Reading by Lightning by Joan Thomas
Goose Lane Editions, Fredericton, New Brunswick, 2008
I own this one. It won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in 2009 and the Amazon First Novel Award.
I cannot remember where I first learned of this book. It might have been on the CBC website or through Amazon CA. All I know is I waited for months to see if the library would buy a copy and then just couldn’t wait any longer.
Reading by Lightning is the story of Lily Piper, a young girl growing up in a farming community in Saskatchewan. Her father traveled to Canada from England, following the charismatic preacher Isaac Barr, and his followers wait for a moment of rapture when they will rise up to heaven. Lily is restless and rebellious, not as compliant as her Mother would like. She has an irrepressible urge to break free.
At sixteen she is sent to England to care for her Grandmother. There she meets her father’s family, revels in her freedom and falls in love, only to be called back to Canada by her family.
In Lily, we find a young girl full of deep thoughts and strong feeling. Her struggle to break out and discover herself is one all adolescents endure and Thomas has written of it with beauty and grace. This is another one of those books I find difficult to describe. It is sprawling, covering decades, and yet so delicate and precise it is a joy to read.
And of course, no one talked back then, except about things that happened a long time ago. When I try to tell about our life I am struck by how thin and poor my words are. The dog’s dish, with its chipped enamel rim, battered by being driven over when I left it out in the yard. The chair with the broken back. The clock, our clock, with the hand that struggled to cross over the top of the hour. The goat. Things have just one words for them –dish, chair, clock, goat. The biggest crime you could commit against your neighbor was aspiring to anything fancier, especially words. The Parrot’s goat might have been made to show how poor and mean words are. From page 79
..Once I boarded the SS Franconia it was different: there we were all held in a little society in which it seemed I had to account for myself. Sometimes I thought the other passengers were piqued by my naiveté, and during the cool, sunny days when everyone strolled on deck I leaned against the railing and looked out to the horizon as though this were my habitual attitude, gazing across endless fields of rippling wheat. That’s how I made my way across the ocean,playing the role of the unspoiled, forthright farm girl. One night in the dining room a man in a shabby brown suit talked about the drought on the prairies. It’s the sign of the end times, I said boldly. It’s in the Book of Revelations. There’s a drought on the prairies every thirty years, said the man. It’s a natural cycle. He didn’t bother even to glance at me again. And then my longing for England was fierce, for England, where I would be someone else, although I didn’t know then who that would be. From page 136.
The story moves between first person and third person points of view but I did not find this a distraction. Thomas is a fine writer and I will be happy if she publishes another novel.