Turtle Valley by Gail Anderson-Dargatz 

Turtle Valley

by Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada

309 pages, 2007

Buy it online



Leaving Home

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

One hopes that fires destroy ghosts, otherwise the ghastly presence of Kat’s degenerate grandfather will forever chase his successors.

Readers who enjoyed Gail Anderson-Dargatz' award-winning The Cure for Death by Lightening will remember Kat’s mother, Beth. In Turtle Valley, Kat has returned from Alberta to the Shuswap valley in south central British Columbia to help her parents pack up the family farm. There’s a forest fire raging in the mountains behind them and an evacuation appears inevitable.

“I imagine it won’t come as a surprise that my best writing comes from this source, as it’s all here, in the Shuswap,” writes the author in her preface to Turtle Valley. It’s not surprising either that the fictional fire is based on a real one; she helped evacuate her parents from the Salmon Arm fire in 1998.

Reality is also introduced at the beginning of each chapter. Anderson-Dargatz’ own treasured family heirlooms have been painstakingly rendered by photographer, Mitch Krupp. We come across treasures in much the way same that Kat does, uncovering baby shoes, glasses and a compact, each discovered object mentioned in the chapter it prefaces. Clever.

Readers of The Cure for Death by Lightning may recall that Beth’s father, John, was a nightmare. Shell shocked from severe head injuries during the war, his return was never a blessing. Frequent bouts of mental instability landed him in the hospital, and in retrospect those were the best of times. When home, he tormented and abused both his daughters, threatened his neighbor, whom he suspected of having an affair with his wife, Maud, and tyrannized the whole household. When he disappears into the woods behind the house, years later, everyone is relieved. But the body is never recovered, so relief is always tempered with nervousness. What if somehow he returns? 

It seems that in Anderson-Dargatz’s fictional world that evil is never stamped out, remaining indelibly to stain space and haunt its victims. The reader hopes that the raging forest fire has been heaven-sent to finally raze the earth so that new growth can flourish here, hopefully in time for  Kat. She has already made several wrong choices in her life, beginning with a youthful affair with a married man that resulted in a miscarriage, and then rebounding way too quickly into a rushed marriage.

Disaster continues to dog her: her husband, Erza, suffers a debilitating stroke that renders him unable to work, and thrusts her unwillingly into the role of nursemaid, the last thing Kat needs as they already have a young child, Jeremy, who, not surprisingly, has to act out himself in order to get the attention he needs.

Burdened with all this, it’s amazing that Kat actually confides to her mother that she wants another child. Her life has shrunk to the needs of two dependents who are draining her, and the jobs she must take in order for the small family to survive.

And now here she is surrounded by more disaster. The family home is about to go up in flames, her mother is suffering from early onset dementia, and her father, Gus, is dying. To top it off her old lover, Jude, now divorced, is right there -- in the neighboring home -- and he wants her back. Like her grandmother, Maud, she is wedged between her husband and her lover.

While we may ask what Kat’s waiting for, life’s choices are never that simple and the author knows that. Kat vacillates, agonizes, dreams and cries, as she is yanked from one direction to another by the needs of son, husband, mother and father. At least her sister, Val, has arrived to help take up watch by their father’s bed.

The old house hides secrets. They tether the drifting Beth even while they torment her, and now her daughter wants them uncovered before the fire takes all. Frantic at the memories that will be lost, both tangible and intangible, Kat scratches away at her mother and the hidden places. She finds Maud’s scrapbooks and long-hidden love letters and slowly begins to find answers to the questions that her parents have never answered. Was her grandfather murdered? Was Kat’s father the murderer? Now that he is dying, how will she ever get to the truth?

Now heat up this flammable mix with the ghosts the endangered home still shelters. The fire creeps closer, while Kat runs from ghosts, circles her ex-lover’s home, tiptoes around Ezra’s out-of-control mood swings and jealousy, tries to pay attention to Jeremy, struggles to salvage family belongings, tends to her dying father, helps her confused mother, and discovers family secrets. 

While crazed birds smash against the windows and ladybugs invade the house, Gus dies and the fire swoops closer. Finally, and barely in time, the family abandons their Turtle Valley home to the flames.

Fire is a strong image and it is clear why this author would have chosen to use this real life experience in her fiction. It purges and offers hope for renewal. It adds a sense of urgency to the action, and it offers a book load of imagery. As always, the award-winning author of  The Cure for Death by Lightning, A Recipe for Bees and A Rhinestone Button has woven a sense of place and destiny into a riveting plot with characters we want to know. I can accept ghosts and fate and everything else this author wants to throw at me, but I cannot accept an ending where Kat waits almost too long to evacuate her family. The safety of Jeremy, her mother and her husband would definitely trump everything else. Suspense gained by having the endangered family surrounded by menace at the very end is simply overshadowed by its wrongness in terms of character.

You wait. Kat is going to come back to haunt the author on this. | October 2007

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 BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.