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978-0-8021-7082-8 | 9780802170828
0-8021-7082-X | 080217082X
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Grove Press, Black Cat
Kathleen Winter’s luminous debut novel is a deeply affecting portrait of life in an enchanting seaside town and the trials of growing up unique in a restrictive environment.
In 1968, into the devastating, spare atmosphere of the remote coastal town of Labrador, Canada, a child is born: a baby who appears to be neither fully boy nor fully girl, but both at once. Only three people are privy to the secret—the baby’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a trusted neighbor and midwife, Thomasina. Though Treadway makes the difficult decision to raise the child as a boy named Wayne, the women continue to quietly nurture the boy’s female side. And as Wayne grows into adulthood within the hyper-masculine hunting society of his father, his shadow-self, a girl he thinks of as “Annabel,” is never entirely extinguished.
Kathleen Winter has crafted a literary gem about the urge to unveil mysterious truth in a culture that shuns contradiction, and the body’s insistence on coming home. A daringly unusual debut full of unforgettable beauty, Annabel introduces a remarkable new voice to American readers.
Wayne Blake was born at the beginning of March, during the first signs of spring break-up of the ice — a time of great importance to Labradorians who hunted ducks for food — and he was born, like most children in that place in 1968, surrounded by women his mother had known all her married life: Joan Martin, Eliza Goudie and Thomasina Baikie. Women who knew how to ice fish and sew caribou hide moccasins and stack wood in a pile that would not fall down in the months their husbands walked the traplines. Women who would know, during any normal birth, exactly what was required.
The village of Croyden Harbour on the southeast Labrador coast has that magnetic earth all Labrador shares. You sense a striation, a pulse, as the land drinks light and emits a vibration. Sometimes you can see it with your naked eye, stripes of light coming off the land. Not every traveler senses it, but those who do keep looking for it in other places, and they find it nowhere but desert and mesa. A traveler can come from New York and feel it. Explorers, teachers, people who know good, hot coffee and densely printed newspapers, but who want something more fundamental, an injection of new world in their blood. Real new world, not a myth that has led to highways, and more highways, or the low, radioactive buildings that offer pancakes and hamburgers and gasoline on those highways. A traveler can come to Labrador and feel its magnetic energy or not feel it. There has to be a question in the person. The visitor has to be an open circuit, available to the power coming off the land, and not everybody is. And it is the same with a person born in Labrador. Some know, from birth, that their homeland has a respiratory system, that it pulls energy from rock and mountain and water and gravitational activity beyond earth, and that it breathes energy in return. And others don’t know it.
Wayne was born, in bathwater, in the house of his parents Treadway and Jacinta Blake. Treadway belonged to Labrador but Jacinta did not. Treadway had kept the traplines of his father and he was magnetized to the rocks, whereas Jacinta had come from St. John’s when she was eighteen to teach in the little school in Croydon Harbour, because she thought, before she met Treadway, that it would be an adventure, and that it would enable her to teach in a St. John’s school once she had three or four years of experience behind her.
“I would eat a lunch of bread and jam every day,” Joan Martin told Eliza and Thomasina as Jacinta went through her fiercest labour pains in the bathtub. Every woman in Croydon Harbour spoke at one time or another of how she might enjoy living on her own. The women indulged in this dream when their husbands had been home from their traplines too long. “I would not need any supper except a couple of boiled eggs, and I’d read a magazine in bed every single night.”
“I’d wear the same clothes for a week,” Eliza said. “My blue wool pants and gray shirt with my nightie stuffed under them. I would never take off my nightie from September til June. And I would get a cat instead of our dogs, and I would save up for a piano.”
The women did not wish away their husbands out of animosity -- it was just that the unendurable winters were all about hauling wood and saving every last piece of marrow and longing for intimacy they imagined would exist when their husbands came home, all the while knowing the intimacy would always be imaginary. Then came brief blasts of summer when fireweed and pitcher plants and bog sundews burst open and gave the air one puff, one tantalizing, scented breath that signaled life could now begin, but it did not begin. The plants were carnivorous. That moment of summer contained desire and fruition and death all in one ravenous gulp, and the women did not jump in. They waited for the moment of summer to expand around them, to expand enough to contain women’s lives, and it never did.
When Jacinta was not groaning with the mind-stopping agony of having her pelvic bones wrenched apart by the baby that was coming, she too indulged in the dream. “I don’t believe I’d stay here at all,” she told her friends as she poured scalding coffee from her small enamel pot, her belly as big as a young seal under her blue apron covered in tiny white flowers. “I’d move back to Monkstown Road and if I couldn’t get a job teaching I’d get my old job back at the Duckworth Laundry washing white linen for the Newfoundland Hotel.”
Thomasina was the only woman who did not indulge. She had not had a father, and she regarded her husband, Graham Montague, with great respect. She had not got over the fact that he could fix anything, that he did not let the house grow cold, that he was the last man to leave for his traplines and the first to come home to her, that he was blind and needed her, or that he had given her Annabel, a red-haired daughter whom she called my bliss and my bee, and who helped her father navigate his canoe now that she was eleven years old and had a head on her as level and judicious as Thomasina’s own. Graham was out now, as were all the hunters in Croydon Harbour, on the river in his white canoe, and Annabel was with him. She rode the bow and told him where to steer, though he knew every movement he needed to make with his oar before Annabel told him, since he had travelled the river by listening before she was born and could hear every stone and icepan and stretch of whitewater. He told her stories in the canoe, and her favourite was a true story about the white caribou that had joined the woodland herd, and that her father had encountered only once, as a boy, before he had the accident that blinded him. Annabel looked for the white caribou on every trip, and when Thomasina told her it might not be alive any more, or it might have gone back to its Arctic tribe, her husband turned his face toward her and silently warned her not to stop their daughter from dreaming.
As her baby’s head crowned, Jacinta’s bathroom brimmed with snow light. Razor clam shells on her windowsill glowed white, and so did the tiles, the porcelain, the shirts of the women and their skin, and whiteness pulsed through her sheer curtains so that the baby’s hair and face became a focal point of saturated colour in the white room; goldy-brown hair, red face, black little eyelashes and a red mouth.
Down the hall from Jacinta’s birthing room, her kitchen puckered and jounced with wood heat. Treadway dropped caribou cakes in spitting pork fat, scalded his teabag and cut a two-inch thick chunk of partridgeberry loaf. He had no intention of lollygagging in the house during