Literary Review of Canada - Euphoria
A Woman Who Prevails
Reviewed by: Literary Review of Canada
As she traverses the city of Toronto, Gladdie McConnell, the heroine of Connie Gault's Euphoria, sees an octagon-shaped building with a cupola on top. It is the cyclorama, that popular 19th-century entertainment in which a panoramic painting on a cylindrical screen revolves around the viewer, placing her in the middle of a historical event. The one Gladdie passes but never manages to see is 'Jerusalem on the Day of the Crucifixion.' Similarly, the reader of Gault's novel is positioned in the middle as the narrative unrolls, past and present flowing together seamlessly around her. In the beginning, a promise is made, at the end the promise is fulfilled, and the story of its fulfillment is set to start over again. Gladdie, who makes the promise, tells it to Orillia, the object of her commitment.
The two are thrown together by another spiraling force-the cyclone that whirls around Regina and causes a convergence of several characters. Scene after scene unfolds, in this intricately patterned novel, from a seedy boarding house in Toronto to a pleasant one in Regina to a small prairie town, until the entire panorama is complete. Each scene has a title indicating the leitmotifs that run throughout like the fragments of melody in Wagner's Ring Cycle. Each title denotes an emotion, a character or a situation-'a mouth to feed,' whoever you are,' 'at Mrs. riley's house,' ' a heroine,' 'the baby moses'and 'after wisdom.' The scenes are set up with the consummate skill of an experienced playwright, the characters delineated through dialogue, the whole infused with humour. Gault has a sharp ear for the idiom of plain people, its vitality and idiosyncrasy unadulterated by decorum and good grammar. She reproduces the speech of the dispossessed of an earlier era, catching the vocabulary and cadences. One scene describes the arrival at Mrs. Riley's boarding house of a young woman, big with child. The night is stormy and the house is so decrepit, it might well be a stable. The roof leaks, and buckets are set on the table as the lodgers-Pearl Fink, a nurse, and Mr. Parchman-are eating dinner. When Mr. Parchman said he'd never have thought he'd sit at a table with a bucket on it, Pearl darkly said, 'I've seen worse things in buckets.' 'Please,'Mrs. Riley said. 'They throw what's not wanted in them after surgery.' 'Please,' Mrs. Riley said, more faintly. 'You don't need nearly the length of gut you have inside you." Did you know that? Miles of gut you have inside you. And you should see what's inside it. Just last week Dr. Peterson threw a gallbladder away by mistake in a bucket of gut and I had to look for it. They wanted to cut it open to see the stones. Have you ever seen gallstones? They have greenish stuff like mould growing on them.' A knock at the door interrupted Pearl. Ping, ping went the drips into the pails. At the second rap, Mrs. Riley said, 'Who can that be?'
The stuff of Gault's cyclorama has much in common with the biblical myths that hover in and around her story-a child born in an inn (of sorts), a betrayal, a young innocent immolated, a covenant made, a body broken and resurrected, a journey to a land of promise. But her version runs counter to them, she has transferred the material to her own territory, making it thoroughly Canadian, matriarchal, concerned with the genealogy of mothers and daughters, domestic.
The question of what constitutes a story, where it should begin and how it should be told, runs throughout, for Gladdie (whose own creation myth is constructed by the garrulous Mr. Riley) is not only Orillia's watchful guardian, but the keeper of her story. In this she has rivals. Exaggerated accounts appear in the papers. Orillia's adoptive mother has letters that authenticate her history. A would-be novelist tries to appropriate her life. It is Gladdie, however, whose knowledge and reverence mark her as the worthy bearer of a story that begins, 'One October evening in a hard rain, a young woman of good family 'Although the events are sensational-suicide, madness, natural disaster, sexuality of all kinds, including the most depraved-the presentation is completely underplayed. Gault's method is diametrically opposed to that expressed in Flannery O' Connor's dictum: 'for the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you write big.'
The hallmark of her style is understatement, its effectiveness apparent in her oblique description of a child's experience of sexual abuse. Few depictions of child abuse have come closer to showing the banality of that particular evil. In Gladdie McConnell, Gault has created a heroine who takes her place beside Margaret Laurence's Hagar Shipley and Willa Cather's Antonia Shimerda. Gladdie is born with no protections against the world-no parents, no family, no home and no name. McConnell, the name of a fellow servant in a boarding house where she works at the age of nine, is doled out arbitrarily and gratefully received. Virtually uneducated ('I am a reader,' she says when asked), she was taught 'the alphabet and life' from the Proverbs of Solomon. In her mature years, she re-evaluates Solomon's wisdom, his gift from God, along with honours and riches. She is unimpressed by Solomon's judgement on the two women who claim the same baby: 'There wasn't a woman alive who'd say to cut a baby in two, whether she was or wasn't its mother Gladdie figured God might have come through on the honours and riches, but if that was his idea of wisdom, he didn't know women.' It is Gladdie's own life that ultimately constitutes the definition of wisdom. She might seem to end as she started with nothing, since she acquires none of the external markers of status for a woman of her time. She has no husband, no child, no home. But she endures, she is not one of those who fly off a 'round and spinning' world. Moreover, Gladdie builds something permanent and unshakeable-a totally self-reliant, generous character with a firm moral sense and an abundance of wisdom. She learns that neither biology nor heredity constitute destiny, that legalistic formal categories mean less than emotional ones. She understands that the true attributes of motherhood-lifelong commitment, unconditional love and the final generous act of letting go-are as strong as biological ties. Her life is testimony to the fact that, if one builds a firm centre, those attributes stay fixed when all around them moves.
In one of the most compelling images, Gladdie sees an unbelievable sight. As she rides in a wagon toward the small town of Aquadell, it seems that the whole town is moving-little matchbox buildings, houses, the store, the livery barn jerking eastward over the prairie. The driver of the wagon explains: 'Surveyors,' Jim Welsh said sorrowfully. 'Laid out the town in the wrong location. They come last week and told us about it. Then they staked out the new townsite over there. That's where the railway's coming through.' 'And the whole town's moving?' 'Had to move,' Mr. Welsh said. 'You gotta be by the tracks.' Like Gladdie, the town has been created on barren ground, its inception marked by an accident. Yet it forms a coherent whole and maintains its integrity during a complete upheaval. When it settles again in a different place, it celebrates with a joyous feast, in Gault's spinning world, joyfulness is an important corollary of wisdom. Article by Joan Givner.