There are some books that affect me more than others – it is the same for all of us. We bring to our reading our own personal history, our own prejudices, our own everything. There are best sellers that seem to appeal to “everyone” but even then they are not necessarily books that appeal to me – or to you.
When I read a book that particularly affects me I have, in the past few years, very occasionally contacted the author to let them know that their book meant something to me. And if it is possible I have invited that author to be part of our annual reading series so that we can meet, and I can introduce them to readers in Parry Sound.
After reading Natural Order by Brian Francis last year I knew he was a writer I wanted to bring to Parry Sound. Readers knew his name after his first novel, Fruit, about a teenage boy living in a small town, attempting to navigate his way through Grade 8 and all that is involved in being that age, and more, was a finalist in the 2009 Canada Reads competition.
Fruit was considered a humourous novel, and Brian Francis admits to struggling a bit when he realized that his second novel, Natural Order, might not be the same. Natural Order is a more serious, a much more mature, novel and one that I have recommended to readers for over a year now with only very positive response.
Natural Order is the story of an elderly woman, Joyce Sparks, 86 years of age, now living in an old age home. Joyce is thinking about her life and her present situation. We meet a younger Joyce, and through her memories we share the life she lived as a teenager, a young mother, older mother, and then an independent 72 year old.
As a teenager Joyce’s first love is a boy she works with at a soda fountain – Freddy. They go to movies together and Joyce feels a growing attraction – not noticing that Freddy is simply enjoying her company. In the 1950’s who knew about gay – most girls certainly didn’t and as one gay male friend of mine said, he hardly knew either. This reader, more enlightened now than I was as a teenager myself, knew immediately that Freddy was not the kind of guy to be attracted to girls.
When we meet Joyce as a young mother we witness her concern about the femininity of her son, John – even as a little boy he resisted the rough and ready activities of the other boys. Joyce attempts to hide her dawning knowledge from her husband, believing he would find her son’s homosexuality unacceptable. She will regret this for the rest of her life.
I thought about my own family’s experiences – a cousin who married disastrously when he was young, and then found love and companionship with another man after leaving his marriage. When both men died within a few years of each other, almost 20 years ago, our family was shocked and saddened. They had openly, together, been part of our lives, and yet at the memorial service for our cousin, his mother would not allow there to be any mention of the man he had made a home with – the most important person in his life. Forgivable, but a sad disservice to herself and her son. This is almost exactly the struggle that Joyce Sparks lives with - heartbreaking for all involved – and such an unnecessary barrier to an open and happy relationship between parents and children.
There is a whole lot more to this story than the issue of Freddy and John’s sexuality. There is Joyce’s relationship with her sister, her friends and neighbours, and a young man who insists on being her friend. Joyce is a delightfully cranky old lady, with a wonderfully droll sense of humour. It is her humourous observances – or more accurately Brian Francis’ deadpan humour - that gives us some comic relief just when it is most needed. I found myself often laughing out loud. And, then there were times I found myself in tears. “I’m not convinced that things happen for a reason”, muses Joyce, in her old age. In her final hours, she thinks, “you can only deal with something with whatever means you have at a particular moment.” How true, and how wise an observance from a young writer.
You will have the opportunity to meet Brian Francis and hear him read from Natural Order on Wednesday 17 April at 7:30pm at the Charles W. Stockey Centre.
And if, like me, you have no idea what at Caker Cooker is, I suspect you’ll find out!