Brian Bethune sat down with all five authors shortlisted for the Rogers’ Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, which will be announced on Nov. 7. Here’s the fifth in the series, with author Linda Spalding, where we find out what the effect of literary festivals and literary prizes has on their writing life; what of themselves–beside talent and imagination–went into their nominated books; and what they are reading now, followed by an excerpt from their novel.
**EXCERPT** Daniel looked over at the daughter who sat where a wife should sit. Cold sun with a hint of snow. The new wife rode behind him like a stranger while the younger children huddled together, coughing and clenching their teeth. The wind shook them and the wagon wounded the road with its weight and the river gullied along to one side in its heartless way. It moved east and north while Daniel and all he had in the world went steadily the other way, praying for fair game and tree limbs to stack up for shelter. “We should make camp while it’s light,” said the daughter, who was thirteen years old and holding the reins. But Daniel wasn’t listening. He heard a wheel grating and the river gullying. He heard his father – the memory of that lost, admonishing voice – but he did not hear his daughter, who admonished in much the same way.
Some time later the child pulled the two horses to a halt, saying again that they must make camp while the sky held its light. The new wife arranged dishes on the seat of the wagon, and the child, whose name was Mary, pulled salted meat out of a trunk at the back. It was their fifth day on the road and such habits were developing. By morning there would be snow on the ground, the fire would die, and the children would have to move on without warm food or drink. They would take up their places in the burdened wagon while Daniel’s fine Pennsylvania mares shied and balked and turned in their tracks. A man travelling on horseback might cover a hundred miles in three days, but with a wagon full of crying or coughing children, the mountainous roads of Virginia were a sorrow made of mud and felled trees and devilish still-growing pines.
The children, being young and centred on their own thoughts, were only dimly aware of the hazards of the road and of the great forest hovering. They hardly noticed the mountains, which were first gentle and then fierce, because all of it came upon them as gradually as shapes in an unhappy dream. The mountains only interrupted a place between land and sky. The forest got thicker and darker on every side. They had, within a few weeks, watched their mother die, given up home and belongings, landscape and habits, school and friends. They had watched people become cold to them, shut and lock doors to deny them entrance. How were they to understand? There were other wagons leaving Pennsylvania and going south and west, but none were so laden with woe as the one that carried the five children and the widower and his new bride.
Daniel spoke of the trees and told his children which were the yellow pine and which the white oak. He pointed to a deer standing still as vegetation in the bushes, but he made no effort to hunt or to fish for the beings that swam in the streams. As a Quaker, he did not own a gun and would depend on his store of food until he could raise his own crops. It was November, an ill-advised time for travel, but in spite of rain and cold winds and sore throats, he looked down at the rushing river and told himself that he had no choice. The Elders had cast him out. He had been disowned and now he was rudderless, homeless, alone on a crowded road. He did not count the new wife or the children as companions. They were plants uprooted before they had formed into shape or type. They were adrift on this high road above a river that divided them from everything they had come to expect. “When I inherit we will have a good piece of land,” his dear Rebecca had said whenever he’d chafed at his dependence on her family. She had always said it and he had eventually decided there was no shame in having a wealthy wife. He had spent twelve years working for the tobacco firm owned by his father-in-law, but then Rebecca had sickened after her fifth childbirth. All so sudden, it had been, and everyone bewildered while Daniel stared into the flame of his wife’s bedside candle, trying to understand. Neglecting his work and forgetting to eat or wash, he gave over the details of the children’s daily care to a fifteen-year-old girl he had brought in from the almshouse, an orphan. Her name was Ruth Boyd.
Copyright © 2012 Linda Spalding. Used by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Limited.