A world of contrasts

By  Sheldon Fernandez, Catholic Register Special
  • February 1, 2009
{mosimage}Reading by Lighting by Joan Thomas (Goose Lane Editions, softcover, 388 pages, $22.95).

The unadorned barn sits listlessly along the sprawling landscape of Lloydminster, Man., in the 1930s. It is here that the hardened inhabitants of this small Prairie town gather for weekly prayer in expression of a zealous but grave apocalyptic faith. The world around offers little comfort. The land is stubborn, the weather unco-operative and the labour severe.  But as the townspeople know, this whirlwind of hardship is transitory — a gateway to the promised afterlife that will reward their fidelity.

This is the only world Lily Piper has ever known. Her father migrated from England decades earlier hoping to harvest the supposedly fertile land and, per God’s timeless plan, meet her God-fearing mother. For reasons unknown to her, Lily is considered a bad girl, reprimanded, scolded and constantly reminded of the narrow path she must negotiate to salvation. Is it because she is naturally curious or precociously observant? Neither, of course, bodes well in this town where everyone must know their place. 

That’s our starting point in Reading by Lighting, Joan Thomas’s delicious debut novel. But this novel and its heroine take off from there to enlightenment and sophistication in England. Eventually circumstance dictates an abrupt return to Manitoba, where our sojourner must confront the stubborn ways of Lloydminster in light of her travels. Will she consign herself to a life of joyless obstinacy? Or does life have something else in store?

Thomas’s initial foray into long fiction is plainly impressive. In the hands of a lesser writer, this tale of personal discovery might have been clichéd and underwhelming, but as many readers will attest the devil (pun intended) is in the details.

On one level, it is appropriate to describe Thomas’s work as a stirring Prairie novel — a vibrant examination of the ebb and flow of life amidst the arid cul-de-sacs of central Canada. On another, it is a poignant saga of the maturation of a single life, from an isolated world of reinforced xenophobia to the challenging modernities of a new land. Lily Piper’s existential voyage is powerfully rendered through the author’s vivid prose and her unfailing esthetic sense. Rarely have we encountered a world so staggeringly familiar and yet so thoroughly alien — so seemingly simplistic and yet admittedly complex.

This juxtaposition is the true strength of Thomas’s writing. Little is obvious and everything is significant.

It is appropriate to ask how the geographical contrast in Reading by Lighting — small town rigidity versus European enlightenment — might resonate with modern Catholic thought.  John Paul II addressed both perspectives in his encyclical letter Fides Et Ratio, which explored the relationship between faith and reason. One way to describe this relationship is to use the metaphor of a symphony. The function of reason, as seen by the church, is to illuminate the contents of faith. Faith is made known by revelation so as to deepen reason. Faith and reason work in full communion. Both are gifts from God and are authentically realized when they work together. Faith and reason are “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth,” wrote Pope John Paul II. We need to fly with both if religion is to find a secure foundation for human dignity, he said. The attentive Catholic might attempt to apply this insight to the separate worlds in Thomas’s book.

Reading by Lighting is more than a worldly contrast, however. It is about the texture and friction of farm life on the Prairies and the complex effects of impending war on family relationships. It is primarily a touching coming-of-age novel — a theme we’ve all seen before to be sure, but rarely with such intelligence, thoughtfulness and skill.

(Fernandez is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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