that death or ghastly mutilation awaited me there. The certainty was absolute! The Worm that was growing in my gut had told me so. (pg 220)


Both Aguirre and Mowat are extremely brave. Not only did they experience horrible, unimaginable things, but they also had the courage to relive their experiences as they wrote about them. In her afterword, Aguirre thanks some of the people in her life. The one that stood out to me was this one:
“Thank you to one of the founding members of the resistance, who, on his deathbed, made me promise to tell this story, because it has not been told enough, because it is a story that must not die with the people who lived it” (pg 277).

Carmen Aguirre is an amazing, courageous, humble, devoted, and passionate person. As she closes her memoir she writes, “And my grateful thanks to all those who came before, those who are fighting now and those who will continue to fight for a better future for all. I am awed, inspired and humbled by your dedication to the struggle, whether you are in the Gaza Strip, in India, in Mexico or in Bolivia, continuing to support Evo. I stand in solidarity with you” (pg 277).

From a hormone-charged teenager trying to live a double life to an adult who has the courage to share her story of resistance and terror, Aguirre, as described through her memoir, will stay with me as an example of a woman who worked hard to give a voice to the marginalized.

“I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this gray and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again and free men will walk through them to construct a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!” (Salvador Allende, 1973)
God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:11)


“The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor”: standing strong

All guts, no glory. I feel like that might be a good way to describe Charlotte Taylor. She was an amazing woman who was independent and stood up for her own rights in the face of a lot of opposition. She was a woman who was living a life style that was ahead of her time. She believed in equality, compassion, and perseverance. Yet I only heard of her because I read this novel!


Sally Armstrong, Charlotte Taylor’s great-great-great granddaughter, writes the story of this amazing woman and fills in some of the blanks with her own best-guesses. So, it is a blend of fiction and non-fiction.

Brief timeline:
1.) She runs away from her stuffy British life with the family butler, but he dies after they run away across the Ocean, leaving her pregnant and alone.
2.) She meets a nice sea captain who tries to make her go back to England via Nova Scotia, but she meets a lot of Acadians and Mi’kmaq people in the area and realizes she likes this new place.
3.) She runs away to a Mi’kmaq camp to avoid leaving on a ship for England and the Mi’kmaq welcome her and she makes a special friend and they have a life-long relationship.
4.) She marries a privateer, moves to his cabin, and has more kids.
5.) Said husband dies from a rotten tooth. She remarries a local entrepreneur.
6.) She has more kids. Her husband never comes home and is presumed dead.
7.) She marries a local politician and has more kids.
8.) Things are getting heated, literally, so she decides to move her family to a new island.
9.) Her husband dies.
10.) She spends the rest of her life canoeing with her Mi’kmaq friend.

Yet Charlotte Taylor is not forgotten! You can explore her life as the “Mother of Tabusintac” in New Brunswick on a tour.


I did find the life of Charlotte Taylor fascinating because she was so strong, intelligent, and determined, yet I really enjoyed the way in which Armstrong wove in a lot of Canadian history into Charlotte’s story. Some of her ancestors have put together an amazing timeline that truly shows the changes that were happening and how incredible it was for Charlotte to survive and thrive.

The Expulsion of the Acadians. The land grab that pushed out the Mi’kmaq people and other nations. The ruling that settlers could petition to own land, yet the First Nations only received Crown Land which was often sold or encroached upon. The danger of Americans trying to take over the land. The dividing of the colony into provinces. Charlotte’s everyday life might not have been affected by all of these events, yet she lived in an interesting time.

Armstrong is not the only relative of Charlotte Taylor to write about this incredible woman’s life. Mary Lynn Smith also has done a lot of research and writing about her ancestor. She makes it clear on her website that she did not help Armstrong and that Armstrong’s novel should be read as that, a novel–not a biography.

As a member of a large family, I can only imagine what would happen if someone tried to write the history of one of my ancestors and fictionalized the account. It might divide the family and as Mary Lynn Smith states on her website, Charlotte Taylor would have fought anyone writing about her life with “tooth and nail” just as I believe any of my ancestors would react to a fictionalized account of their lives.

Yet at the end of the day I found Armstrong’s story compelling and fascinating. I love learning that there are strong and independent women in our Canadian past who had beliefs and didn’t stay silent when they were fighting for their rights and for the rights of their family. Charlotte Taylor was a woman who stood strong and remained compassionate, intelligent, fair, and honest throughout her entire life. As a person who defies convention in life, her legacy of defiance lives on in the lives of her family.


The tally of her life comes out in her favour, she decides. But she has no respite from losses. (pg 380)
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.(Hebrews 11:13)


“Coventry”: the unexpected

The unexpected. Unexpected is a word I have been hearing lately. It pretty much sums up some of the things happening in my life right now. Surprised, yet surprised by joy!


I think that marking final assignments and exams turned my brains into mush.  I haven’t been able to engage with a book in over a month, but school is out and my brain is recovering!  During my ‘break’ from reading (well, reading things not written by teenagers) I was trolling around online to find some new books for my summer reading adventure.  I stumbled unexpectedly across Helen Humphrey’s book Coventry.  When I picked it up from the Library, I was glad to see that it was a short novel because it has been the perfect way to jump into my summer reading!


Things happen unexpectedly in life. Meeting a new romance. Losing a job. Finding a new friend. In her novel Coventry, Humphreys takes her readers on a journey by introducing three characters who stumble their way through an evening of the unexpected.

Harriet, Mauve, and Jeremy wander their way around Coventry, UK the night of a heavy Nazi blitz. In a night of horror, terror, pain, disbelief, and shock, all three characters are unexpectedly connected. Mauve and Harriet met briefly on the first double-decker bus in Coventry during WWI and are reunited in a dewy field outside of the city on their way to safety. Harriet and Jeremy are fire-watches together at the Cathedral; Jeremy reminds Harriet of her dead husband and happens to be the son of Mauve. Throughout the novel, all three try to understand the unexpected pain and trauma they are witnessing as the bombs destroy the city and the lives of the people around them.

How does one deal with the unexpected? Whether good news or horrible news, we are never truly ready for life’s surprises, hence why they surprise us. We spend time building order and routines, yet when something comes along that upsets the order, we have a reaction that we feel deep within every part of our selves. One of my favorite sections from the novel describes Mauve’s reaction to be separated from her son and seeing her life crumble before her:
“Nothing that will come after tonight will be her known world. If she and Jeremy survive tonight, there will be the struggle of beginning again. This is heard enough at the best of times, but in the middle of a war it will be almost impossible to bear” (pg 120).

Rebuilding. Recreating. Readjusting. The prefix ‘re-‘ means again, a repetition. With the unexpected comes the need to ‘re-‘ everything. New goals, new plans, new dreams, new routines.

As I think about the unexpected and the reactions we have, I can’t help but think about what N.T. Wright says in his book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters:
“Virtue . . . is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t ‘come naturally’–and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required ‘automatically,’ as we say. On that thousand and first occasion, it does indeed look as if it ‘just happens’; but reflection tells us that it doesn’t ‘just happen’ as easily as that” (pg 20-21).

If Wright is correct and our every day, seemingly small, choices build up our character, then how we react to a surprise differs for everybody, depending on the choices and reflections they make. In the novel, Jeremy is quick to help others, as it is clear that this is how he lives his life. Mauve is quick to move around restlessly, unable to trust others, which is consistent with her previous behaviours. And Harriet. Harriet painfully wanders, looking for a place to belong.

I am left wondering about the unexpected. Can we prepare for surprises through our every day choices? Do we have to live by that advice to ‘hope for the best, but prepare for the worst’? Perhaps practicing a life of compassion, grace, mercy, patience, and love would help with reacting genuinely to situations. The only thing we can expect is the unexpected. The only way to prepare is to practice the way we want to react. We all played with the Jack-in-the-Box as children and loved the surprise. Maybe instead of dread, we should see surprises as something joyful. Although in Humphrey’s novel there are a lot of horrible surprises, there is some joy: unexpected meetings can lead to new relationships and new opportunities. Life goes on, even after it has been destroyed.

“Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.” (Samuel Johnson)
You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow. You’re nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing. Instead, make it a habit to say, “If the Master wills it and we’re still alive, we’ll do this or that.” (James 4:14-15)