The following is an excerpt of my novel manuscript. The novel is written and I am currently seeking an agent and/or publisher.
Sheltered is a darkly humorous gender-reversed retelling of the Odyssey set among Mennonites. It tells the story of Tina Friesen, a liberal Mennonite eighteen-year old, who makes her way home after a school choir’s winter bus crash. It begins from the perspective of Tina’s younger sister who wonders about her missing sister as she also begins to understand her own identity. The second part shifts to the tale Tina tells of her journey back – it tells of various mishaps along the way, and features a whole lot of walking in the snow. The final part speaks through the unadulterated joy of a mother reclaiming her daughter and trying to hold her family together. This section draws together the two daughters’ stories as more of Tina’s tale is revealed in conversation with all. In between the first and second part, three short chapters bring out the experiences of some of the people on the fringes of the story, people who were perhaps every bit as affected by their encounter with Tina as she was by her whole adventure but who might normally be left out. The novel is about sex, death and the Mennonite way of life. It is about family, community and how a sense of belonging shapes the stories we tell about ourselves.
Read on and I’ll tell you the story of Tina Friesen. It is a story to be read in the cold. It’s no good on the beach with sand flying across your pages and the sun baking on your back. The wind should be rattling at the window and you should be pondering whether to put on another sweater or just give it up and crawl into the warmth of your bedcovers. There should be a draft chilling one side of you if you are even remotely close to a window or door. You wouldn’t be crazy enough to read this outside, of course. The pages would grow brittle and snow landing on them would damage the paper. Besides which, it’s far too difficult to turn pages with your fingers slowly numbing within your never sufficient gloves or mittens.
I suppose you might be alright reading this in the warmth if you still have a clear memory of cold. I’ll give you that much. If you have no understanding of the cold, though, you will only get the outer shell of this tale – the visible parts will be there for you but the parts you need to feel will seem hollow. You’ll see it through a glass darkly, as they say, though I prefer the image of trying to see through a window frosted over with the intricate crystallized design of cold and water, when the warm air inside a school bus collides across a window pane with the bitter winterscape outside. But that will mean nothing to you if you are reading this in a southern climate I have spent some time in warmer places so I know that people there can’t properly understand the depth of the cold that is more than a presence in this story. I understand the miserable cold experienced by people in England, the South of France, the Pacific West coast of North America or even most of Northern Europe. It is an unpleasant cold and damp. It may be the same elsewhere; I don’t know. I haven’t been there. What they have is the sort of cold that seeps into your skin and makes you believe that you will never become warm again. This is all the worse for the inadequate heating they pump into their homes. The only recourse is to wear extra layers, take warm baths and wait for it to end. It is a miserable, dreary coldness that people in the colder climes rarely appreciate. But it is nothing like the cold of the north. I don’t even mean the far north. I mean the cold of –30 or –40 degrees Celcius. People from the real north laugh at this sort of cold. Still, even if it is not a cold that kills you instantly, it is qualitatively different from the unpleasant cold of moderate climates.
Some of you know the difference and understand the distinction. If you know what it is to have your breath swallowed by the cold as you step into the outdoors, then you already understand it. You understand how the cold attacks you like a living thing, taking not only your breath but also striking at your cheeks, nose and forehead – any exposed flesh. They talk of a “wind chill factor” but even without a wind, the cold bites into the body with an intensity completely unlike the November colds experienced elsewhere. Fingers and toes become numb through their gloves and boots as in the cold anywhere but the cold hits the face like a hot iron, searing it with the depth of its fire, reminding any of us who pause to think of the very close relationship between these apparent opposites. Like so many other apparent opposites. Not that many of us pause to think. Mostly we run from our cozy homes to our cars to other cozy buildings and then back again. Toboggans, skates and skis are for other, milder days.
I, myself, cannot claim to be an expert of the cold. I grew up in Southern Ontario, as did Tina herself. Though I remember –30 as a common enough temperature when I was a kid, cold like that has been rare for me since moving to Toronto, and each time I feel it I am shocked by the reminder of a childhood memory. It’s like Proust’s Madeleine in tea for me but without the fondness. Minus forty brings back no memories at all for me – I’ve experienced it so rarely. I am older than Tina and the winters of her childhood had been milder than mine so the shock of her experience must have been all the greater. She may not have had a memory to call upon, even for minus thirty…