The Ladies Lending Library By Janice Kulyk Keefer
Janice Kulyk Keefer has written many books but none that I have enjoyed as much as her most recent, The Ladies' Lending Library. It even has a great cover - the perfect beach book for this coming summer. The story is set on the southern shores of Georgian Bay, in the late summer of 1963, in an enclave of Ukrainian-Canadian families. The mothers and the children are at the cottages for the summer; the husbands come for weekends only.
These are the seemingly endless days of summer - days of freedom for both parents and children. There were so many things in this book that I laughed at remembering - I was the age of the pre-teens Katia and Tania myself in 1963. It was such an age of both innocence and discovery - between childhood and the teenage years.
These girls wish more than anything for training bras - wanting to be grown-up, not realizing how perfect they are at that very moment. They hide under the porch, decapitating Barbie dolls as they listen to the, mostly incomprehensible, conversation of the mothers. The mothers gather here on Wednesday afternoons, when the children are napping or playing quietly in the cottages after a morning at the beach. The mother's don’t talk much about books - they trade books and magazines that they later hide in the night table - Peyton Place and movie magazines. The teenage daughters are also sneaking into bedrooms to read these forbidden words.
It is the summer of the movie Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton - the movie and the love affair between them is the sensation of the summer and the subject of much talk. There is talk between the women about their own marriages, one woman had been told by the priest "marriage is a cross to be carried the way you carry home loads of groceries or carry baskets of laundry from the basement to the yard." Another thinks, "Unless you're Elizabeth Taylor, that is, and can simply let go of what you're lugging". The words" including your marriage" do not need to be said, even silently.
The days are spent at the beach in the mornings and late afternoons, some days of peace and harmony, and others of strife - with mothers threatening "when your father comes up on Friday" simply another version of "wait until your father comes home!"
For any woman who was a child or teenager in these years you will be reminded of so many things we all experienced. Remember the little pink book, You're a Young Lady Now given out to young girls, about Grade five or six, in health class? It explained almost nothing and left its young readers bewildered, especially when combined with information shared in the school yard.
I remember excitedly racing home with mine, to find my mother on her hands and knees waxing a floor, her response seemed to be simply that she was glad someone else had told me what she never would - I think this was said without actual words. It was a very different world for children in 1963. Mothers were always there at home - the fathers seldom played with their children. No matter what unhappiness, few marriages ended publicly. Problems were kept within the home - any alcoholism, infidelity, abuse - was hidden within the home. If anyone else noticed, they simply told themselves it was none of their business.
Among these mothers and children is Darka - an older teenager whose mother wants her out of the city and out of trouble. She has been sent to the cottage of her aunt to help look after the children. Darka, whose very mature and desirable body is going to find trouble for her no matter where she is. I think any reader will recognize among her own family the equivalent of many of the characters in this book - it will be as much a nostalgic journey of your own life in 1963 as it is of this fictional community.
This is a book about mothers and daughters, wives and husbands, expectations and disappointment, smugness and jealousy. It's a book about life, "what is it but the unexpectedness, the mystery of any life, that makes it possible for us to go on at all?" It is all of this that makes this glimpse of a tightly knit little Ukrainian community, during one short summer, that makes this book a perfect summer read.