Posts Tagged ‘1954 Novel’

The Whistling Shadow by Mabel Seeley ~ 1954. This edition: Doubleday, 1954. Hardcover. 219 pages.

First, a personal note, to answer those who have so kindly inquired as to my extended absence from the blogosphere these past months. I could give a detailed account of this so-strange summer we’ve been having, but I won’t, because honestly it’s been decidedly frenetic in so many ways and really not worthy of revisiting.

Suffice it to say that we are keeping our heads above water (figuratively speaking) and that all is quite reasonably well. Ridiculously busy, but in the non-concrete sort of way where we have not much to show for it.

Reading time is confined to just-before-bedtime, and much of what I’ve read recently is rather blurry round the edges. So much stuff going on!

Still hoping to make a decent showing on the Century of Books project, so maybe the fast and basic book post is the key?

Like this one.

The Whistling Shadow is a compulsively readable noir novel, and I have to admit that I didn’t twig to the villain of the piece at all, though I did have qualms about the co-villain right from the get-go. As I was probably supposed to; Mabel Seeley seemed to be in full control of her narrative from start to finish.

Middle-aged Gail Kiskadden, widowed fifteen years earlier, mourns the drunk driving death of her twenty-year-old son Johnny by sitting in her darkened house playing solitaire all day and most of every night. Her grief has taken over her life; she can’t find a way forward.

Then one of her son’s friends comes with a piece of unexpected news: Johnny was secretly married while away serving on his Army detail. His widow was last heard of in Columbus, Georgia.

Gail sets out to find the mysterious Sherry Lee, and succeeds without much difficulty, and of course what she has both hoped and feared is evident: a grandchild is on the way.

Sherry Lee is delicately beautiful but intellectually not quite up to what Gail had expected of a partner of clever Johnny’s, and she also displays a sullen disinterest in meeting Gail halfway in regards to commiseration of their shared loss, but her apparently troubled financial position leads her to agreeing to accompany Gail back to Minneapolis to await the birth of her child.

It soon becomes apparent that Sherry Lee is a woman with a deeply complicated past, which follows her to Minneapolis. Death threats by hand-delivered letter, furtive midnight whistlings, ventriloquist’s dummies left in unexpected places: the plot thickens.

The threats increase as the months go by, culminating in the kidnapping of Gail’s baby grandson and further developments with the secret threatener, who proves to be a very real person with a distinct fondness for knives…

Seeley winds up the tension until the breaking point and a bit beyond, before bringing her strong female lead into a place of peace, albeit a fragile sort of respite as new complications have arisen in the revelation of a killer’s identity.

Good (dark) stuff.

This was Mabel Seeley’s last suspense novel of only ten published between 1938 and 1954. The Whistling Shadow is my first experience with Seeley; I hope it will not be my last.

My rating: 8.5/10

 

 

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New Canadian Library paoperback, circa 1990. Another inappropriate NCL cover illustration – who the heck was in charge of selecting these? The E.J. Hughes painting depics Shawnigan Lake, on Vancouver Island. Sure, it’s a lake, and it’s even in British Columbia, but it’s a far, far way away from the Kamloops bush and the interior lake where most of the action of Swamp Angel takes place.

Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson ~ 1954. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1990. Afterword by Georger Bowering. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-8958-9. 216 pages.

Maggie walks away from her deplorable second marriage, and goes to earth at a remote fishing lodge northeast of Kamloops.

Nell, with the help of a small pearl-handled revolver, puts Maggie’s abusive husband absolutely in his place.

Hilda, Nell’s daughter, watches from the sidelines, taking it all in, storing it all up.

And Vera, reluctant resident at the fish camp, sees Maggie both as a saviour and as a very personal devil.

Intrigued? Good.

Find it. Read it. The book is probably Ethel Wilson’s most well-known; copies from its multiple printings are easy as pie to come by, at least in every used book shop I’ve been in here in the writer’s home province.

Grand stuff from the brilliant and not nearly prolific enough British Columbian writer Ethel Wilson. What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this gem of a small novel, this delicate and complex story of suffering and personal redemption? (A quick online search brings an embarrassment of riches in the way of scholarly discussion.)

Maggie Lloyd, our main character in that the story follows her most intimately, is a woman of uncompromising integrity, and though that may sound dull, it’s not, not at all. Her moral sense drives her actions, her intelligence makes those actions generally successful, and her wry sense of humour – well-tamped down for understandable reasons (Maggie’s had more than her share of personal tragedy) but still active – keeps her likeable.

Maggie rescues herself from an unbearable situation, and proceeds to remake her life as a solo operator, making this something of a feminist manifesto. But while most of Swamp Angel’s main characters are women, the men in Ethel Wilson’s cast are memorable, too, whether swinish or heroic or stoic or just plain decent.

Early edition (first edition?) dust jacket. Those who’ve read the novel will know immediately what this depicts; I won’t give it away to those who still have to experience the quiet joys of Ethel Wilson’s little masterpiece of personal redemption.

Wilson paints her word pictures with brushes both broad and finely delicate; her pacing might well be described as variable (uneven sounds like a critique, so I won’t use that term, though it is also apt); her frequent descriptive passages sometimes stray into sentiment; but mostly it all clicks.

As a native British Columbian, I found an extra piquancy in the place descriptions, which Ethel Wilson made something of a specialty of, portraying mood as much as scenery. Very much about genius loci, as I touched on in my recent post on Hetty Dorval. Not sure if these passages will appeal quite so strongly to those not from here, but I am deeply appreciative of this element in her work.

A good strong 9/10.

 

 

 

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