Thursday, February 4, 2010

Vintage Novels {Swamp Angel}

Ethel Wilson's 1954 novel tells the story of Maggie and how she walks out on her demoralizing second marriage and leaves Vancouver and takes the bus to the interior of BC and bluffs her way into working as a cook at the remote summer fishing lodge at Three Loon Lake. The serenity she finds in her new, peaceful surroundings is disturbed by the irrational jealousy of Vera, the lodge-keeper's young wife. And so Maggie finds that in addition to mending her own broken spirit and finding out about herself, she must also heal the other characters that she meets, by showing them compassion for the first time in their lives. The novel also tells of Maggie's friend Nell, who is struggling with growing older and having to live with her daughter in Vancouver, cut off from most of her friends. Nell is important to the story as it is her pearl-handled revolver, called "Swamp Angel", that forms the symbolic core of the novel.
When I first read this novel for Can Lit, I was neutral about our I felt about it. Now that months have past since I first read it and I've had time to reflect, I do like it now. It's not really that funny to read, but it is quite short. Except for it's non-linear structure, it's a deceptively easy novel to read. But one does have to read it quite closely in order to understand what Mrs Wilson is saying about her characters; my lecture notes have scribbled references to gender issues, Homo Sacer, object petit a and The Gaze (although the prof. was heavily into various literary theories). What I like most about this novel is how Mrs Wilson uses descriptions of the clothing worn by Maggie and Vera and how it reflects their personalities. I also like how well Mrs Wilson paints a picture through words of the formidable beauty of the wilds of British Columbia and of how awesome downtown Vancouver used to look like, which is a view I have only ever seen through the photographs of the city archives or Fred Herzog.
I couldn't find out if Swamp Angel was a best-seller when it was first published. However I did find out that it was the first novel to truly capture the natural beauty of BC and Mrs Wilson was one of the first Canadian writer to use the environment in order to establish her characters. Swamp Angel is still well-loved and in print today and is used as an essential work in the BC literary canon. It has never been adapted, but it should be (but only by a Canadian).

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