More than any other season, people are particular about the books they read in summer. They may insist the perfect beach read is a new chick lit novel or murder mystery. Others decide their summer project will be to discover something new. I’ve known people who only read about rock climbing and zombies in warm weather.
Others swear by summertime classics. One CBC radio host recently remarked that in summer she only reads books by dead authors. That way she doesn’t have to worry about doing interviews.
This year I’m pairing my book choices with vacation spots. If I were flying to Japan, I’d pack a book by Haruki Murakami or if jetting to Ireland, I’d take along something by Roddy Doyle. Turns out my holiday plans are less worldly. I’m driving to Ontario.
And, yes, I know 25 hours in the car with three young kids could provide fodder for me to write my own novel. Nonetheless, it took a bit of sleuthing to discover a book set in the small Ontario town where we’ll be staying.
The Retreat by David Bergen — published by McClelland & Stewart in 2008 — is set in Kenora, a small town on the shores of Lake of the Woods.
It’s a magical place. The enormous lake is dotted with more than 10,000 islands; you can hear the loons call while canoeing through rushes of wild rice.
Like other Canadian towns, Kenora is a place with a historic divide between aboriginal and white populations. The Retreat takes place during the 1974 occupation of Anicinabe Park by First Nations protesters.
I was a bit disappointed to discover that the park occupation is only a backdrop to Bergen’s story. Instead The Retreat focuses on the dysfunctional Byrd family, who wind up at a run-down Kenora commune.
It’s operated by a cult-like leader who preys on drifters. The mom, Norma, is a selfish, damaged woman who has an affair with the leader, and neglects her children.
Lizzy, Norma’s teenage daughter, cares for the younger children. But left to her own devices she meets and befriends one of the First Nations protesters.
In a deeply divided community, this doesn’t go over well. Throw in a near-drowning and a lost child, and you get the impression this isn’t the sunniest of books.
But don’t get me wrong. The Retreat is razor sharp, as would be expected from the Giller prize-winning author of A Time In Between. Because of Bergen’s writing talent, the book is memorably haunting.
I almost wish that Bergen wasn’t able to evoke a mood so palpably. He’s cast a bit of a shadow over my previously blissful cottage country.
While I’d recommend this book, I’ve come up with a new plan for picking summer reads. I won’t focus only on the place, but take in account the mood, and the emotions I want to be left with once I close the back cover.
Just last week a tornado ripped through Kenora. So it turns out my reading choices may be restricted to home repair and fix-it manuals.
Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton.