I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Tom and Charlie have decided to live out the remainder of their lives on their own terms, hidden away in a remote forest, their only connection to the outside world a couple of pot growers who deliver whatever they can’t eke out for themselves.
But one summer two women arrive. One is a young photographer documenting a a series of catastrophic forest fires that swept Northern Ontario early in the century; she’s on the trail of the recently deceased Ted Boychuck, a survivor of the blaze. And then the elderly aunt of the one of the pot growers appears, fleeing one of the psychiatric institutions that have been her home since she was sixteen. She joins the men in the woods and begins a new life as Marie-Desneige. With the photographer’s help, they find Ted’s series of paintings about the fire, and begin to decipher the dead man’s history.
Who among us hasn’t fantasized from time to time about escaping the rat-race and hiding away in the wilderness? This was a beautifully written tale of three older men who had done just that, supported by two younger guys who are growing marijuana out in that same wilderness. It is also about the disruption that occurs when two women enter the picture, one of them the elderly aunt of one of the pot-growers, the other a photographer searching for people who survived an enormous historic forest fire. The elderly aunt has spent the vast majority of her life in an institution for the mentally ill, and her nephew, knowing that there is freedom available out in the woods, spins a tale for the authorities and drives her out into the forest.
For me, this book was an exploration of dependence versus independence, our human need for companionship, and the desire to choose life on one’s own terms. Several of my own elderly friends have told me how invisible they feel as they grow older. “Younger people stop seeing you at some point and it’s hard to get service in stores or get answers to questions,” one of them told me. In North America we have adopted a very youth focused culture and we no longer honour our elderly citizens, choosing instead to warehouse them in seniors’ centres and hospitals. It is such as shame, as my older friends have so much experience to draw on and wisdom to impart. It has been a painful experience to see them declining, losing their independence and their memories, finding it more difficult to visit with them as the months progress.
The nature of art is explored through the paintings of Ted, the recently deceased member of the original three men, as well as through the work of the photographer (whose name we never learn). It is during one of the photographer’s interviews with a survivor of the great fire that we hear the phrase that gives this novel its poetic title. The translator did a superb job—it did not feel like a translation at all.