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The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews.

Hattie arrives in Canada in response to a despairing phone call from her neice, Thebes. Hattie’s sister Min has retreated into a psychotic world of her own, leaving eleven-year-old Thebes and older brother Logan to fend for themselves. Once Min has been taken off to hospital, Hattie takes the kids and sets off on a journey across America to find their father, Cherkis.

One of the things I really admire about this book is the technical mastery of the writing. The three protagonists are dealing with pretty intense, raw emotions – anger, loss, fear – but everything is written in an easy-going, hippiesh tone that perfectly echoes their journey and the cast of characters they encounter on the way. The tone of the book is sincere, not sentimental; honest but not judgmental. And the character of the narrator, Hattie, is revealed in telling little snippets. Brilliant, enviable writing. I’m going to quote a passage which I think admirably demonstrates Ms Toews’ mastery of show-don’t-tell, the necessity of which is drummed into all aspiring writers but which is incredibly difficult to achieve.

Here and there in the earlier part of the novel, Hattie as narrator sets up the close and loving relationship between Logan and his father; for example when Logan is brought home from the hospital for the first time.

“... Cherkis held Logan close to his chest – he’d taken his shirt off so Logan could feel his beating heart – and carried him from room to room, telling Logan that this is the living room, and this is the kitchen, and buddy, this is the bedroom where you’ll sleep…”

However, when Logan is five, Cherkis abandons the family.

“… I was at Min’s place when Cherkis left. I played with Logan in the backyard while Min, with baby Thebes on her hip, chased Cherkis down the front sidewalk, screaming obscenities and at the same time begging him not to go. A few of the neighbours had come out to watch.

Logan was wearing a red plastic firemans’s hat and was pretending to put out a fire with the garden hose. I was a burn victim and wasn’t allowed to move. Every time I heard Min shriek, I’d turn my head and try to get up, but Logan would race over to me, put his hands on my cheeks and his face close to mine and attempt to redirect my focus. You’ll be OK, he said. Don’t worry. You’re gonna make it. You won’t die. And then he’d race back to the fire.

Later on, after Cherkis had successfully managed to escape, Min lay sobbing on the living room floor and Logan sat beside her watching the tv. ….

…… It took me forever to leave because Logan had hidden my shoes and wouldn’t tell me where.”

I say to all aspiring writers, read and study this book. It is a masterclass in writing about tragedy with a light, humorous and compassionate touch.

Canada + maple syrup, obviously. Reading this book brought out my inner earth mother, so I had to imagine myself growing my own vegetables and providing my extended family with nutritious healthy food (the characters in the novel live on junk food and mouldering sandwiches, admittedly, but still…)

I made Catherine Berwick's parsnip & maple syrup cake. Catherine is the winner of Good Food's 20th birthday cake competition, and here is the link to her original recipe.

My version didn't work out all that well, probably because after weighing the ingredients I began to be a bit suspicious of my scales, which are very old and cheap. They said everything was 250g but maybe that wasn't quite the case . . . but the cake still tasted lovely. I added a bit of orange zest into the frosting, as well.

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