In writing hundreds of reviews over the past few years, I have discovered that some books result in a quickly written review while others linger on my read-but-waiting-to-be reviewed table. Refuge by Merilyn Simonds was such a book. Here it is November, and it is about three weeks since I finished reading it. Why the delay? Refuge left me a little bewildered after I had read the last page. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the story as a whole. Certainly, it is well-written, and it covers almost ten decades of a life, so there’s a lot of time periods that Cassandra MacCallum, the main protagonist and narrator pass through. I think it was the ending that put me off a little. Nevertheless, I definitely enjoyed reading Ms. Simond’s latest book from ECW Press (this was the first time I have read one of her novels).
The story in Refuge begins and ends on a small island in a lake near Newbliss, in eastern Ontario. There is a cabin on the island that Cassandra (Cass) lives in, she is now 96 years old.
“I’m not so badly off. I got myself down to the water a few times last summer. I sat on my rock looking at the boat, wondering whether I could still lift the oars. But I couldn’t imagine how I would get myself in and out of the thing, much less row. That’s when it occurred to me I might never get off the island. A curious thought, not unpleasant or upsetting, although it has taken its sweet time sinking in.”
The island is her refuge and always has been since she was a young girl living on the family farm with her eight sisters and her father. Her mother died shortly after giving birth to Cass. (“You killed our mother, her sisters hissed.”) Cass is the apple of her father’s eye and she shares his passion for learning the how and why of things; dissecting insects and small animals and other scientific projects when they can find the time. On the island, she would nurse sick birds and animals back to health, providing her and them with a refuge from the outside world.
As Refuge begins, Cass is watching as a small, young Asian woman carefully rows a small boat from the shore toward the island. She is Nang, a Burmese refugee who claims to be Cass’ granddaughter (Cass’ son Charlie went missing in Burma just as WWII was ending.) Cass, upset by this undesired interruption in her peaceful life, doesn’t believe (or want to believe) that this girl is her granddaughter. She thinks Nang may have ulterior motives. While Cass is learning of Nang’s story, the reader is treated with flashbacks from Cass’ life, from her days on the farm, through her education as a nurse (she would have rather been a doctor, but the times being what they were, women became nurses, not doctors). From there, a trip to Mexico to be with a fellow nurse that turns out to be an introduction to the pre-revolutionary days of Mexico City, where the wealthy, but lonely Don Arturo treats her like his late daughter. Upon finding herself pregnant by Carlos, a young Mexican man, Cass flees to New York City. The flashbacks are narrated in the third person, the present in the voice of Cass, which aids the reader to track the story and makes Refuge appear to be two books in one.
As I mentioned earlier, it was the ending that put me off enough that I could only rate it three stars at Goodreads, which still means “I liked it.” Yes, I quite enjoyed reading it, and I liked Cass as a character, particularly in her old, and cranky incarnation. Ms. Simonds has deftly created a full-fledged, intriguing character in Cassandra MacCallum. She has lived a full life, but she soon discovers she’s not quite done yet, as Nang doggedly seeks refuge from the only person who can give it to her.
Award-winning author (and Fellow Kingstonian) Steven Heighton said of Refuge:
“This novel patiently accrues richness and layered resonance in the manner of a long life — in fact, like the almost century-long life of its stubborn, vital heroine. It also explores in personal and intimate terms the most important issues of our time: the nature of borders and belonging, and the plight of the refugee.”
Refuge by Merilyn Simonds
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