The Current Between by Valerie Mills-Milde

The Current Between is Valerie Mills-Milde’s third novel, and it has been my pleasure to have reviewed her two previous novels, The Land’s Long Reach (2018) and After Drowning (2016) both published by Inanna Publications. The Current Between is a historical fiction of the highest calibre. It not only educates the reader about a little-known (and long-forgotten) event, that of the Great Storm of 1913 on the Great Lakes, but it contains some of the best writing I’ve read in a long time.

The Current Between is a historical fiction of the highest calibre.”

While I assumed that most of the story would take place on the Great Lakes, Ms. Mills-Milde takes the reader ashore to introduce us to those who have ties to the main protagonist, Harry Darling, particularly his father Connor and Harry’s girlfriend Flo, who works as a telegraph operator. The chapters go back and forth, from the backstory of each character to the storm action on the lake and the efforts of those ashore to try to guide the boats through the wall of precipitation that shrouds the boats from the shoreline.

The ship in question in The Current Between is the James Carruthers, which was built in 1913, making it an almost-new boat at the time of the fateful storm. It was 550 feet long with a deckhouse (which includes the pilothouse and captain’s quarters) at the bow and one at the stern where the galley and the engine room are. In between is an expanse of hatches over the holds beneath. The James Carruthers was carrying wheat, bound for Midland, Ontario at the time of the Great Storm. Harry is reluctant to seek out another job before the winter, but a shipmate, Jake, encourages him to seek a berth on the James Carruthers with him. Harry glimpses the boat for the first time:

“He is a long while, contemplating the enormous boat, affection and admiration already taking hold. Scores of men teem over her, hoisting cables and cranking the loading winches and all the while she stays firm to her air of forbearance. It is this, her unexpected grace that captivates him.”

The SS James Carruthers

Aside from the James Carruthers (including its Captain, William Wright) and the Great Storm, the balance of the book is fictional, but the settings and the feel of the story that Ms. Mills-Milde creates is a slice of life of the times, whether it’s on Connor Darling’s beleaguered mink farm, or Flo’s life as a telegraph operator for a large telegraph company on Bay Street in Toronto or the details of life aboard a lake boat. One gets the feeling – and it is a reassuring one – that the author has ensured that every detail is correct, whether on the boat or on the farm, even with the tools of a telegraph operator.

I wish to recognize the fact that the strongest, surest characters in The Current Between are the women. There’s the aforementioned Flo, and Kat, the undertaker’s daughter, who helps Connor raise Harry after his wife dies prematurely. To keep with the shipping metaphor, these both figure as anchors for Harry and Connor, although Connor, as a most conflicted man, cannot see the intrinsic worth of a woman like Kat until it is too late, as is often the case in real life. Harry, on the other hand, does, and he loves both women dearly. And Kat’s employment as the cosmetician for the dead is a triumph of good writing and good characterization which only adds a unique element to this theme.

Harry had thought about how it was that people could know one another. Kat, for instance; everything Kat did and said led him to trust her, to love her without reserve.

The bleakness of the Darling farm, once a sheep farm under Connor’s father, is now a mink farm that is not making any money because Connor can’t afford to feed them enough for their pelts to be worthy of top dollar. Ms. Mills-Milde has centred the book’s overreaching theme of death and decay around this farm, particularly its inherent bleakness.

He [Connor] blinks at the gritty half-filled shelves. His life accumulated in small bits, like tools and gadgets in a work shed, which when surveyed give no sense of their purpose or use.A wave of exhaustion passes over him. He’s tired of fretting about the animals, worn down to his marrow.

Reading this book, it drew me into the rural lakeside settings and the vividly conceived characters, not to mention the relentless storm conflict scenes.

To sum up, this is a book that deserves attention, and it is certain to be on shortlists this year.

Valerie Mills-Milde lives, works, and writes in London Ontario. She is the author of the novel After Drowning (2016), which won the IPPY Silver Medal for Contemporary Fiction and The Land’s Long Reach,(2018) which was a finalist for The Miramichi Reader’s 2019 “The Very Best!” Book Awards. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous Canadian literary magazines. When she is not writing, she is a clinical social worker in private practice. Valerie acknowledges that the land on which she lives is the traditional territory of the Attawandaron, Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, and Lunaapeewak peoples who have longstanding relationships to the land, water and region of southwestern Ontario.