Friday, 12 June 2015

Beauty out of Disaster: And the Birds Rained Down

Last night my bookies in Kirkland discussed Jocelyn Saucier's Il pleuvait des oiseaux--And the Birds Rained Down in English translation by Rhonda Mullins-  The story has haunted me all day.

This is not a long book, but it is filled with vivid scenes, intricate relationships, a couple of mysteries and a love story that gives hope to anyone who feels time at his or her back. Saucier says she started doing research on the great fires that swept northern Ontario, Minnesota and parts of Manitoba 100 years ago. Between 1910 and 1920 thousands of square kilometers were burned by wildfires started as mining, logging and settlement moved into formerly lightly settled country. Saucier's heroine, a photographer, is trying to make a record of the survivors and goes looking for the legendary Ted Boychuk, who was rendered temporarily blind yet managed to wander for months, searching for friends and family.

The photographer arrives at an encampment of old geezers two weeks after Boychuk's death, and so never hears him tell his story. She and his friends do discover, however, that he has exorcized his memories by making more than 300 paintings of the time. A woman who also has terrible memories of mental illness arrives on the scene, and the small community changes in a way that no one expects.

Clearly Saucier was inspired by some paintings by members of the Group of Seven: none of them experienced the fires first hand, but several painted the ravaged landscapes. Yet Saucier's story is original and moving. It's success cuts across age groups: even though it has more than its share of very old people, the novel has twice won prizes awarded by college students. Definitely worth reading.

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