Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Canadian Lit: Danger Tree

MacFarlane's Danger Tree memoir is constructed in these fantastic spirals. It feels like stepping into someone else's oral history. It's a great way to learn the history of Newfoundland through several generations of one family.

In any family, stories are told and retold and they change shape and they aren't told in any particular chronological order. One story leads into another and then is interrupted by a third story and only at the end do you understand why they are connected.

I want to read the book two or three more times because I know I will catch things that I didn't catch the first time. I want to plumb the depths for who exactly all these people are and what happened to them and why.

When I went to Africa to stay for a month with two other friends from Minnesota, we posted daily comments about our experiences. We were staying with my friend's aunt who had been working for 12 years in Kenya as a doctor after retiring at age 60 from her practice in rural Missouri.

When we started writing, we had no way of knowing which people would play prominently in our stay. We had a confusing cast of characters that marched through our posts: Magdalene, Joseph, Mrs. Shaw. Relatives suggested on our return that we should have posted a cast of characters at the beginning. It would have been impossible. Only at the end could we look back and see who shaped our experiences there.

Much of MacFarlane's book felt the same way. The characters slipped in and out and we gradually understood their connections to one another. There were fantastic revelations that happened only after people died.

An uncle who seemed to have no connection to the family business was discovered to be the president of the company. There was a famous last letter home from a fallen soldier. It turns out it wasn't the last letter. Long after his death, the family found another letter from the soldier dated several weeks later in which he says he's alive and they don't need to worry about him. He's hun-proof.

I first met my husband's grandfather at his funeral. And it was only in planning that funeral that the family discovered he'd been messing with everyone for years. He had a hole in his thumb. He told everyone in the family a different story and kept the stories straight for his whole life. Some thought it was a war injury, some were told a squirrel chewed off his thumb and some were told he got it stuck in a lawnmower. Even his wife didn't know what the real story was. The truth was buried with Tom along with his cribbage board and a newspaper.

Reading Group Guide of The Danger Tree