"Wasn't it Eliot who talked about a stubborn season?" remarks Harry Madison to Irene MacNeil upon the painful and emotionally draining death of her father. Harry is handsome, smart, maybe even a little glamorous. And he takes Irene out of her claustrophobic life, or rather the hopefulness of being with Harry helps Irene look beyond her own limited and closed circumstances.
Lauren B. Davis's The Stubborn Season, set in 1930s Depression-era Toronto, is the compelling and sympathetic story of Irene MacNeil who strives to find her place in a world fraught with adult anxieties and pressures. What happens when two lives filled with hope and the expectation of making a successful life together falls short of all their dreams? For Irene, who is only ten when the story opens, she sees her parents struggle bitterly against the realization that life does not live up to their hopes and wishes for happiness. And worse that neither finds in the other the satisfaction of marital bliss or even support.
Perhaps if each parent was not battling inner demons, they might have had a better chance. Or if in an alcoholic daze her father had not accidentally filled the wrong medicine in his little pharmacy. Irene might have grown up in a more normal household. She might have had more opportunities. But Irene must be the glue that tries to bind it all together. Something no child should be asked to do. Was there a madness already in her mother that simply floated to the top after so many disappointments, or did a world so filled with problems and anguish push her over the edge?
The MacNeils are probably better off than most. Douglas's shop, out of which he runs his pharmacy, might have done better had he not always extended credit to those unable to pay. Margaret runs a tight household but keeps an even tighter grip on Irene, an only child. But it's clear from the start that things aren't quite right in the MacNeil's home. It's the madness that makes Margaret keep Irene forever under her thumb. And it's the alcohol that keeps Douglas numb and immune to the often crazy and controlling behavior of his wife. No one, no adult, is able to offer Irene respite. She looks to her uncle Rory, but he's caught up in the workers' struggles and moves from place to place, rarely around to help his sister and her family.
So Irene must make do as best she can and be a caregiver of sorts. She knows better than to rock the boat--doesn't go out to play with friends, or stay after school. Church is allowed but then she must come home straight away. Margaret rarely goes out the older Irene gets. She realizes that there is a part of her that she cannot control. She tries to keep 'Mad Margaret' at bay. To appear as normal as she can, because she lives in constant fear of being left alone. Even more so after the death of her husband. And the potential of a boyfriend is like a minefield for Irene that must be carefully navigated.
Looking back at her father's life after his death she sees how little of him there was. So few clothes, hung so tidily. A pair of shoes and a hat. A desk with papers in one corner of the living room. The rest of the house is filled with her mother's presence. When he was alive there were hints of another woman and Irene could only hope that perhaps there was. That somewhere else he had a fuller life where he made an imprint. Left with only her mother, Irene must leave school early and try and run the family shop on her own. She meets Harry through her one friend, and he opens up the world to her. And she is willing to do almost anything to keep him. But glitzy and refined as he is, he doesn't represent security. Like a fancy ornament he is dangled in front of her eyes, but like so much else only to be snatched away.
How does one carve out a life in the direst of circumstances? This is the question Davis asks in The Stubborn Season. Despite their faults and limitations the characters are sensitively portrayed. And Irene is an affecting young woman who must scrabble out of her situation and learn to find and fight for her own independence and happiness which she does with quiet dignity. Surely it is no accident that Davis sets her story during the Great Depression. The turmoil represented by Irene's family life is mirrored by the madness and violence of the greater world beset by economic and social woes, and it is played out by a young Jewish man who must leave his Saskatchewan farming community to seek opportunities elsewhere. David Hirsch's story is interleaved between those of Irene and her family, which Davis deftly draws together in the end.
The Stubborn Season is Lauren Davis's first novel, and a quite impressive one at that. I've been reading her novel The Radiant City, which is very much a different sort of story--set decades later and in Paris, France. She is an author I will be keeping an eye on. This is the first of what I hope will be thirteen books by Canadian authors for the year long Canadian Reading Challenge that goes through next July. I've also just started Hilary Scharper's Perdita, which is set in Ontario's Bruce Peninsula. I have lots of good Canadian literature lined up to read!