Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Hutchison’

Tamarac by Margaret Hutchison ~ 1957. This edition: Macmillan, 1957. Hardcover. 282 pages.

A show of hands, please – who has heard of Margaret Hutchison?

I hadn’t, and it saddens me.

This novel was a pleasant surprise, and it appears to be the writer’s only one, though I found a reference to her working on her “next novel” in a snippet of a Margaret Laurence biography I stumbled on online. Apparently Margaret Hutchison – “Hutch” – was mentoring Margaret Laurence in the writerly sense when they both met in Vancouver back in the 1950s.

Intriguing.

Google draws an utter blank, beyond the secondhand copies of Tamarac for sale. And there aren’t too many of those out there, either.

So was there ever a second novel? I am exceedingly curious, because this first one, rather obviously autobiographical in the way of so many first novels, is beautifully written. Margaret Hutchison is comfortable with her words; it’s a smooth, engaging read, even in the most angst-ridden passages. Which takes some doing, doesn’t it?

Note I mentioned the presence of angst. It’s in there, in spades. Well, expectedly so, regarding the subject and its era.

Sometime between the two world wars, young Janet Cameron grows up with her two sisters in an isolated (and fictional) sawmill town named Tamarac located somewhere in the (real) British Columbia Kootenay region. Her childhood was a golden time; she looks back on it with fond nostalgia and true grief for its passing.

For not only has her childhood vanished, the town itself is disappearing. With the advent of the Second World War and the natural attrition of a resource extraction based industry – the loggers have harvested all the available trees and the most prominent town structures are torn down as the sawmill equipment is removed for installation elsewhere – Tamarac is doubly doomed.

Janet, now grown up and working as a schoolteacher, returns to the area to attend her father’s funeral, and the journey back triggers cascades of memory of her life to date: that golden childhood, and then the harsh reality of working for a living in a career she feels forced into, and eventually a brutally disappointing love affair. The mixture as seen so often, in fact.

Margaret Hutchison handles her saga well; it moves along quite briskly most of the time, with occasional slowings-down to dwell on particularly meaningful episodes.

Tamarac is hard on the heels of novels such as those created by Ethel Wilson; there is a similar concentration on the landscape as a crucial influence on the characters’ psyches. Hutchison approaches Wilson’s style without exactly copying it – the two were in fact writing at much the same time – but falls just the slightest bit short. As a developing writer, what might have been her voice in subsequent works?

Hutchison’s strengths as a more-than-competent writer outweigh her occasional lapses as a plot developer. I liked this novel a lot, and I would be thrilled to find that there is more out there from this thoughtful and articulate author. Sadly, I suspect that she may have been a one-book wonder. I wonder what the rest of her personal story was?

To sum up:

  • Not exactly a bildungsroman; our protagonist experiences most of her growing pains as an adult dealing with adult issues – love and loss and all that deep stuff. Her adolescence is challenging in places but is passed over without wallowing in teen sadness; she grows up fast but not because of any particular trauma; much is asked of her early and she steps forward to shoulder her responsibilities.
  • Tamarac is a thoughtful and appreciative evocation of a particular place and time; the author makes it very clear that she has a keen eye for natural surroundings, as well as the human places – and people – which encroach upon the wild.
  • Much of the melancholy of this novel comes from the time of its setting: Great Depression-era rural Canada, and then the bitter onset of what we all know – characters and readers alike – will be another horrible war.
  • The ending is something of an anticlimax, just a little too perfectly rounded. But it works in the greater context of what comes before it in the story, and is on the whole fairly satisfying. We are certain that Janet will calmly find her own way into whatever is coming next for her; she has proven herself tenacious and resilient so far, and we wish her well in her future.
  • My rating: 7.5/10. (Not a perfect novel, but well on its way, and I liked it.)

And here is our mysterious writer. Does anyone know what happened after Tamarac?

 

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