Article Category Archives: Book Review

What to Read Next: The Write Crowd

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The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship and the Writing Life by Lori A. May (Bloomsbury 2015) is not your average writing guide. It does not explore point of view or plot structures. It does not advise on how to pitch to agents or approach publishers. But it just may keep you writing. It may make the difference between saying, “I write” and “I am a writer.”

The Write Crowd advocates finding, creating and nurturing literary community through small “acts of literary kindness.” May begins the book by telling of her move from small-town Ontario to Detroit. She knew few people in the city but ventured out one night to a poetry reading in support of local authors. There she met other writers, publishers and like-minded poets. She made contacts that allowed her to launch a literary journal. She wasn’t “networking” but engaging. She was offering support and, as it happened, she also received it.

Literary citizenship can take many forms and May provides dozens of ideas from a simple “thank-you” note for author to reading for literary magazines. “The concept is to pay kindness and skill forward, to offer something to the community so that others may learn, engage, and grow from combined efforts.”

Literary citizenship is “contributing something to the literary world outside one’s own immediate need.”

The Write Crowd is both practical and inspirational. It is about connecting with others, about recognizing and celebrating the fact that we need each other.

Lori A. May spoke with Understorey Magazine about the book, literary citizenship and her latest projects.

Understorey Magazine: Writing your book was itself an “act of literary kindness” in that it inspires others to engage. What prompted you to write it?

Lori A. May: I had been impressed with so many wonderful acts of literary kindness around me—seeing emerging writers take the stage at reading series, witnessing grad student volunteers becoming employees of independent presses, watching grassroots groups become registered nonprofit organizations—that I began to document some of the ways we can foster and strengthen literary community. I wanted to share ideas big and small for how we play a role in the community and in passing on goodwill to the next generation of readers and writers. After speaking on the topic for a number of years and publishing a few articles, I imagined there was an audience for a book-length discussion.

UMag: You note in the book that literary citizenship has a long history (Walt Whitman was one advocate). Do you think the concept has changed significantly in recent times, especially with all the self-promotion authors are now expected to do?

writecrowdLM: I don’t consider self-promotion a part of literary citizenship. That’s marketing—and it’s certainly necessary for authors to do, perhaps more now than ever. Literary citizenship is when peers and readers share enthusiasm for new books, for authors’ efforts and for events taking place in the community. Acts of literary citizenship are not something a writer can count on as part of a greater marketing plan. But when readers and peers make an extra effort to help authors, it’s a welcome bonus. And when authors devote some of their time to championing others and injecting enthusiasm into the community around them? Well, those same authors are likely to benefit from community support.

UMag: Do you think the literary community and opportunities for engagement are significantly different in Canada versus the US or in big cities versus small towns?

LM: Opportunities are perhaps proportionate to population, but I don’t think there is less opportunity in Canada. There are wonderful book publishers, booksellers, literary festivals and organizations throughout the country and thus plenty of opportunity for literary citizens to get involved. In the book, I highlight a few stand-outs, like Brick Books, Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs and Canadian Women in Literary Arts, but there are countless others, such as provincial writers’ guilds and federations and many local literary festivals. The point I hope to make in The Write Crowd is that wherever you live, whatever resources you have to share with others, there is opportunity. If you live in a rural area, that’s all the more reason to find like-minded readers and writers to assemble a reading series. If you live in a small town with access to a library, there’s opportunity to mentor young writers or host community writing workshops. Plus, with the Internet, there’s little excuse to not get involved. Many literary journals rely on volunteer readers for submissions or marketing assistance, and many times these opportunities can be done at a distance. Whatever I learned about literary citizenship, I first learned as a young Canadian writer and I think opportunities are only increasing in Canada.

UMag: Time is a precious resource for most writers—and especially for women, who still take on a disproportionate amount of housework and childcare. Squeezing in thirty minutes of writing before work may be all that is manageable. Yet, as you point out, engagement is vital. What is one small act of literary kindness that a time-stretched emerging writer might perform?

LM: Cheer on a fellow writer. Make a quarterly appointment in your calendar to give encouragement—via mail or email or phone or in person—to another writer and champion whatever he or she is doing, remind one another why you’re writing and celebrate even the smallest of accomplishments. That may not seem like a major act of engagement but writers can so often feel isolated and frustrated with the process that these little boosts of encouragement can do wonders. You never know when someone is having a bad run and feeling down on her work. A pick-me-up phone call or note that says, “Your work matters, keep it up!” can be just the boost someone needs.

UMag: What are you working on now?

LM: I’m tinkering with some new poems, but I’m mostly focused on a new narrative nonfiction project. It’s slow going, in a way that it should be, but I like sinking my teeth into a larger project like that. I also reward myself with the instant gratification of freelance writing, so I’m seeing results for efforts along the way. I’ve had a busy year with travel and presenting at a number of conferences and festivals and being that immersed in the community always makes me feel good. I love the thrill of hearing others’ successes and sharing that magic. Most often when I come home from presenting, I have an extra bit of spunk in my step that motivates me to keep doing what I’m doing. That’s why I think community is so important. We’re all in this together.

UMag: What books or magazines are on your to-read list?

LM: I just received the latest Best Canadian Essays from Tightrope Books, so I’m enjoying the myriad voices in that collection. It’s wonderful. I’m also enjoying my subscriptions to Room Magazine, The Missouri Review and The Colorado Review. Literary journals are an amazing way to discover new voices and support independent publishing too.

Lori A. May is a Canadian author, poet and teacher. Her second collection of poetry, Square Feet, was published by Accents Publishing in 2014. She has also written the The Low-Residency MFA Handbook: A Guide for Prospective Creative Writing Students (Bloomsbury, 2011), two crime novels and short pieces published in leading literary journals. Lori grew up in Ontario and while she currently lives in the US, she keeps many Canadian literary connections, including a teaching post in the creative nonfiction writing program at the University of King’s College-Halifax and a position on the board of the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs.

What to Read Next

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Rose’s Run, by Dawn Dumont (Thistledown Press, 2014)

rosesrunDawn Dumont is a professional comedian, so you might expect Rose’s Run, her second novel, to be funny—and it is. But the book has a serious side too, tackling women’s issue and both daily realities and ingrained stereotypes of native life in Canada. Rose Okanese is a mother of two young girls on a fictional reserve in Saskatchewan. Although she’s been to university, Rose works at a pig farm and spends her evenings at the bingo hall. When she returns home one evening to find her husband in bed with her cousin, Rose throws him out and resurrects old running skills to chase her cousin down. The following day, Rose loses her job. She applies for welfare at the band office and meets the alluring and athletic new Chief, Taylor. Through attempts to impress and maintain dignity, Rose lands a job as social administrator and (much to her horror) commits to running a marathon. But as she juggles mothering two girls, caring for a pregnant friend (whose husband has also strayed), her new job, and a punishing training program, another problem arises—literally. Rose’s teenage daughter, Sarah, along with a pot-smoking friend, unearth a mysterious Dream Woman from an unmarked grave. The woman, a sort of feminist wihtikow, begins to possess local women, compelling them to take revenge on their wayward men. Rose must put her newfound strength—physical, mental and spiritual—to the test. Like a swift morning run, Dumont’s book is both challenging and exhilarating.

 

Fling! by Lily Iona MacKenzie (Pen-L Publishing, 2015)

flingFling!, Lily Iona MacKenzie’s debut novel, spans two continents, three generations of Heathers, and multiple layers of reality. In 1906, Heather McGregor is born in the Isle of Skye—or is not born, exactly, but dances off a painting and into a potato patch. Heather grows (more robust than the potatoes), marries a MacDonald, and moves to Calgary. There she gives birth to another Heather, later known as Bubbles, who in turn gives birth to her own Heather, known as Feather. But Heather Number One doesn’t stick around “cold Protestant” Canada for long. She flees with an employer to a wild and mysterious life in Mexico. Many years later, Bubbles, a sprightly ninety when the novel opens, decides she and Feather must follow in Heather’s footsteps—not vanish into Mexico but simply retrieve Heather’s long lost ashes and perhaps discover what tempted her mother to leave family behind forever. Of course, Feather and Bubbles discover much more: sex, drugs, shamans, a very vital statue, and living, dancing long-dead relatives—including Heather, still wild and spry and generous with motherly advice. With a light but practised hand, MacKenzie weaves the rich traditions of Skye with the myths and magic of Mexico (and a rather modest portrayal of her hometown Calgary) to explore motherhood, the ties that bind generations of women—and perhaps the secret to happiness itself.

 

Shallow, Selfish and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum (Picador, 2015)

shallow“Why’d you decide to have kids?” We rarely hear this. More often, women—and some men—who do not have kids must account for their childless status and fend off the “standard barbs” that give this collection of essays its title. Editor Meghan Daum aims to show, however, “that there are just as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent. You can do it lazily and self-servingly or you can do it generously and imaginatively.” Indeed, several contributors make little effort to dispel the selfish label. Staying out late, sleeping in and travel are cited as benefits of the child-free life. But the notion that childless equals freedom while parenthood equals drudgery, “trekking in Bhutan” versus “folding onesies,” as Pam Houston puts it, seems far too tidy. Many contributors explore more nuanced, diverse and compelling reasons for their choices. Lauren Kipnis, among others, tackles the notion that human reproduction is biologically or socially necessary, that we must have kids to be fully human. If this is not the case, and surely it isn’t, positions like Geoff Dwyer’s—I don’t have kids because I’m not interested in kids—seem valid and sufficient. Yet most contributors have thought long and hard about parenting. Some wanted children but never found the right time, place or partner: more childless by circumstance than childless by choice. Perhaps the most poignant essays are from writers who have examined their own lives and decided they simply cannot be a parent. Paul Lisicky writes beautifully of a time when gay men like him died in their twenties and thirties. On parenting he says: “It is easier than you think to be indifferent to what you’ve been told you can’t have.” Sigrid Nunez begins her essay: “There was a time during my childhood when I believed that all children were unwanted.” She writes of her own mother and the parents she knew growing up: their dominant emotion was anger; hers was fear. Nunez says she could not be a real mother, “not the kind I would have wanted for my child.” No one reader could empathize with all views presented here; some are even hard to like. But Daum succeeds in presenting both diversity of experience and fabulous writing, and the essays will no doubt evoke deep feeling—anguish, rage, camaraderie, surprise—in parents and nonparents alike. What more could one want from a book?

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Review: The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl

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sueIn The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl (Gaspereau Press, 2015), Nova Scotia poet Sue Goyette delivers a long form poem about a four-year-old Massachusetts girl who died after prolonged exposure to a cocktail of drugs prescribed for bipolar disorder and ADHD. Her parents were subsequently convicted for the murder.

The book is set mainly in the court room during the trial and includes the conversations, thoughts, and actions of the parents, lawyers, doctor, judge, jury, and witnesses — as well as the ghost of the girl.

Goyette does not simply reiterate this story for empathetic purposes. Through surreal language and metaphor, she shows the reader an alternate reality, asks questions, and looks for answers as to how a tragedy like this can occur. Readers watch the human characters interact, but much like stepping through the looking glass, we also see societal actors at play: poverty, childhood, mental health, technology, and the social, education, and health systems — to name a few.

Of these characters, poverty feels most prominent. It is a school yard bully we all recognize, whether as victims or as witnesses who stand back to watch. In The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl, poverty swoops around the courtroom and is partially deflected by gavels and prescriptions pads. Yet poverty, Goyette shows, can eat you alive: “No one ever thinks / of the edge being so close. Or the drop so sudden.”

In Goyette’s hallmark style, seemingly nonsensical language and tangential references layer the poems with meaning and challenge readers to absorb each word and scene. While logic tells me, for example, that a kitchen colander cannot strain heartbeats and a bear cannot keep this girl alive, through Goyette’s language, I understand more than ever what is happening at this trial. Goyette’s words are a terrifying reminder of how children are often at the mercy of adult lives and how complacency can make us oblivious to an upside-down world where a preschooler can be failed by so many people.

Indeed, the presence of the girl as a ghost throughout the trial needles both readers and the living characters in the narrative: “The ghost of the girl hoisted the shovel to show / the jury what had been prescribed to her. She tried / telling them that all she could do with this shovel / was to dig holes she kept falling into….” The image is haunting, the girl’s reality so far down, so clouded by medication and a mental illness that might or might not have existed. Through this powerful and counter-logical portrayal of a tragic reality, the girl is given body and voice and a piece of her, as well as lingering questions about illness, authority, and social structures, are placed in us all.

The M Word

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The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood (Goose Lane, 2014) features essays by Canadian women writers and artists, including author Carrie Snyder, poet Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang, and musician Christa Couture. Understorey Magazine spoke The M Word editor and contributor Kerry Clare about what makes this book unique and riveting.

Understorey Magazine: You write in the introduction to The M Word: “You might ask if the world needs another literary anthology about motherhood, and I would argue that it needs this one.” What makes this book different?

Kerry Clare: The M Word examines motherhood and maternity through a very broad lens and includes experiences of motherhood that are often invisible—miscarriage, infertility, the death of a child, giving up a child via adoption—and experiences that are still taboo—abortion, maternal ambivalence, or no ambivalence about rejecting motherhood altogether. These stories are featured along with more typical but still complex stories of motherhood. The effect of this broadness, I think, is quite radical: Women with different experiences, voices, and perspectives co-exist in one literary space. This is a lot like the real world yet such a complicated, many-sided reality of motherhood (and womanhood) is not reflected in the media often enough.

I do, however, see The M Word as part of a new wave of books that challenge simplistic ideas about motherhood and womanhood, works such as Meghan Daum’s anthology, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on their Decision Not to Have Kids; the anthology, How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting by Lisa Martin and Jessica Hiemstra; and One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories edited by Kathryn Palmateer and Martha Solomon. The conversation is beginning to change.

UMag: How did you find and choose writers for this book?

KC: One doesn’t have to venture far to find a woman with an interesting story about motherhood! Many of the essays are written by friends and grew out of conversations we’d had even before the book was an idea. Approaching women I knew without children seemed like a more risky endeavour. Many of these women were friends or acquaintances too, but we’d never talked about why they didn’t have kids. It turned out that they also had stories they wanted to tell, and these stories were fascinating. So the book grew from my own community, and I then ventured further afield—approaching writers who were friends of friends and sometimes strangers—to add experiences I felt were missing. People were unbelievably generous and happy to become a part of the project. I find women tend to be like that….

The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood edited by Kerry Clare

The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood
edited by Kerry Clare

UMag: Your book blurs the line between “breeders and the child-free.” And yet, as you point out, society still tends to categorize women—often we categorize ourselves—simply as mothers or not mothers. How did the authors respond to the idea of this book, especially women who had not previously written about motherhood? What kinds of responses have you had from readers?

KC: My impression is that the writers were glad to have their stories acknowledged and included—particularly those with the “invisible” experiences I mentioned above. In particular, I found women struggling with infertility and miscarriage often feel so alienated and apart from motherhood (and sometimes from womanhood), but these experiences really are part of the same story. So too with women who choose not to have children: They’re often situated as a kind of “other,” and so I think it’s validating and essential for their voices to be heard. The response from readers has been tremendous: It seems to be a book that one reads, and then passes onto a friend. And I love that. It was just what I intended.

UMag: All of the authors for The M Word are writers or artists, some emerging, some very well established. This thread, more than any single idea of motherhood, binds the book into a whole. There is a longing throughout the essays, a need to create. How do you think that creative pull influences women’s experience of motherhood—either their own motherhood or societal expectations of motherhood?

KC: On the one hand, I would say that the creative pull complicates the experience of motherhood—an artist-mother has to make that extra space to get her work done, and that’s hard to do. On the other hand, I’m not so sure that artist-mothers are that different from everybody else. Art is work and everybody works. I once had a conversation with another writer about how perhaps we experience motherhood differently from other people—that as writers we feel the need to articulate all these impossible notions that motherhood presents—when another friend, an architect, interrupted to say that she thinks about space and design differently having gone about in the world with a child, with a stroller. I think that for any mother, there is a tension between her mother self and her other self, but there are also extraordinary ways each informs the other.

Umag: Another alluring and very reassuring theme in the book is unexpectedess, that we can’t always plan our lives—much less our motherhood—with any precision. What surprised you most about this book? What did you learn about writing, publishing, motherhood, women?

KC: The M Word affirmed to me that women are generous, supportive, and community-minded people. But I knew that part already! What surprised me about the book was how much sense it made to just let the essays flow in alphabetical order according to the writers’ last names rather than try to organize it by theme or subject. Women’s life stories really are complimentary and themes emerged in the book where I hadn’t expected. One recurring theme was doubleness, which is fitting, I think, for a project that’s seeking to disrupt binaries. None of us are ever just one thing. Nothing is straightforward.

Umag: What’s next for you?

KC: I’ve recently finished a first draft of a novel—a grown up version of Harriet the Spy—so we’ll see where that goes. I continue to do freelance writing and reviewing, to edit 49th Shelf, and to write about books and reading at my own blog, Pickle Me This. Plus, my daughters are turning two and six this year, and they’re funnier and more fascinating than ever, so I’ll be chasing after them.

Grist

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Linda Little’s latest novel, Grist, examines motherhood, gender roles, and hard work through the character of Penelope, a women left alone to run a mill in nineteenth-century rural Nova Scotia. Grist has received fabulous reviews. Understorey Magazine spoke with Linda about her novel and her work.

grist_bookcover

Understorey Magazine: There are autobiographical elements in Grist. You once worked in the Balmoral Grist Mill near Tatamagouche, for instance. Are there parts of you in Penelope too?

Linda Little: Certainly, my working at the grist mill was the fundamental inspiration for the novel. I love the mill and it was the springboard for the story. As for Penelope, I really didn’t draw much on my own experience or character. It’s hard to know how any of us would now respond to, and manage under, the circumstances that nineteenth-century women experienced as the norm. Penelope did what she could with the options and opportunities that arose—which is what we all strive to do, I suppose.

Understorey Magazine: You won the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award for Scotch River in 2007. How did winning this prize influence your writing career?

Linda Little: It was wonderful to win that award. It is always a great thrill to have a novel receive extra attention. (And then there’s the money….) Having said this, it is important to remember that an award does not change a book. A novel is just as important/moving/affective to its readers before or after, with or without an award. Who wins an award depends on who sits on the jury. The great thing about an award is the chance to gain new readers. Yes, an award looks great on a resume but really, not many people ever need to see my resume these days.

Understorey Magazine: What keeps you writing, especially through those difficult days when the words don’t flow?

Linda Little: Writers need to bring their own motivations to their work. Just because a person is sitting in front of their computer does not mean they will capture something on the screen. But if you’re not sitting there, it is guaranteed you won’t! Writing Grist was a long and difficult process for me. I had to rewrite the book several times from different points of view, and by the end of the process my energy was just about spent. For my two earlier books and in the first few years of writing Grist the stories themselves carried me. When the going gets tough though, I think sheer naked determination is probably your best bet. There’s nothing fancy about it. I imagination the process has strong parallels to raising teenagers—it’s not fun any more but you can’t just stop. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” as the old saying goes. Just believe in the absence of other options.

Excerpt from Grist 

Cold closed in as we headed further down through December. Listlessness tugged at me. My days were peppered with bouts of feeling morose and ill. As Christmastime approached I brought an armful of evergreen boughs into the house and urged myself towards some small effort for the season though I knew from experience that Ewan would work as usual on Christmas Day. I visited Nettle for the few supplies I would need to make the Christmas pudding which would elicit no comment from him, one way or the other.

On Christmas morning I woke to a soft snowfall. Ewan had already left for the mill as usual. I pulled on my coat and boots and stepped out into the fresh, white hush and turned my face to the sky. The world was magnificent. I only needed to open my arms to receive its blessings. Buoyed, and thankful that I had made the small efforts I had, I set to my chores in anticipation. Then I packed up my gingerbread creation and bore it triumphantly up to Browns’ where I knew there would be Christmas cheer in abundance.

Indeed the family enveloped me the moment I entered. The children clamoured to show me the treasures Santa Claus had left them.

“Look, Mrs. MacLaughlin—an orange and a stick of candy! And the whole of it’s for me!”

“See mine, Mrs. MacLaughlin?”

“What have you got in your package, Mrs. MacLaughlin?” young Peter asked.

“I’ve brought a surprise. Shall we set it out here on the table where everyone can have a look?”

The children crowded around as I unveiled the little house with its candy-shingled roof and walls and its gumdropped laneway. I had made six gingerbread figures—one for each child—cavorting in the egg-white icing snow.

“Look at the windows!” cried Harriet. “They’re like real glass, but candy!”

“Look at the peppermints!”

“This gingerbread boy is me! See, Mama, he’s got a snowball!”

When I looked up Abby was staring at me with the most bewildered look on her face. She smiled then, of course, and gushed about the house, but I had caught her out. I felt my social self peel away, outwardly listening to the children’s questions and exclamations but underneath an awkward ache tugged me away from them.

Later, with the children sent outside to play, Abby turned to me. She cupped my chin with her hand and peered intently into my face. “Penelope, I believe you have that glow. Am I right? When did you have your last…?”

Answering her whispered questions, I pressed my palms to my womb. Yes. I had been so foolish with fussing over my troubles that I had missed the very gifts set before me.

“Yes,” Abby nodded. “There is a glow, I’m sure of it.”

I walked slowly and carefully down to the mill feeling more certain with each step. I found him by the fodder stone.

“Ewan,” I whispered, setting my hand on his shoulder, “I think we may be blessed. A child.”

Ewan cocked his head, stared at my abdomen. “Ah, your extra labour when I was gone. This is your reward.”

I caught a merry laugh as it bubbled up, caught it just in time and contained it in a smile. Had he been a different sort of man I would have teased him that a man’s absence from his wife is seldom rewarded in this way. Instead I leaned over and kissed his cheek.

I sang at my work and prayed and worked and sang some more. After all my waiting and troubles and disappointments, I felt so certain, so strong. On Sundays I visited with Abby revelling in her little ones as proof of how it would be, splashing optimism everywhere, painting the world with certainty. Abby gave me little dresses as patterns for the wee gowns I stitched and decorated. Mrs. Cunningham deduced or heard the news of my condition. When I met her on the road on my way back from Nettle’s she shot a doubtful frown over my body and advised that after this long time I shouldn’t get my hopes up.

On a winter day like so many of the days that linked dramatic weather—a seasonal day wrapped in batting, an everyday day—I was hauling water to the barn, breaking the ice on the pails and topping them up with fresh water from the well. The barn was cozy with the warm redolence of animal breath and I took my time with the beasts, stroking Billy’s nose and Pride’s too when she nuzzled over, jealous, patting the flanks of the cows. I had a bred heifer that would freshen in the spring and each day I ran my hands over her and down her hind legs, across her udder, preparing her with my smell and touch, feeding a handful of molasses oats with my ministrations. I carried armloads of hay out to the loafing shed where the sheep greeted my benevolence with bleats of praise. I had just given the horses their winter rations from the oat bag when I felt it. A nudge, a shift. If it had been a sound it would have been a rustle. Involuntarily I looked down at the front of my coat the way one might turn towards a tap on the shoulder. Beneath my palm, beneath a layer of stretched skin and a shallow dome of flesh, a human child had moved. No longer me, now a person in its own right, a baby swaddled by my body, of me but not me. My child, Ewan’s child, whose arms and legs were guided by its own separate little heart and mind. Such a flowering of pure love enveloped me I could barely breathe. “Again, my dear one,” I whispered, coaxing, now clutching my womb with both hands. I waited, my heart as broad and steadfast as the great gentle horses beside me. It came again—a flutter this time. I wept with wonder of it. The quickening.

From that day forward I never sat or stood or moved without thought of the baby I carried beneath my heart. I carried the babe through the cold of February, the ice of March, the inconstancy of April, the dawn of spring and into the fullness of summer. When the water ran low Ewan returned to Curry Point for a fortnight. I hardly noticed his absence. I carried my bundle as it grew and kicked, speaking to me as I spoke to it.

Our baby daughter came with the summer daisies, with all the hope and joy that happy flower brings. Ewan smiled and held the child, his disappointment at her sex soothed by her vibrant health. I felt our lives were beginning again, that everything up to this point had been a long meandering opening chapter; necessary detail perhaps, but now the story would begin.

“Our next will be a boy,” I promised.

“Aye,” he said.

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