Rachel Cameron is a spinster. She’s only 34-years old, but the school teacher from the fictional town of Manawaka, Manitoba, is almost as childlike as her grade twos.
She’s virginal and anxiety-laden. Her inner monologue is a cacophony of second guesses. She agonizes over what others might think of her; she analyzes exchanges with her overbearing, manipulative mother. Her first instinct is to apologize to anyone for anything — to her mother, school principal Siddley, her friend Calla, and summer fling Nick — but she’s not without some self-awareness:
Something must be the matter with my way of viewing things. I have no middle view. Either I fix on a detail and see it as though it were magnified — a leaf with all its veins perceived, the fine hairs on the back of a man’s hands — or else the world recedes and becomes blurred, artificial, indefinite, an abstract painting of a word.
Along comes Nick Kazlik, a grade 11 teacher home for the summer holidays to spend time with his aging parents on their dairy farm. Nick is Rachel’s key to a delayed, condensed, and frenzied adolescence on her way to adulthood.
A slang-slinging smooth talker, Nick’s only interested in one thing. Rachel — despite the potential for a pregnancy that would induce apoplectic levels of shame for her and her mother in their backward little prairie town — can’t resist his Slavic charms.
Laurence does a great job depicting sexual politics in early 1960s rural Canada, a place where women were in charge of acquiring birth control because (according to men) “it’s better like that” and “fixing themselves” after sex despite zero access to contraceptives.
Rachel can’t win. Everyone in town knows she’s unmarried. Asking her long-time family doctor for birth control would annihilate her reputation; it’s out of the question. Having the baby would induce immutable shame for Rachel, her mother, and especially the child, who as a bastard would be marked in Manawaka, doomed by whispered innuendo its entire life.
Manawaka is a place where an unwanted pregnancy means considering ways to flee the problem (leaving town, abortion, suicide). It’s a place where men say things like:
Sh, sh, darling. It’s all right. I won’t go off in you.
Only to be quickly followed by:
“Oh hell, darling,” he says, “I meant to get out before that happened, but I –“
You can’t help but root for Rachel who finally wrests control of her life from her mother — a cloying, pill-dependent, weak-hearted guilt machine — by leaving Manawaka behind for an adult life on the coast infused with possibility, a place where:
Anything may happen, where I’m going.
Such a beautiful and stark novel, much like the prairie on which it’s set.
— December, 2015