A Forest for Calum by Frank MacDonald

A Forest for Calum takes place in the 1950s and 60s rural Cape Breton. Many of the men and fathers around are war veterans; Roddie’s father was a casualty. His mother followed soon after. Which is how he came to be raised by his grandfather Calum.

With just the two of us, a 70-year-old man and a 6-year-old kid, conversations were pretty scarce, most of the time over the following years filled with patterns and habits.

What follows is a touching and humorous story of a man and his grandson. And, since this is a story set in Cape Breton, it’s also about everyone else in the community.

Calum is the strong, silent type. He’s lost his wife, his son, and his daughter-in-law, but he has Roddie, and he has Bartholomew who visits Calum in his sun porch to “speak the Gaelic”- the “language of their hearts.” Taurus comes to join them as well, despite the fact that “Taurus was everything Calum and Bartholomew thought was wrong with the world: too loud, too drunk, too brutal and too Catholic.” But Taurus was also a poet and a dreamer, and it was in this sun porch that the idea of the tree poem grew– if each letter in the Gaelic alphabet corresponds to a type of tree, why not spell out a poem with trees?

Calum seemed to be doing all the talking, his hands building images in the air of whatever he was saying. A sweeping hand took in the whole field, and Bartholomew’s and Taurus’s eyes followed it; and it was easy to guess that they were seeing the oak and the ash, the birch and the elder, pushing into the October sky, carrying words that turned almost vocal with colour before falling silent through the winter, only to begin humming again in the spring and bursting fully into summer.

In the meantime, Roddie and his friend Duncan are growing up–trying new things, getting into trouble, and figuring out who they are. Roddie hangs out at the horse stables with Duncan where he spends a summer as a “piss-whistler”, attends the local dances, watches Duncan lose his cool around the town bully, takes art lessons from Mother Saint Margaret, sneaks the church’s holy wine, and gets his heart caught by Mary Scotland.

The best part of the job, though, was gathering all kinds of stories to tell Taurus in the sun porch. He got a big kick out of it when I told him about the night I was holding the bottle under the winner, hoping in the darkly shadowed stall that I was holding it in the stream, only to realize when I checked the empty bottle that the winner was a mare. The worst part of the job, though, was living in fear that Mary Scotland would ask me exactly what it was I did at the racetrack.

Roddie grew up in a time when the people of Cape Breton were divided between: Irish and Scottish, Protestants and Catholics, English and Gaelic, young and old. He grew up in a time when boys were expected to help dig graves, but made fun of for making good tea. A time when everyone had a nickname, and mothers forbade their sons learning the fiddle because fiddlers were paid with booze. A time when the young looked forward to graduating high school so they could leave their community for the first time, and when your neighbours were often as close as family.

Sitting among the fossils, the blank pages of my chemistry scribbler became a sketch pad as I tried to imagine with my pencil the full forest they must have been a million years ago or whenever. The fossils would have been part of a forest that grew along this shore before it was a shore, a forest that grew out into the Gulf before it was a gulf, a forest that grew over the slag heaps and the houses, grew higher than the church steeples, and it made me think of our own forest, … And I saw it in my mind standing for a million years, turning to stone along the way, the trees forming themselves into natural cairns marking the fact of our having been here, their message as impenetrable to the future as the fossils I sat among, wondering if they, too, had once been someone’s song.

This book is a slow burn – the kind that you don’t want to end. I won’t easily forget Roddie and Calum, their quiet bond, and their trees.

Note: this book was originally published in 2005, but is newly reprinted.

  • ISBN: 9781771087889
  • Nimbus Publishing
  • April 2019
  • Pages: 416

Frank MacDonald is the author of several other books, all of which I’m looking forward to. A Forest for Calum and A Possible Madness were both longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award as well as finalists for the Atlantic Book Awards. A long-time and award-winning columnist, Frank Macdonald is also an accomplished writer of short stories, drama, poetry and songs.

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Naomi MacKinnon is a mother, daughter, wife, sister, friend, pet-lover, reader, walker, camper, and Nova Scotian. Naomi has contributed several guest reviews over the years to The Miramichi Reader. Her book review blog is Consumed By Ink.