River of the Brokenhearted, by David Adams Richards
A dynastic novel as Canadian as maple syrup…
Publisher’s Story blurb: In the 1920s, Janie McLeary and George King run one of the first movie theatres in the Maritimes. The marriage of the young Irish Catholic woman to an older English man is thought scandalous, but they work happily together, playing music to accompany the films. When George succumbs to illness and dies, leaving Janie with one young child and another on the way, the unscrupulous Joey Elias tries to take over the business. But Janie guards the theatre with a shotgun, and still in mourning, re-opens it herself. “If there was no real bliss in Janie’s life,” recounts her grandson, “there were moments of triumph.”
One night, deceived by the bank manager and Elias into believing she will lose her mortgage, Janie resolves to go and ask for money from the Catholic houses. Elias has sent out men to stop her, so she leaps out the back window and with a broken rib she swims in the dark across the icy Miramichi River, doubting her own sanity. Yet, seeing these people swayed into immoral actions because of their desire to please others and their fear of being outcast, she thinks to herself that “…all her life she had been forced to act in a way uncommon with others… Was sanity doing what they did? And if it was, was it moral or justified to be sane?”
Astonishingly, she finds herself face to face that night with influential Lord Beaverbrook, who sees in her tremendous character and saves her business. Not only does she survive, she prospers; she becomes wealthy, but ostracized. Even her own father helps Elias plot against her. Yet Janie McLeary King thwarts them and brings first-run talking pictures to the town.
Meanwhile, she employs Rebecca from the rival Druken family to look after her children. Jealous, and a protégé of Elias, Rebecca mistreats her young charges. The boy Miles longs to be a performer, but Rebecca convinces him he is hated, and he inherits his mother’s enemies. The only person who truly loves her, he is kept under his mother’s influence until, eventually, he takes a job as the theatre’s projectionist. He drinks heavily all his life, tends his flowers, and talks of things no-one believes, until the mystery at the heart of the novel finally unravels.
“At six I began to realize that my father was somewhat different,” says Miles King’s son Wendell, who narrates the saga in an attempt to find answers in the past and understand “how I was damned.” It is a many-layered epic of rivalries, misunderstandings, rumours; the abuse of power, what weak people will do for love, and the true power of doing right; of a pioneer and her legacy in the lives of her son and grandchildren.
About the author: David Adams Richards (born 17 October 1950) is a Canadian novelist, essayist, screenwriter and poet.
Born in Newcastle, New Brunswick, Richards left St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, one course shy of completing a B.A. Richards has been a writer-in-residence at various universities and colleges across Canada, including the University of New Brunswick.
Richards has received numerous awards including 2 Gemini Awards for scriptwriting for Small Gifts and “For Those Who Hunt The Wounded Down”, the Alden Nowlan Award for Excellence in the Arts, and the Canadian Authors Association Award for his novel Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace. Richards is one of only three writers to have won in both the fiction and non-fiction categories of the Governor General’s Award. He won the 1988 fiction award for Nights Below Station Street and the 1998 non-fiction award for Lines on the Water: A Fisherman’s Life on the Miramichi. He was also a co-winner of the 2000 Giller Prize for Mercy Among the Children.
Review by Gerry Burnie
I must admit that I have been working on this novel, River of the Brokenhearted by David Adams Richards [Arcade Publishing, January 12, 2012] (450 pags.) for a while, but like a glass of mellow wine it never suffered from age.
The people of Canada’s maritime region are great story tellers, as witness Alistair MacLeod, Linden MacIntyre, and now David Adams Richards, the latter two being both Giller Prize winters. Part of this remarkable ability may come the maritime provinces themselves, which, like most seafaring cultures, seem to have an uncommonly large population of characters just waiting to be written about.
This, coupled with David Richards’ keen ability to capitalize on every nuance of a character’s personality, makes this pithy read from that point of view, alone.
Plot wise it covers four generation, and so the pace is understandably slow in places, but never tedious. The topic of generational feuds on Canadian soil could, I think, only ring true in the Maritimes with its large population of Scots and Irish, as could the iron-willed resilience of Janie McLeary, but both are rich fodder and credible in every way.
One of the interesting touches was the inclusion of Nova Scotian, Max Aitkin (“Lord Beaverbrook”), for no story about Nova Scotia for the time would be complete without him.
I am unimpressed by the both the Giller and the GG awards, but in this case I believe they are well placed. Five bees.
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