The Western Light by Susan Swan – 29 October – International Festival of Authors Parry Sound
Susan Swan knows Georgian Bay well, she was born in Midland and has since spent many summers on Georgian Bay north of Pointe au Baril. Her most recent novel The Western Light takes place on Georgian Bay, in a town that is 90 miles south of the French River. In this novel it is the fictional town of Madoc’s Landing. There is also a nearby, larger town, called Port Waldie, “It was famous for the Georgian Bay Trestle, the longest wooden railroad bridge in North America.” This is familiar landscape for local readers.
It is 1959 - 1960, and we meet Dr. Morley Bradford and his daughter Mary. Into their lives comes a convicted murderer, John Pilkie, now resident of the local “Bug House”, the Ontario Psychiatric Hospital, where Dr. Bradford is sometimes called for medical emergencies.
John Pilkie grew up in this town, became a hockey player, and after suffering any number of injuries, was forced to leave his team and faded into the past – until he murdered his wife and child. Or did he? Was he suffering a brain injury from his hockey related concussions, or was someone else guilty of the crime? The Western Light will thrill hockey fans, these are the heady days of the six original teams and the young men who wanted so desperately to play for one of these teams, practicing on their outdoor rinks and beginning their careers in small towns before heading to the big leagues.
What we soon learn is that Mary, a young adolescent ripe for an imaginary love affair, is infatuated with John Pilkie, his past, his present, and her dreams of the future. Into this mix are thrown Mary’s school friend, Ben, whose father Dr. Shulman, is the doctor in charge at the “Bug House”, the local psychiatric hospital, and a cast of astonishing characters that kept my head spinning from beginning to end. There are wonderful scenes of the lonely Mary listening to the adult conversations through the grates in the floor from above, in the home she shares with her father and extended family.
We have a story of a girl without a mother, whose father, a well respected local doctor, puts his patients and their needs before the needs of his daughter, despite her great need to come first in his life. There is the tale of Mary’s father talking to John Pilkie’s mother on the phone, while the Pilkie family is trapped during a storm in the lighthouse where they live, as she performs the surgery necessary to remove the seven-year-old John’s appendix and save his life.
On the bay there are limestone towers, anyone familiar with Flower Pot island will recognize, where Mary and her family go for picnics. Susan Swan describes that feeling of leaving the restrictions of mainland life behind physically and emotionally, as Mary observes her aunt and her father, “In that instant the grown-ups felt free of the mainland, where life unfolded in respectable rituals…” We all know it, but Susan Swan has put it into words.
Mary describes herself as “a child of the water” and anyone who has grown up “on the water” knows exactly what she means. Susan Swan’s great strength as a writer shows itself when she describes the landscape of Georgian Bay – here we see the author’s connection, and love, of Georgian Bay through the eyes of the young Mary.
So, join the audience to hear Susan Swan read from The Western Light on Monday 29 October at 7:30 pm. There are a limited number of tickets available to meet Susan Swan and the other authors at a reception before the readings – contact Parry Sound Books for more information and tickets.