Rush Home Road

by Lori Lansens

Published by Knopf Canada

547 pages, 2002







Too Much Rush

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


"It stinks of piss in the room," reads the grabby, gritty opening sentence of Rush Home Road, one of the most hyped and anticipated first novels in recent memory. A five-year-old girl is noticing that stink: Sharla Cody, a neglected, mixed-race ragamuffin of a girl, unwanted by her tough-talking trailer park mother Collette.

What Sharla actually smells isn't urine but the odor of a bouquet of small white flowers called Alyssum in another trailer. It belongs to Addy Shadd, "an old, cigarette-smoking coloured lady from the mud lane of the Lakeview trailer park, twenty miles outside of Chatham, Ontario." This elderly woman and the runny-nosed little "half-and-half" Sharla will fall into a strange sort of mother-daughter relationship that will form the deep core of the novel, set 25 years in the past.

Lori Lansens is a screenwriter by trade, and her cinematic sensibilities show from the very beginning of Rush Home Road. Dialogue is crucial, as well as visuals, some of them quite arresting. There is plenty of plot here too, as Mum Addy not only takes over guardianship of the abandoned Sharla but reflects back in detail on her long, convoluted and sometimes excruciatingly difficult life.

Ah, yes -- flashbacks, the perfect device for a movie. But in spite of the earthy opening, Rush Home Road all too often falls into the conventions of another type of movie: Hallmark Presents. Lansens telegraphs every move in her novel, so that we just know when something bad is about to happen (and believe me, it happens a lot).

On top of that, she often plucks at our heartstrings just a little too adroitly. Sweetness can turn to syrup. Just when things are at their worst, human kindness rushes in to fill the void. Not that this doesn't happen in life. But there is something just a tad artificial about it all that ultimately causes a very promising novel to misfire.

Still, if you like lots of story, with some rich black history thrown in for good measure, you will find it here. Chatham, a medium-sized city in southwestern Ontario, was one of the terminating points for the Underground Railroad -- "not one of steel rails and wood ties, but a series of routes on which the slaves could find safe places to hide, and men and women to conduct them."

Addy Shadd's flashback tale begins in the early 1920s in Rusholme, a small (fictional) black community near Chatham. Addy the teenaged girl is devoted to her near-saintly brother Leam, and mooning over handsome Chester Monk, a rumrunner for a local bootlegger. But her idyllic girlhood is shattered when she is brutally raped by Zach Heron, a friend of her father.

Leam is sure that Chester is the one who violated his sister and vows revenge. The upshot of it is a confrontation in which all three end up dead (Or are they? We are never too sure about Chester, who disappears without a trace.) Meanwhile, pregnant Addy is spurned by her family: "You know you brung this on yourself," they tell her. Terrified, hungry, alone, she sets out on foot to find sanctuary.

Her path is a long and twisting one, taking her first to Detroit where she lives with a minister and his son who both both fall in love with her (and here is one of those Hallmark moments -- Poppa Rippey says to her, "This is what I believe, young Adelaide, I believe that you are a good child and a grievous wrong has been done unto you. I believe that the Lord sent you to us like a gift, and I would be honored if you lived in my home and allowed me to know the power of the Holy Spirit through you.") It ends badly, as do so many things in this story, with Poppa dead, Addy's baby also dead, and son Riley fleeing the scene.

Then it is back to Chatham again, where marriage to a mixed-race train porter named Mose brings brief happiness and another child, followed by ... more death, more tragedy. It is almost too much to absorb.

Interspersed with these hair-raising memories are small episodes in Addy and Sharla's life together. These are less traumatic and sometimes quite poignant, as when Addy passes on to Sharla a beautiful doll that once belonged to her dead daughter, Chick. The emotionally-starved Sharla, so neglected she does not even know how to wipe her own bottom, slowly begins to blossom under Mum Addy's care.

But as Addy's mental capacity begins to deteriorate, she lives increasingly in the past, talking incessantly to her dead brother Leam and reliving all of the most painful episodes of her life. What will become of Sharla when Addy is no longer able to look after her?

There are other nice touches, including some beautiful descriptive detail: "Addy Shadd's skin was the color of root beer, so wrinkled and stretched it looked like there was enough of it to cover two people. ... Her eyes were hooded and rheumy. Her nose was broad, with round nostrils that made flute sounds when she breathed out. The lines around her lips puckered like a bum when she smoked her cigarette." Though this description is almost grotesque, it nevertheless carries a sense of Addy's great dignity and beauty of soul.

There are also some arresting scenes which point up the viciousness of racism. In a cafeteria lineup, Addy tells the waitress, "Excuse me, Miss. Miss? I'm still waiting on that soup."

"The woman rolled her eyes and went around the corner into the kitchen. Addy could see her approach the cook and everyone in the cafeteria line heard her say, 'Will one of yas get that nigger woman her split-pea soup?' "

But in spite of these vivid moments, Rush Home Road doesn't hold together the way it should, even in its historical underpinnings. I was born and raised in Chatham (which is why I was so eager to get my hands on this much-touted novel), and I remember that the Underground Railroad was whispered about, but never discussed in school. It was as if it officially didn't exist. I now see that omission as shameful and disrespectful, and I am glad Lansens took it upon herself to tell some of that story here.

Lansens is, however, white. Is that why it all feels just a little forced, too much like an outsider's take? For reasons that are not always easy to pin down, the novel does not ring with the authenticity it needs to be truly compelling.

Will the movie version be better? I have no doubt at all that it will be made (with Oprah likely involved in some capacity). If the screenwriter can extract most of the syrup, it might just play better onscreen than it does between the covers. | August 2002


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.