Fearnoch by Jim McEwen

[Editor’s note: this review, written by Naomi MacKinnon, appeared at her Consumed by Ink book review blog and is reproduced here with her kind permission.]

As soon as I saw this book I knew I wanted to read it (I do love judging a book by its cover!). But who knew I would love it so much?

They thought about the game, which they were sure to lose, but also about jobs, divorces, if they were getting fat, why their kid pushed other kids at daycare. And over all the private hopes and troubles of these men who still thought they were pretty good at hockey and took it too seriously, the arena arched, with beer punch cards in the canteen, a Chuck-a-puck sign-up sheet, advertisements on the board for Fearnoch Granite N Tile, Fearnoch Truck Repair, Happy Slices Pizza, Valley Rent Rite, aggregates, fertilizers and animal feeds, and by the score clock a water-damaged portrait of the Queen.

At the heart of this story is a friendship between three men: John, Mikey, and Kirby. They grew up together in Fearnoch, a small farming community in Ontario. Except that farming is on its way out and subdivisions are on their way in. There’s a lot of tension in Fearnoch now around the old ways versus the new.

… there are many places just like Fearnoch, with swamps and dead farms and dead elms hanging over the rusted Quonset huts, and lawns uncut around ancient satellite dishes and umbrella drying racks. But Fearnoch is still a place, a piece of the planet, even if no one knew where it was, and even if Peace once called it a cousin-f*cking colonial cow-shit-hole.

These were secretive, independent, tribal folk, hard-to-know country people forever suspicious about the government. The arthritic, plaid-shirted heads of the old clans… They knew every truck, who was having beer in whose garage. They held all the secrets of agronomy for the region. They tacked Back Off Government signs to fence posts and trees along their property. The only thing they wanted to do, regarding the government, was to vote Conservative, which they did, and would do until they died, no matter what, like how someone might cheer for a hockey team.

John is the 6th John Younghusband to farm his land, and little Johnny is number seven. Unlike his friends, he wants to stay and keep farming – he takes pride in his farm, his hard work, and feels hurt by those who feel he needs to change his ways.

… but he didn’t have vacations because he was a goddamned farmer in a country that a hundred years ago was ninety percent farmers and now was one percent farmers, and he’d work every day all day until he was dead…

Kirby is one of those people now. Especially spurred on by his partner Peace, who grew up in British Columbia–and was born to a woman who waited for Peace to be old enough to choose her own name. In addition to the conflict between him and John over the pesticides used on John’s farm, Kirby and Peace have recently suffered a miscarriage. And Kirby has some childhood trauma of his own weighing him down.

While John worries that Kirby thinks of him as a “pig racist land-rapist”, Mikey assures him that their friendship is bigger than their squabbles, that “all the horseshit will get ripped away one day and you’ll have each other but no horseshit” and Kirby thinks about how “in small towns, friendships are based on geography, not common interests.”

Mikey–who talks to his dying plant and who, from the outside, might look like the biggest loser of the three because of his substance abuse issues, his lowly job at the dump, and the fact that he still lives with his parents–is the most endearing. He has suffered from depression since childhood despite everything his parents did to help him, but he is also a deep thinker with a big heart who just wants to be “normal”. “The world burned just a little too real for Mikey.” Best of all, Mikey provides a lot of humour to the story.

“What do you want me to say?… I don’t know anything–that’s what just about everyone should be saying. Just say I don’t know. But that won’t stop them, everyone just talking and talking like they know everything. I try to think: Is this–what I’m about to say–shit? And usually yes, it is shit, so I try not to say it.”

There’s a new girl at my work, he said. He had not meant at all to say this. He just sat back and felt the words fall out and thought oh boy here I am saying something.

Another friend–Anna–left Fearnoch for Montreal ten years ago with aspirations to be a writer. She’s become discouraged by all the rejections she’s received so far and by the way her boyfriend treats her. She holds two part-time jobs: one at a cafe and one with troubled youth. She’s become especially attached to a teen who wants Anna to “take him away to where she came from, where he dreamed there were quiet, dark, empty fields and big horses charging through the rivers.”

Things come to a head, and characters collide, when a devastating event causes the citizens of Fearnoch to assess what’s most important.

The fields were silver by the moon and rolled plaid down into the river. They were alive with moon and whispers, the crickets and frogs. This bare geometry of road, fenceline, power line and row crop. Dark branches held the moon up and cattle lowed and John could have cried. Mikey watched a woolly bear, orange and black, inch up John’s leg.

Not only is the writing spectacular, but Fearnoch pulled at my heartstrings; the author’s love for this place and these characters is clear.

Joan Sullivan, in a review for Saltwire, writes: “This is rich, loamy writing, vivid, precise and often funny. Even minor characters are considered with insight and flair.”

Jim McEwen is an award-winning writer born and raised in Dunrobin, ON. A graduate of Memorial University’s Creative Writing Master’s program, he has published work in Riddle Fence and the Telegram. He has been a youth worker, a stonemason labourer, and a tree-planter. Jim is passionate about dinosaurs, hockey, family, and looking for stories.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Breakwater Books (July 7 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 240 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1550819410
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1550819410

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.