Already he was wishing he hadn’t accepted Anna’s invitation to this last evening gathering of the season. A pod of neighbours was huddled around the crackling blaze by the time he got there. The circle widened affably to receive them and they settled into their lawn chairs, stretching feet to the fire. – Eleanor Bertin*
If you’re closed-minded, too close to the light or the line of fire, or even haunted by John Milton’s Paradise Lost, expect to feel uncomfortable but not necessarily in a negative way. Eleanor Bertin’s first novel Lifelines (Word Alive Press, 2016) nudges the reader to look inward, to dust off the brain cells, plus think about mortality and his/her purpose on Earth.
On the surface, it’s a home-spun heart-warming yarn threaded with Anna Fawcett’s unflinching morals and the scent of freshly baked cinnamon buns. Reach deeper and it’s an intellectual debate peppered with such hot topics as religion, an unexpected pregnancy, abortion, special needs care, ageing, evolution, and the environment. If you’re prone to tears, expect to cry. If you prefer laughter, you’ll find humour too.
Each chapter begins with an epigraph which foreshadows the scene and/or launches the reader into a new arena of thought. For example in Chapter Nine, Bertin quotes the title of a 1988 book by Jamie Buckingham: “The truth will set you free but first it will make you miserable.”
Many of Bertin’s characters are miserable. The protagonist Dr. Q. M. Robert Fielding is a pompous biologist struggling with recent losses. In the first chapter, in the first line, he “is vexed –with the prickly branch of overgrown rose bush that had just scraped his face…He blew pent-up air out of tight lips, pffpllpff.”
Other struggling characters are Amelia who is facing a recent pregnancy on her own; and Joan, the neighbourhood cat-lady who felt “it was downright miserable out there and some people should wake up to the fact.”
Add the ordinary and more positive character Anna Fawcett plus her Down syndrome son Jesse to the storyline and the plot unfurls in surprising but believable ways.
The dialogue is strong indicative of each character’s personality. The well-researched viewpoints are balanced. Sometimes the chatter is superfluous reflecting the mundane and lonely life of a character. Sometimes the bantering of scholarly facts may bog down the uneducated but it adds depth to those looking for deeper discussions and meanings.
To state anything more about the plot would ruin the natural and gentle unfolding of character development and the reader’s experience.
However, Bertin’s premise that people can be “touched by the power of even those with obscure and ordinary lives” reminds me of Mitch Albom’s bestselling novel The Five People You Meet in Heaven and how each individual is special and vital to the well-being and learning experiences of those around them.
Beautifully written, thought-provoking, Lifelines “puts things into perspective” and offers readers “a lifeline of stability.” Bravo! Quite an achievement for a first time novelist!
Congratulations Eleanor on your first novel Lifelines published by Word Alive Press. I’ve admired your work from a distance ever since I read one of your short stories back in the early-80s and was pleased to hear that your first completed novel was shortlisted in the 2015 Word Alive Press Free Publishing Contest. First of all, describe in a couple of sentences, what you feel your book is about and second, what inspired you to write about these characters and their situations?
“Biologist meets widow with Down syndrome son. Worldview clash ensues.” That’s a bare bones description of my novel. But there’s a secondary, underlying exploration of the theme of influence. My primary inspiration has been my mother’s character and life. Her quiet, unassuming nature and genuine love for an astonishing and divergent assortment of folks over the years amazes me. It was contemplating the impact she’s had on so many people that brought me to wonder the “what if” of this book. Of course, it’s me, not her who has a son with Down syndrome, but I thought it fitting to confront a character who held strong views on “survival of the fittest” with the logical extension of that philosophy. There’s a human reality to what many might view as someone “unfit” to survive. Almost all of the comments and situations about my character with Down syndrome are actual events or conversations with my son or other DS people I’ve met. (It was super fun to write those scenes!)
If I’m allowed to politically say this, you have a strong-faith that guides you on a daily-basis and you are not shy when it comes to sharing scriptures as well as quotes by such famous and scholarly writers such as Lord Byron, C. S. Lewis, Anne Frank, Dr. Seuss, John Milton and more. What genre would you classify your writing and how does it differ from others writing in the same discipline?
It’s kind of sad, isn’t it, that it seems politically-incorrect to talk about faith or scripture? Yes, trust in God is foundational to my life. I would have nothing of value to write about without it. As to classification by genre, the library slotted Lifelines into the Christian fiction category. I’m OK with that, though their sub-classification was “man-woman relationships” possibly leading one to think it’s a romance, which might disappoint. There’s only an oblique hint of romance.
I’ve been told my novel makes people think. I hope so. My intention is not merely to entertain. I don’t really know if that makes it different from other Christian fiction or not. It’s not “bonnet fiction.”
On the surface, your character Anna Fawcett appears to be an unlikely hero, one of those ordinary people who many people ignore. Dig deeper and both her compassion and intelligence rises. Can anyone be a mentor? Why or why not? What characteristics do you look for in a mentor? Who were your mentors?
I’m so pleased you noticed this about her! Compassion and intelligence were my goal for her. My mother (the real Anna) would be the first to say she is not qualified to be anyone’s mentor. But perhaps humility is the prerequisite. Humility and genuine love. Handing out unsolicited advice or authoritarian pronouncements attracts no one. Mentorship, I believe, is earned by a life lived sacrificially for the benefit of others – a piece of truth heartily denounced by our culture’s obsession with self-esteem and self-actualization.
I don’t look for perfection in a mentor. I look for a person who has a deep recognition of their own flawed nature, but who has received God’s forgiveness and points people to Him. In this, my mother and my older sister qualify. There have been many ordinary but faithful women, and on a less personal level, men, who have been mentors to me over the years. Elisabeth Elliot, Edith Schaeffer and Corrie ten Boom are three well-known authors who have been mentors-at-a-distance.
Describe your writing process. (For example, how, when, and where do you write? Do you outline or do you just allow the words to flow?)
Do I have to? I’m not sure I do it right! I’ll confess that when I began Lifelines six years ago, I wrote long-hand! My computer skills were nearly nonexistent. I try to get to my computer (in our living room) at least three times a week. I’d be far more productive if I would designate a set amount of time and word-count per day. I have good intentions to do so, but the rest of life tends to intrude…
For Lifelines I drew a very simple arc and slotted a few scenes building to a climax, upon it. I soon found I needed to keep account of timelines and characters’ background and habits as well. So yes, I guess I outline. I’d never be able to keep track of everything if I didn’t.
What are you currently working on?
My current works in progress are an historical novel about Vikings (!) and a memoir (non-fiction) about the death of our 18-year-old son Paul in October 2012. I’m almost finished the memoir and it has been emotionally grueling to write it, yet at the same time, a process helpful in grieving.
Eleanor, I am so sorry for your loss. So many parents are coping with the death of a child and/or children with medical conditions. You have experiences with both. Those who are outside those stressful and emotional circles don’t have a clue what it may be like. If this memoir is anything like your novel Lifelives, it will make readers think. Education and communication enhance our understanding of this confusing world. What are your future plans?
In the immediate future, I hope to find a publisher for my memoir. Then I want to get down to business and make real progress on my Vikings (I only have 15,000 words so far.) In addition, readers of Lifelines have been asking for a sequel. I have the beginning of a novel stashed away, that I’d like to rework to become a companion novel, not exactly a sequel but some of the characters might overlap and references to the Lifelines folks could satisfy readers’ questions.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?
A writer always longs for feedback, and the more specific the comments, the better! So reviews are welcome, as are questions and opinions on my Facebook page or blog.
Thanks Eleanor for the interview. It’s so nice to have such a heart-to-heart after all these years.
Reprinted from Lifelines’ back cover:
Eleanor holds a college diploma in Communication and worked in agricultural journalism until the birth of her first child. The family eventually grew to include one daughter and six sons (the youngest with Down syndrome) whom she home-educated for twenty-five years.
Eleanor and her husband live amidst the ongoing renovation of a century home in central Alberta where she blogs about sometimes-elusive contentment at www.jewelofcontentment.wordpress.com .
Bertin’s official website: www.eleanorbertinauthor.com
Bertin’s Facebook page here.
*from the book Lifelines (World Alive Press, 2016) Chapter Nine, page 40. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright ©2016 by Eleanor Bertin
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