One From the Archive: ‘Shelter’ by Frances Greenslade ****

First published in July 2012.

Shelter takes place in Duchess Creek in British Columbia, Canada’s most westerly province. It begins during the 1960s and spans a period of several years. Shelter is told from the first person perspective of Margaret Dillon, known throughout as Maggie. The narrative is retrospective and the more sinister events of the novel are foreshadowed as it progresses.

The novel opens with Maggie stating that it was her older sister Jenny who urged her to document their story. The heartbreak of both sisters with regard to their abandonment by their mother, Irene, is clear from the start. Maggie tells us ‘we did not try to look for out mother. She was gone, like a cat who goes out the back door one night and doesn’t return… We let time pass, we waited, trusting her…’. She goes on to say that as her mother ‘was the constant in our lives, the certainty and the comfort’, neither she nor Jenny felt any reason to worry.

The girls’ father, Patrick, works at a local sawmill. His nickname is ‘Mr Safety’, and he is called it not just by his family but by his friends, who are ‘irritated by his careful checking and rechecking’. Patrick’s character is unsettled at times. He is plagued by what the Dillon family term ‘terrors… seizures of fear which took possession of his whole body when he was on the edge of sleep’. Seeing her almost as a ‘son’, Patrick teaches Maggie about survival in the wilderness. He teaches her how to construct a lean-to shelter whilst telling her ‘If you ever get lost, this is what you do first. You build yourself a little shelter’.

To the surprise and shock of the Dillons, Patrick is killed whilst at work and the family is forced to cope without him. Following his death, a chasm opens within the family. Maggie begins to see her mother as a distant figure: ‘she was not really my mother, but some beautiful woman with flushed skin going to have a nap in my mother’s bedroom’. Irene’s previously spirited character begins to unravel in consequence. She leaves the girls with the Edwards family in Williams Lake whilst she begins a job relatively far away. Unlike her popular sister, Maggie feels as though she never really fits with the Edwards, despite the warmth of wheelchair-bound Ted. When payments for the girls’ billet suddenly stop, nobody is able to discover where Irene has vanished to. Undeterred, Maggie sets out to find her and unravel the mystery of her sudden disappearance.

Shelter is rather an uncomfortable read at times. The entire novel is filled with dark incidents. These include shooting accidents, widespread alcoholism, the widespread isolation during the harsh Canadian winters, disability, coping with grief and loss and the wider concept of abandonment.

Greenslade’s descriptions are rich and are balanced well with the unfolding story. Jenny is described as a ‘powder blue beacon’ whose grief at the loss of their mother is ‘majestic and furious’. The natural environment which has prominence in the life of Maggie particularly, has been written about with true care on part of the author. Almost fairytale-esque elements are woven throughout the novel, particularly with regard to Maggie’s daydreams. Maggie’s narrative voice is consistently strong and she is a vivid character from the outset.

Greenslade has a real way with words and Shelter is certainly an accomplished novel. The abandonment of their girls and their gradual realisation of their mother’s whereabouts are realised sensitively and touchingly, and every single loose thread which appears in the novel is tied up well at the story’s end.

Purchase from the Book Depository

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