The Friends of Meager Fortune By David Adams Richards
David Adams Richards is a writer whose name is always associated with the Miramichi region of New Brunswick. The most well know of his many novels is perhaps Mercy among the Children, the winner of the Giller Prize and nominated for both the Governor General's Award and the Trillium Award. Brilliant but difficult to read
He is a brilliant writer but sometimes hard to read. I read Mercy Among the Children overnight while sitting in an emergency ward with my mother, she slept, I read - if I'd had anything else to read I might have given up in despair - the characters of this novel live such desperate lives - tough stuff to read. Very definitely worth it in the end, but the reading is sometimes a challenge in spite of the mastery of the writing itself.
So, forewarned is forearmed - or some such saying. I had the pleasure of hearing David Adams Richards read from his new book, Friends of Meager Fortune, at Harbourfront a few months ago. Listening to him talk, and read a few passages convinced me to read this new book.
It is set once again in New Brunswick, around the time of the Second World War and it is the lives of the lumbermen and their families who are brought to life in this novel.
There are the lumber barons and there are the men who work in the woods.
The Jameson family lives in both these worlds, they are major contenders in the lumber business but the men of this family work with the lumbermen unlike their rivals.
This is a very hard world, the poverty of the men and their families - the very physically hard, dangerous life of the men in the lumber camps, the illiteracy and the loneliness - numbingly brutal work for the men and the horses that pull the sleds.
Yet there is also passion and friendship, they are comrades in their isolation all winter long. The history of the lumber industry is fascinating - we know it here from our own local history.
Lived the same way
The men in this region must have lived very much as the men in this novel do.
It is the Jameson family and their sons, Will and Owen, who are the centre of the story. Will takes over the company when his father dies young; he is a born lumberman until he too dies as a young man. It is then up to Owen, on his return from the war decorated for bravery, to take over the business.
Unlike his father and brother, Owen is not a natural lumberman. Owen is literate, sensitive, and not at all suited to this work. It was prophesized at the time of his birth that Owen would be the downfall of the family, and the business.
Woven into all of this is a love story, of Owen and his friend Reggie, and the girls who love them, Camellia and Lula. It is love that causes all the problems - the misunderstood love of friends and of parents for children. Rumours spread and grow and innocent people begin to behave as if they do indeed have something to hide.
It is Owen who is one of the victims of the rumour. Once he was viewed with pride by the townsfolk, but now “their assumption allowed their adulation, adulation allowed envy, envy spite, spite misery, misery accusation, and accusation guilt”. While the rumour of an illicit love affair ignites passions in the town, the lumbermen are isolated on Good Friday Mountain.
They are cutting the trees and moving them down the dangerous mountain slide to be ready for the spring floods that will deliver the trees to the mill. It is the coldest winter in memory, the tress are considered to be superior to any cut before, and the men are living more dangerously than ever to make this harvest successful.
There is some deceit in the camp and it threatens to destroy all of the hard work of this long winter. It is in the camp that we come to know Meager Fortune, a small man with a big heart. He loves the men and tries to save them where he can - he is willing to believe the better of each one of them - and when he is forced to see a traitor for who he is, he still tries to save him.
The suspense mounts as the last loads of the season are coming off Good Friday Mountain and the scandal in the town comes to a crisis - the narrator is finally revealed and the future of all the characters comes to an end. I will admit that I found the first half a little slow - a lot of lumbering history - but it was well worth it. A very satisfying novel from a first class writer.