The Santa Rosa Trilogy by Wendy McGrath

These three novellas (published by NeWest Press), that make up the Santa Rosa Trilogy*, are beautiful in every way; to look at, to hold, and to read. I found myself mesmerized by the thoughts and observations of the little girl who narrates this story; the things she notices and the way she interprets them.

Christine grows up in 1960s Edmonton as part of a working-class family whose parents married young and moved to the city to escape the poverty they grew up in. She sees (and feels) her parents’ behaviours and tries to figure out what it means; the fighting, the silences, the drinking, the tension. Perhaps because of the frequent stress and sadness she feels coming from her parents, she seems to hold on to the happy moments with the hope that they will last forever and spread to everyone.

This day is full of colour and she can taste it on her tongue the sunlight red and yellow and orange so happy she is afraid to say anything. She doesn’t want to open her mouth she wants to keep the taste of these colours on her tongue and this happiness inside her. She wants to keep this moment with the sun shining and her mother in the basement humming and the noise of the washing machine and the smell of earth and soap. She wants to be able to keep this moment forever somehow so the happiness can’t get away from her and disappear the way it seemed to in this house.

It was warm and summer was coming through the car’s open windows. It was the smell of dry sweet flowers and she knew the birds she saw flying in front of the car were happy and even the birds that she couldn’t see were happy hiding in tees or resting in their nests. The girl was so sure of happy that when they passed the big lake she knew all the fish in the water were happy too and even if there were monsters or dinosaurs in that lake they would be so happy that they wouldn’t even bother eating the fish and would let them just swim and live.

There are many happy times – trips to the beach, movies at the drive-in, her parents laughing in the front seat. Watching her father shave, balloons, crayons, sea foam candy. (Remember when we used to put Noxzema on sunburns? I can still smell it.)

There were other families on the beach but they seemed small and her family seemed great and wonderful the four of them together with the lake so real not just a picture of water she might draw with her crayons.

She heard laughter coming from the TV. It made her feel safe and so she slept.

There are trips to see the grandparents, on both sides of the family. As Christine gets older over the course of the three books, she learns more about her world and her parents’ worlds from these visits. And, as she gets older, we see changes in what she observes and the way in which she processes and interprets these observations.

The books are so carefully and poetically written that it feels as though you’re being pulled along on a current and can’t stop until the end of the book. In each book there are recurring themes or echoes–that show up as physical objects, scents, symbols, or thoughts–cleverly placed throughout the book. I especially enjoyed the pine trees in Broke City.

And there is smoking. A lot of smoking. I was impressed with how naturally smoking was written into the story–as a normal and significant part of their daily life–similarly to how tea or coffee often make their way into stories.

The smoke from so many cigarettes had made a map on the ceiling and the capital city was the bare bulb.

Oh, the details. Like this description of peeling away the wrapper of a crayon…

She picked at the yellow paper covering the crayon. Peeled it away and underneath was clean pure yellow. Not like the tip of the yellow crayon speckled with tiny dots of the darker crayons navy blue, brown, green.

Christine thought of herself as a child, with no idea of the world but all the ideas in the world.

Other reviews of this trilogy can be found at Buried in Print and Bookish Beck.

*This review originally appeared on the Consumed by Ink website and is reprinted here with their permission.

Wendy McGrath’s most recent novel Broke City is the final book in her Santa Rosa Trilogy. Previous novels in the series are Santa Rosa and North East. Her most recent book of poetry, A Revision of Forward, was released in Fall 2015. McGrath works in multiple genres. BOX (CD) 2017 is an adaptation of her long poem into spoken word/experimental jazz/noise by QUARTO & SOUND. MOVEMENT 1 from that CD was nominated for a 2018 Edmonton Music Award (Jazz Recording of the Year). She recently completed a collaborative manuscript of poems inspired by the photography of Danny Miles, drummer for July Talk and Tongue Helmet. Her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction has been widely published. McGrath lives in Edmonton, Alberta, on Treaty 6 Territory.

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.