Sometimes Jean or Lucjan would choose a painting in a gallery – Rembrandt’s Lady With A Lapdog – or a specific book in a library – Chekhov’s Lady With Lapdog or Growtowski’s Towards A Poor Theatre – and meet there. Jean favoured meeting via Dewey Decimal, like the coordinates of a map.
Some friends will sit you down on the couch, serve you a drink and, with lights turned off, project a half hour of slides on the opposite wall. Because everyone loves to show off their vacation pictures.
This will not do for a writer.
Herewith, my vacation.
Driving between Long Sault and Cornwall, in Ontario, a sign announced a museum run by the Lost Villages Historical Society. It features a small group of buildings and objects saved from six villages and three hamlets that were flooded. Intentionally flooded, for the sake of progress. The surging waters created Lake St. Lawrence, and the technological marvel that is the St. Lawrence Seaway, which opened up the river for shipping, and created new sources of hydroelectric power.
Hundreds of buildings were moved to higher ground, but many homes and businesses, churches and schools, were destroyed.
Inundation Day was July 1, 1958.
“The residents of the villages and hamlets had been told that this project would improve their lives and better the futures of their children but as they prepared to move to the new towns it became obvious what they were losing,” reads the museum’s pamphlet.
“[P]eople were expected to begin new lives… A way of life, however, which had evolved from the first settlements of the United Empire Loyalists to the bustling communities of the post-war era was gone forever. Many who had once been neighbours and friends were no longer able to see each other on a daily basis. Some business owners were unable to make the transition to the new towns, children had to attend new schools and had to make new friends, and people joined new church congregations. Life had changed forever.” An hour-long documentary of interviews is particularly affecting, as older folk recall a different life and point out what they say are the long unfulfilled promises of the governmental agencies which forced the move.
Quebec was also impacted by the seaway construction, though that’s unsaid (it’s an Ontario museum, after all.)
Residents of Kahnawake who refused to move were simply evicted, their land expropriated and become a hole, a canal, separating the remaining residents from the river that they knew. “Kahnawake translates as ‘on the rapids’, and the seaway robbed the community not only of territory but also of meaning,” the scholar Daniel Macfarlane has written.
“The seaway experience marked a major turning point in the history of [the Mohawk community]. In Canada, it marked the end of their trust in the federal government and gave rise to a more radical nationalist movement that led to later Mohawk conflicts with the Canadian [state].”
My vacation brought me back to the Lennoxville Library. Two Canadian authors published books in 2009 that featured the Lost Villages of Ontario.
There’s lots (and lots!) of cheery books in the Lennoxville Library. These two are no such creatures. But they are both poetic and thoughtful.
Both authors are award-winning writers of literature. Both novels consider the pain of loss, and the complexities of memory, loneliness and family. Despite the sad-sounding topic, both books are great reads. Both books are filed in Adult Fiction (in alphabetical order by author).
Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault is the more traditionally written of the two. It’s the story of a love affair between an engineer (whose work takes him to the greatest technological challenges of the world – the St. Lawrence Seaway, Egypt’s Aswan Dam, and more) and a botanist whose plants stand in for her mother and, later, her child. The grief will rub off onto your fingers and be absorbed by your skin (“Sad as a hope suffocating in a collector’s jar, too few holes pounded into the tin lid”).
One woman refused to move her husband’s grave as the waters flooded in: “If you move his body then you’ll have to move the hill. You’ll have to move the field around him. You’ll have to move the view from the top of the hill and the trees he planted, one for each of our six children. You’ll have to move the sun because it sets among those trees….
“It’s the loneliness of eternity I’m talking about. Can you move all these things?”
There are also moments of intense joy, and some of the writing will leave you breathless.
Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists is shorter and more poetic. Napoleon Haskell is an American, a Vietnam vet and drunk who sneaks into Canada to live with Henry, the father of his best friend, a man who died in the war. The pair live in a “government house”, given to Henry when the villages were submerged by the flood waters of the seaway. The house looks out over what used to be.
“I had imagined that the past really existed, semi-submerged, in Henry’s backyard. Wouldn’t that be enough for anyone? I’d thought. To explain that certain sadness, which I identified sometimes in him. And that would make you, when you saw it, want to pull the edges of your own life up around you, and stay there, carefully, inside.”
The unnamed narrator watches her father’s slow decline, tries to get him to talk about the past. Dad is not interested: “Once my father said, ‘Women think that they can make sad things go away by knowing the reason that they happened.”
Eventually, it may be too late for everything to come out. Once memory is submerged, the water begins to pull at it, to wend it away.
These insightful books extended my vacation, giving me a stay-cation steeped in poetry, soaked in sadness.
— Eleanor Brown, August 21, 2015