The story of two sisters, Maggie and Jenny, and their quest to find out what happened to their mother who left them to billet in Williams Lake, a small town in British Columbia, and never came back. Set in the 1960s and 70s in the wilds of the Chilcotin, where it's still possible to lose yourself, the novel explores the attachment we have to our mothers, and the expectation we hold that they will always be our mothers, and nothing more.
I picked up this Canadian book as part of the Evergreen program. I am glad it was nominated because I would not have given it a second glance otherwise. That would have been my loss. Frances Greenslade has delivered a poignant and touching story of loss, survival and family.
Jenny was the one who asked me to write all this down. She wanted me to sort it for her, string it out, bead by bead, an official story, like a rosary she could repeat and count on. But I started writing it for her, too. For Mom, or Irene as other people would call her, since she abandoned a long time ago whatever “Mom” once meant to her.
Even now there was no stopping the guilt that rose up when we thought of her. We did not try to look for our mother. She was gone, like a cat who goes out the back door one night and doesn’t return, and you don’t know if a coyote got her or a hawk or if she sickened somewhere and couldn’t make it home. We let time pass, we waited, trusting her, because she had always been the best of mothers. She’s the mother, that’s what we said to each other, or we did in the beginning. I don’t know who started it.
That’s not true. It was me. Jenny said, “We should look for her.” I said, “She’s the mother.” When I said it, I didn’t know the power those few words would take on in our lives. They had the sound of truth, loaded and untouchable. But they became an anchor that dragged us back from our most honest impulses.
We waited for her to come to get us and she never did.
There was no sign that this would happen. I know people always look for signs. That way they can say, we’re not the type of people things like that happen to, as if we were, as if we should have seen it coming. But there were no signs. Nothing except my worry, which I think I was born with, if you can be born a worrier—Jenny thinks you can.
I like that this book has it's own soundtrack. It's compiled of songs that I grew up with and as I read Shelter, they brought the story closer to my being. Here is the Shelter "soundtrack" listed by the author:
Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond
I Feel the Earth Move by Carole King
I Got You Babe by Sonny and Cher
Goodnight Irene by Leadbelly
I'll Have Another Cup of Coffee by Conway Twitty
Crocodile Rock by Elton John
Rock and Roll by Led Zeppelin
Heartaches By the Number by Ray Price
Dreamer by Supertramp
Bloody Well Right by Supertramp
Break on Through to the Other Side by The Doors
White Room by Cream
Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree by Tony Orlando and Dawn
A Horse with No Name by America
I'll Tell Me Ma (traditional)
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra (An Irish Lullaby) by Bing Crosby
I've Been Everywhere by Hank Snow
SPOILERS AHEAD ...Discussion question: What do you think made Irene leave? What emotion ruled her actions? Do you think she planned to return?
I think that Irene would have returned to the girls. Whether or not she would have stayed, or taken them with her I don't really know.
I think her leaving occurred because she was lost to herself at that point and unsure of what would happen. She almost returned to herself at sixteen, pregnant by Emil and unsure of how she and the child would survive. I wonder if she was attempting a do-over, a chance to try again with Emil and have it turn out better. Lost as she was emotionally, I can see how trying to explain her circumstance and relationship with Emil to her daughters could be beyond her ability at the time.
I can't help but wonder if Irene leaving the girls with the Edwards felt more like intended abandonment because of the time that passed before Maggie discovered what happened to her.
I do wonder if she ever let Emil know he had a daughter from their first relationship. I can't imagine him not at least looking her up, seeking out that connection, after losing Irene and the baby. Then again, with a small town like they were in, I wonder if he ever came back to the boat and heard of Jenny and that Irene had married. Had he known all along that Jenny was his? If so, did he stay away because Patrick was now her father?