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Reading by Lightning by Joan Thomas

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Reading by Lightning by Joan Thomas

Reading by Lightning by Joan Thomas won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book in Canada and the Caribbean in 2009 but it was not until after I read her most recent novel, Curiosity, that I read her first.

This is a novel of the Canadian Prairies, and a young woman who leaves the Prairies for a time when she is a girl, to return as a young woman.

We meet Lily Piper when she is about twelve years old, on the sidewalk of a wind swept Prairie town in the early 1930’s. Lily is just at the age of “riding out of the rust-coloured mist of babyhood – into the brown and grey world of my dusty childhood.” Lily lives on a nearby farm with her parents and older brother, Philip, and she is beginning to find herself chaffing at the bit of this very small world. The family is part of evangelical Christian community and their barn is used for Sunday services – with the fidgety Lily falling from the hayloft one memorable morning to the disgust of her mother. Lily is not content with life ruled by the word of God.

“I learn for myself that the world is as flimsy as tarpaper nailed over a window, that you can slip through a crack in it and find yourself somewhere else.” How can you not love a novel containing that sentence! Joan Thomas captures the tarpaper shack, synonymous of rural Canada, and the revelations that come as to a young person as they become more aware of the greater world.

Lily is a curious girl, not satisfied with this narrow world for long – and her father sees that things will only become more difficult between mother and daughter as Lily matures. He takes it upon himself to arrange for Lily to leave, and at the age of sixteen she is sent to England to care for her elderly grandmother.

For Lily this is an escape from the confines of the farm and her family and a time of great awakening. Lily’s parents were silent serious people – god-fearing. The English relatives, cousins, aunt and uncle and grandmother know how to laugh, to enjoy their lives. They attend the Anglican church most Sunday’s but do not force Lily to go with them. Theirs is a kinder home, more comfortable, loving and fun. Lily becomes a sister to her cousins Lois and Madeline, and a friend to George, her adopted cousin. It is George who captures Lily’s heart and her intelligence – they talk together about things she’s never before thought about or been able to express. George is interested in evolution, and fossils, presenting Lily with a Belemnite he found on the shores of Lyme Regis. He tells her that it is thought to symbolize many things, this smooth cylinder, pointed at one end, but the most attractive is that it will “protect one from lightning strikes – thunderbolts.”

In the evolution of Lily she will need protection. These are the years immediately before the beginning of World War II and Lily and her family hear the radio broadcast announcing that Great Britain has declared war on Germany. Lily has no desire to return to Canada, she is quite happy that war means she is now prevented from leaving England. Lily comes of age in England, she goes to school, she reads, she learns how to dress like a young lady, she gains confidence and independence. When she does leave England, after word that her father has died and she is needed to care for her mother, she returns to Canada a far different person than the girl who left four years earlier. Canada is also at war and when Philip joins up it is left to Lily to care for her mother and to manage the farm for the duration of the war.

I listened to an interview with Joan Thomas as she talked about writing this novel. She used her own family stories for the bones of the story – her father grandfather came to Canada in much the same as Lily’s father, her aunt left the Prairies as a girl, traveled alone to England to look after her grandmother much as Lily does. Her mother-in-law lived through the bombing of the city of Manchester, and Joan Thomas herself grew up in a Prairie town and spent time on an Uncle’s farm. First time novelists are always told “write what you know” and Joan Thomas says she “put it all in a pot and stirred it up”. She did a perfect job, taking the seeds of family stories, and wrote a very excellent first novel.

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