I'll Tell You A Secret: A Memory of Seven Summers

by Anne Coleman

Published by McClelland & Stewart

411 pages, 2004

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Telling Tales Out of School

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


You know that if you don't wade to shore now, the water is going to get deeper and the current is eventually going to suck you over the falls, a tumble that may leave no survivors. You need to step back from your life and take another direction, yet you don't. You're heading for disaster and yet are unable to do nothing. You dream of being rescued. Does this sound familiar?

The author recalls this time in her life when she, like so many young women before her, was headed over those falls. She knew her marriage to the dark and brooding Frank would not work out, and yet she seemed powerless to get out of the entanglement. Even before her marriage, she had already worked out that she must not have more than two children, so that she could tuck one under each arm and run for it. Ultimately, she did and she did.

The secret that Anne Coleman is going to tell, however, is not about Frank and their disastrous marriage. I'll Tell You A Secret explores something altogether different and far more surprising. In the 1950s, when as a young girl she spent summers with her parents and siblings in the lakeside summer community of North Hatley, Quebec, Coleman struck up a relationship with Canadian literary icon, Hugh MacLennan.

That first summer, not quite 14 years old and hopelessly tongue-tied by the crush she has on him, Coleman's infatuation begins to grow, especially once it is fed. She walks by McLennan's home in the hopes of seeing him and is ecstatic when he actually offers her a ride and even knows who she is. It seems this infatuation is shared.

While describing their developing friendship, she also casts a light on, and adds a dimension to, the summer world they both inhabited -- its peculiarities and prejudices, its characters and setting.

Perhaps it's a reflection on our world today that we are immediately suspicious. What motives can a man in his 40s possibly have for seeking out a young girl? Was McLennan a sexual predator? What kind of parents and neighbors would observe the ever-increasing amount of time child and man spent together and do nothing about it? What sort of parents, for that matter, wouldn't even bat an eye when the 14-year old takes her dinghy out in storms, the wilder the better, while glorying in the fact that she doesn't even have usable life jackets on board?

But back to our suspicions. Perhaps anticipating our cynicism, Coleman briefly introduces another adult male, this one definitely a sexual predator. He's the father of one of her friends, who fondles and ultimately tries to rape her. Surprisingly, because the teenager is bright, self assured and comes from a loving family background where she would be believed, she does not tell anyone except, years later, McLennan himself.

Naturally it is Mr. McLennan -- as she calls him throughout the biography -- whom she is hoping will rescue her from her fate. The novelist, whom she imagines as Mr. Rochester to her Jane, spends ever increasing amounts of time with her right up until her marriage, and this is no platonic friendship; the sexual tension between the two mounts as the author matures, even though the physical contact never appears to grow into more than the odd touch and hug. The bride-to-be reveals the earlier abuse by her friend's father to McLennan just prior to her marriage in a thinly veiled plea for him to rescue her now, as he could not do then.

Though greatly upset by the revelation, McLennan, now a widower and therefore available, replies sadly: "I have lived too long in the Valley of the Shadow to be your answer," and thus Coleman lets the current carry her ever forward, toward those tumultuous waters. As Coleman says:

...my intent is to explore my relationship with Mr. MacLennan. I have focused on it to the exclusion of almost everything else because it puzzles me so, even more now, far more than it did then. And it got more puzzling as it went along -- as it did go along, for seven years. I have to wonder in which way and to what degree it played a part in the mistaken and destructive choice I was to make.

Nevertheless, the memoir is not exclusively about that relationship and therein lies its strength. The young woman, her world, her thoughts and her attraction to Frank three years later, all play an equally important part. The dark stranger enters and the author finds herself drawn him, even though reason urges against it. What young girl can resist rescuing an exotic, suffering and handsome man? Frank is European with a past scarred by the War. Best yet, he needs her; he will kill himself if she does not become his. The mature woman knows to run, but the romantic young dreamer, the idealist, lingers. She wants to be needed like this. Isn't this the intense devotion that is the theme of so many popular songs?

Anne Coleman writes insightfully. Anyone even remotely interested in Canadian literature will not be able to resist the secret she has to tell. | March 2005


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.