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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

BPL Book Discussion: Rush Home Road


After 10 years of leading a book discussion group for the BPL, I sometimes think nothing can surprise me anymore.  I am happy to say, I was proven wrong this month, when we read Rush Home Road the first novel by acclaimed Canadian author Lori Lansens.  In Rush Home Road, I found not only an original, compelling, and lyrical story, but also great fodder for a wonderful discussion.  I was not expecting much for this month, but what I got was a treasure.


First the details.  The group met a week late this month due to the President's Day holiday.  This allowed us to easily fit the 400+ page Rush Home Road into our schedule without much grumbling from group members.  Also, the cover on the right is the one most of us had; this is the currently in print paperback.  However, some of the participants needed the hardcover for the larger print.  They were treated to the cover on the left, which is much better.  The hard cover is only available in libraries who bought it when it first came out (BPL has this copy).  It perfectly sets the stage and tone of the book.  The cover on the right, is terrible.  We did discuss this.

Although I had not read Lansens before, I was familiar with the critical acclaim for her 2007 novel, The Girls.  Rush Home Road had actually gone out of print, but was brought back in 2008 due to the popularity of The Girls, and I for one am glad.

Rush Home Road's plot is simple to describe.  We are in Canada, just outside of Windsor (so just across the water from America), in a trailer park,  in the 1970s.  A five-year old half white, half black girl--Sharla-- is abandoned by her mother and given to an elderly black woman--Addy.   Although Addy is not well, she makes it her mission to "save" Sharla, love Sharla, and find her a family.  The story is about their relationship to a point, but it is mostly about Addy.

The novel bounces back and forth between the 1970s present and Addy's past, beginning when she was raped by a neighbor and cast out of her community in the 1920s.  This community was also interesting.  Her hometown, Rusholme, was famous for being the terminus of the underground railroad.  It was a town run by blacks; it was a world without segregation, and when Addy leaves Rusholme as a teenager, she sees racism for the first time in her life.

Now on to the discussion itself, which will reveal more plot points and plenty of the appeal of this novel:

  • We started with the usual liked, didn't like, so-so vote.  I had 11 liked, 1 so-so, and only 1 didn't like (and she didn't like it because there are realistic--not gratuitous-- but visceral descriptions throughout, of sex, births, deaths, etc... Take the opening line as an example,"It stinks of piss in the room.")  Initial comments about why people liked it: It was so descriptive.  I felt like I knew the people and places even though I hadn't been there.  It painted such a good picture,
  • We began talking about the overall tone of the book because, as one participant volunteered at the start: It was easy reading, but not an easy subject.  I loved that statement, but asked others to elaborate.  Someone else said that it was amazing that such a sad book could be so uplifting.  Addy was raped, lost everyone she ever loved, and had a hard life, yet she survived, she kept on going, and remained a good person.  Another participant enjoyed that Addy never moaned or said "poor me," she just went on.
  • I was concerned about the style of the book.  The novel is constantly shifting between past and present, without much to denote the shift.  There is some confusion as you read, and as the novel goes on, the blending of the 2 stories (Addy's past and her present with Sharla) is less clear.  But this worked well since as the story goes on, Addy is herself more confused.  As Sharla notes, Addy is not sure where she is and who she is talking to.  We feel Sharla's combined confusion and sympathy because of the style.  Because just about everyone was enthralled by Addy, her story, and Lansens' writing, they feel into the rhythm of the two time periods easily.  They just went with it and trusted Lansens to take them where they needed to go.  I cannot stress enough what a testament to Lansens' writing this is.  My group usually despises time shifts that are not broadcasted clearly.
  • Great comment:  "The two females here are a gift to each other."  Sharla helps Addy to come to terms with her life and gives Addy a purpose again.  Addy gives Sharla love, something she has never felt or experienced.  Sharla also allows Addy to find love again, just when she thought she was all out of love.  She gives Sharla a chance at a normal life, and she finds Sharla her real father and a family to be a part of.
  • This point led us to the ending of the novel only 15 minutes into our discussion, but when you are leading a book group, you need to follow the flow of the conversation, not the structure of the book.  Without giving too much away, the novel ends completely resolved.  In fact, it is so resolved that it should have felt contrived, but we decided that Lansens did such a good job building up to this ending, that it just felt wonderful.  Addy had a terrible life, but she ended it doing such good, she was happy, she got to finally go home, and she found Sharla a home.  The final scene of Addy's childhood home with all those she had ever loved waiting to welcome her in, was simply beautiful.
  • We talked about the bits of magical realism in the story, most notably the help Addy receives from her dead loved one.  We talked about this literally as participants shared stories of talking with their dead parents and spouses.  It seemed natural in the story as many of us admitted to looking to our deceased loved ones for guidance.  I added a quote from Lansens to the discussion.  She had said that the novel is about how "the past both haunts and inspires us."  The entire book, the way it was laid out, the plot, and the reasons we all loved it were for exactly this reason.  This overall theme is also why even those participants who hate magical realism, were fine with Addy receiving advise and encouragement from her dead brother.
  • Race of course came up.  We first talked about the fact that this novel is written mostly in the voice of an old, black woman, yet it was written by a young white one.  Lansens' herself discussed this issue in an interview found in the back of the paperback edition.  Her point is that all fiction requires that the author appropriate the voice of someone he or she is not.  She dismissed any criticism about her choice of voice using this nonracial point.  Our group is made up of older white women (and me).  They did not mind that she took up Addy's voice.  In our case, I thought they might be unhappy with her trying to capture an older woman.  But they were fine with it.  However, I do wonder if a group of elderly black women would feel the same way.
  • We also talked about how Addy was introduced to segregation and racial issues, but due to her upbringing in Rusholme, she was less willing to just accept her place as inferior.  This also allowed her to view the racial issues that came up from the most neutral position of any character.  We also liked her husband Mose, the black man who could pass for white but identified as black.  It made for some interesting moments in the story.  
  • We talked about the theme of family and home for a bit.  This novel asks you to ponder what makes a family a family and what makes a home a home?  These are huge universal questions at the heart of the book.  These questions are also why the book is so ripe for discussion.  We spent some time talking about being related vs being a family.  People shared personal stories and we related them to the text.
  • We talked about how the historical aspects of the novel added depth.  The frame was interesting.  We have not read much about Canada and we learned new information about the underground railroad.  Everyone enjoyed this.
  • Finally, we ended with a list of how Addy and Sharla are similar.  I will list what we came up with in a second, but first, I want to point out that Lansens made these connections subtly.  It is only in discussing the work that we realized how effortlessly she tied these two very different characters together.  We appreciated this as readers, and were happy for the chance to reflect and discuss them.  It enhanced our enjoyment of both the novel and the discussion.  How Addy and Sharla are similar:
    • Both have non-traditional birthday parties; in fact, both do not really celebrate their birthdays as a rule
    • Both cast out by their parents, but both still hold on to hope for love
    • Both suffer hunger, true hunger, not just skipping a meal
    • Both rely on the kindness of strangers to survive
    • Both have hand injuries, which while not debilitating, have come from important moments in their histories.
    • Both show kindness to people who may not deserve it, but get kindness back
Readalikes:  It is hard not to think of another popular and moving story of black women as told by a white woman, The Help when reading Rush Home Road

A participant said the abandoned child bringing new life to an old person reminded her of when we read Blessings by Anna Quindlen, many, many years ago.  Yet another participant said the feel of this novel and Addy's life story reminded her of On the Road with Charles Kuralt.  Check out these backlist gems for yourself.

Lansens herself has said that Canadian author Margaret Laurence has been one of her biggest influences.  Laurence is well regarded in Canada but not read as much here in America.  More American readers should try Laurence.

Other authors who are similar in tone, style, and topic to Lansens are John Irving, Alice Munro, and Jane Hamilton

Readers may also want to know more about the true story behind the fictional Rusholme; it is based on a real town.  You can use this link to find more books about the Underground Railroad.  Also, here is the official government site commemorating the underground railroad in Canada.

Finally, our group also read Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood a few years ago.  This story with its historical Canadian setting, strong female character, class (as opposed to race) issues, and beautiful writing, is also a good readalike option.

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