Imagine gardening and having your favourite author not only rise from the dead but chat with you over a cup of tea.
That is exactly what happened to protagonist Nicole LeClair in the thought-provoking novel Maud and Me by Canadian author Marianne Jones.
In her narrative, the main character divulged, “Maud first appeared last spring….I was puzzled by her old-fashioned attire and the sense of déjà-vu that enveloped me.” (p. 3)
As a reader, I loved the mystic and spiritual concept of this book. As the back cover stated, “Nicole and Maud are separated by decades and death, but find companionship through their similar circumstances – as minister’s wives, as artists, as feminists constrained by propriety and expectation.”
To better appreciate these parallel lives, I wanted to pause and dig deeper into the life of this spiritual Lucy Maud Montgomery and yet I had to remind myself that this was Nicole’s and not Maud’s story. I could read Montgomery another day!
Besides, there was more to this 280-page novel than just the surreal banter between the main character and her literary apparition.
In fact, Maud’s presence in the first half of the book was almost nil as Nicole’s background was presented.
At first, I wondered where this literary ghost had disappeared and when she would return. But soon enough I was lured further into the plot by the powerful and accurate description of isolation and desperation felt by Nicole and a few other individuals who didn’t fit into their immediate surroundings.
Jones nailed it by setting her protagonist in northern Ontario.
“To know what life in small northern towns is like, think cold and isolation.” (p. 47)
You better believe it!
For me, the book’s strength was in those vivid descriptions of the rugged and remote setting which reinforced the character’s depressed frame of mind. Even the fog that rolled in from Lake Superior helped to accentuate the ongoing gloominess.
Yes, yes, I could feel the protagonist’s frustration and feelings of entrapment as she questioned “What am I doing here?” (p. 1)
Using the first-person point of view, the author crawled inside Nicole’s inner thoughts as her character coped with a forced move away from the metropolis of Thunder Bay to a remote northern community of approximately 3,000 people.
“In 1976, when Adam [her husband] got his first posting at a community church in Marathon, a northern mill town, Calvin [their son] was just starting school. I tried to settle into my new role, but I always had the feeling of having stepped into the wrong movie.” (p. 11)
In her quest to emotionally survive, Nicole interacted with a variety of likeable and unlikeable characters: some flat and stereotypical like Annie the head of a woman’s church group and Garth, a new employee at the nearby Hemlo gold mines. Some were more rounded like Nicole who evolved and showed more character development to keep the reader interested and sympathetic to her situation.
The inclusion of feisty Christian and non-Christian characters also gave the book a sense of balance that juggled unresolved conflict and numerous power struggles. Part of that tension included Nicole’s frustrations with her minister husband.
The dialogue was realistic and believable. Plus, Jones used her skill as a poet to paint some original and beautifully crafted sentences. For example, “Come spring, a few skinny sunflowers would crane out, like green worms in search of light.” (p. 147)
Without me revealing any more details, the second part of the novel was particularly moving. The pace quickened and the twists in the storyline had me turning the pages to see what would happen next.
Unfortunately, a couple of typos, and factual errors slipped into the final product. However, because but this was a fictional story, these minor faults did not hinder my enjoyment. Some inaccuracies would only be noticed by those closely familiar with Marathon and the other northern communities mentioned.
Overall, a worthwhile read!
Maud and Me is an uphill hike of self-discovery through a pine-laced woods; a prickly wild rose that you pick up on a rainy day and inhale for its inspirational scent.
I look forward to reading more of Jones’s work.
Marianne Jones is the author of eight books, a contributor to numerous anthologies, and an award-winning poet. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, Canadian Living, The Globe and Mail, and numerous literary journals. She has written and directed plays for non-profit groups and church. Her most recent book, Maud and Me, was published in May by Crossfield Publishing.
Disclosure: Back in 2014, I had a chance to chat with author/poet Marianne Jones during a visit to Thunder Bay, a northwestern Ontario city hugging the shores of Lake Superior. Jones gave me a tour of the waterfront where granite benches display her poetic words. See my previous blog post here.