Sugarmilk Falls

by Ilona van Mil

Published by McClelland & Stewart (Canada)

328 pages, 2005





Snow Falling on Secrets

Reviewed by Caroline Cummins


A tiny town in the Canadian outback, Sugarmilk Falls is known for its maple syrup, hunting and trapping. And maybe a few mysterious disappearances and murders, too. In her debut novel, Sugarmilk Falls, Ilona van Mil carefully constructs the life of a small rural town, with its priest, hotel owners, preacher, car mechanics, schoolteacher, gossipy housewives and overlooked children. Van Mil doesn't care much for unraveling conundrums; she's more interested in the ongoing maybes that small towns always hide, the tangled web of secrets and lies. Sugarmilk Falls is a novel first and a mystery second, and while it may not always satisfy readers who like their crime fiction neat and tidy, it's a rich exploration of the ways in which rural communities try to keep themselves from falling apart.

Sugarmilk Falls (which, long before its publication, won the British Crime Writers' Association's Debut Dagger Award) takes place in a vague present that may be now, or 15 years ago. Most of the book's events fall between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s. What happened to the men from that Northern Ontario town who left to fight? What happened to the women they brought or lured back? Are the local Ojibwa Indians really as powerful as they seem, or -- inveterate gamblers all -- are they just bluffing? Sugarmilk Falls, like many novels, turns on a question of property: Who owns the area around the town? Should the land be left pristine, a wilderness of purity and sweet sugar sap, or mined for uranium and riches untold? Everyone in town, it seems, has a finger in that pie, or wants in on it. And it's this tension that makes Sugarmilk Falls feel real, a community in which ordinary greed collides with everyday weakness to create a place where nobody's a hero, but nobody's exactly evil, either.

The novel starts awkwardly, with the cumbersome framing device of an anonymous visitor joining a small group huddled around a cabin fire one night, asking questions about the town's secrets. (She's never given a name, but she's clearly a she, as the French-Canadians who dominate the town address her as "mon amie.") Van Mil prefers skipping back and forth to writing chronological narrative, and it takes her a good 100 pages before she fully abandons her blank interlocutor and her folksy townies to settle into her real story: that of Mathieu Souris, the priest, and Marina Grochowska, the schoolteacher. True to his name, which in French means "mouse," Souris is a man easily cowed; Grochowska, a Holocaust survivor, is more than a match for him. They fall in love in a postwar Paris café, where she's waitressing to keep herself from starving and he's wandering to fill his last days in the army; she asks him if he's chosen what he wants from the menu, and he takes it metaphysically.

Vous avez choisi? It was the first thing she said to him, just the patter of the cafés and bistros, the cellar bars and restaurants. Have you chosen? A question, or was it a statement -- you have chosen -- the rising inflection doubting the choice already made.

Mathieu falls head over army boots for Marina's strange blend of fragility and toughness, and he proposes marriage within a few days. But she has too many secrets that she won't share with him, and he had spent his youth planning to go into the priesthood, that safe haven for secrets. So he loses her, or he abandons her -- the narrative is never quite clear. Years later, though, she turns up in Sugarmilk Falls, the newly hired town schoolteacher. She falls in love with a local trapper, Zack Guillem, who accepts her for who she is, and Souris is eaten up with jealousy. And then one day she is found dead, and the trapper vanishes.

Supposedly, nobody knows what really happened. But of course, everyone in town, listening in on the party phone lines, knows a little bit, and a handful of people know a lot. Van Mil gradually hones in on a few key players -- Souris, Grochowska, Guillem and Grand'mère Osweken, an Ojibwa medicine woman -- whose lives crisscross in threads of love, jealousy, land arguments, money and gambling. It's these people who hide at the heart of this novel, and beneath van Mil's long list of old-fashioned characters and lyrical evocations of the harsh land, they ground the story in genuine human desire.

When the anonymous visitor suddenly resurfaces at the end of this story, her presence feels more artificial than ever; van Mil has done such an expert job of sinking into the mindset and mores of a small town that this urban intruder feels stagy. There are no strong resolutions here; the life stories of several characters remain unfinished, and the central mystery of the novel itself -- the land dispute, not the human deaths -- is left, literally, floating in the air. It's a neat, if not ultimately satisfying, twist; the casually abrupt ending feels like the end of a chapter, not a book. Perhaps van Mil, who grew up in Ontario and clearly loves the region (although she now lives and teaches property law in England), found her fictional community too familiar, and decided a quick good-bye was best. Sugarmilk Falls is just a taste of the maple forest, like the syrup the townspeople pour over snow, slowing it down long enough to hold onto it. | April 2005


Caroline Cummins is a contributing editor of January Magazine.