This is the book that I was awaiting from Valerie Mills-Milde. I had to patiently wait two years from the time that her exceptional debut novel After Drowning (2016, Inanna Publications) was released. That book won a 2017 IPPY Silver Medal for Contemporary Fiction. Of After Drowning, I stated:
After Drowning is an intriguing, well-paced and mysteriously captivating story of everyday lives impacted by tragic events and the collateral damage they inflict as well as the long road back to recovery and reconciliation.
In a sense, The Land’s Long Reach is also a captivating story of lives impacted by tragic events (WWI, domestic violence) and the collateral damage inflicted (mental, medical and psychological stress, strained family relationships) on each and every character.The Land’s Long Reach is set in the war years of 1914-18 near Owen Sound, Ontario. It is the story of Jamie and Ena McFarland, newlyweds who work a neglected portion of the family farm (“We could make something of the place, Ena. You and Me,” Jamie tells her) Jamie’s older brother Hugh works the larger, older and established part of the property. Ena is the main female protagonist, and there is also the teenager Blain, the son of Jack Carter, the mean-spirited moonshiner who takes all the money that Blain earns being a farm hand. Jack’s long-suffering wife, Margaret has died a few years before, found by Blain, her body froze in a swamp on Carter’s property. Apparently, she had been trying to escape one of Jack’s violent and abusive outbursts. Ena, ever the sensitive and caring one takes a special interest in the boy even though he is not the best worker and loves to spin stories and goof off.
Ms. Mills-Milde characters are interpreted through and by their respective skills: Ena a careful, experienced baker, Hugh the hard-working, tough farmer, Jamie, who is especially fond of animals and Hugh’s wife Sarah who doesn’t want to just be a farmer’s wife; she wants to paint, and to do it well.
Here is a scene in which Ena is working in her kitchen:
Cloistered in the kitchen, Ena makes brown bread, her hands in the mix, the texture of the dough like velvet. The dough is pliant, stretchable, sure signs that it will resurrect, and she is careful to use just the heel of her hand to knead it. After touch, it is smell that guides her, her nose in the bowl, the scent of the yeast registering in a place deep behind her eyes. It looks right, pale but living.After the bread is risen and moulded and baked, taste will be the last test – a confirmation of what she already knows.
As Sarah shows Ena one of her paintings, Ms. Mills-Milde displays not only Sarah’s skills as a painter but Ena’s unique reaction to the painting’s bold colours:
Craig [Sarah’s art instructor] puts the small canvas on the easel and Ena is immediately overtaken with recognition. The colour is what hits her first, vivid, colliding shades: darks that hold deep veins of reds and lashings of greys. There are brown and barren trees, twisted wire. Although there are no people in it, there is panic in the picture. A feeling of being held in a storm. Ena thinks of Jamie’s letters [from the front] his brief and measured descriptions of the war, the horrible things he sees and does.
“It’s too much, Ena, I know. It’s overblown. It’s how I think of it – what’s going on over there.”
Ena looks at Sarah. “Can I see another?” She is greedy for more – the burst of feeling that comes as she is taken to the heart of things without words or explanations.
There are many such revealing passages in The Land’s Long Reach that induce the reader to be “greedy for more”: more of these beautifully constructed sentences in order to know the book’s characters, including their feelings and the reason for their actions. This book is also timeless in that it could have been easily written 20, 30 or 40 years ago. I might have been studying it in high school English class instead of Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel.
I was pleased to discover that Ms. Mills-Milde was not a “one book wonder.” Indeed, I was anxious to see if she would soon write another novel after After Drowning and I am delighted that The Land’s Long Reach turned out to be such a very good read. Her technique, attention to detail and careful pacing put me in mind of Carol Bruneau. That’s the highest compliment I can give. The story builds to a tragic climax that I didn’t see coming. However, it ends in an especially pleasing way.
The Land’s Long Reach by Valerie Mills-Milde
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