In Canadian Urquhart’s latest (A Map of Glass, 2006, etc.), a grown woman returns to the abandoned family farm where she experienced her happiest and most emotionally troubling moments.
A year after her cousin Mandy’s death while serving in the military in Afghanistan, 40-ish Liz returns to the Ontario farm once owned by Mandy’s father, Liz’s maternal uncle Stanley, until he disappeared 20 years ago. The abandoned orchards Stanley once tended with the help of migrant farm labor from Mexico have gone to seed and decay. Now a scientist, Liz has come back to the area to study the annual migration of monarch butterflies between Mexico and this Canadian edge of Lake Erie. Liz talks some about her butterfly study, but mostly, her thoughts meander over her family’s history, particularly her own childhood migration to the farm each summer from a lonely existence with her widowed mother, Stanley’s sister, in Toronto. Stanley was charismatic yet vulnerable and slightly mysterious; his moods controlled the family. The Mexicans who worked the orchards every summer stayed mostly apart, but Stanley tried to get his two sons as well as Mandy and Liz to include one Mexican child, Theo, in their play so he could learn English. The boys were cruel to Theo, Mandy was oblivious, but Liz bonded with him. Not only were they both outsiders, but they both were being raised by single mothers—Theo’s mother, Delores, supervised the other migrant workers. Although Liz knew little about Theo’s winter life in Mexico, by adolescence, romantic sparks developed between the two. Then an ugly tragedy destroyed what had been a kind of Eden for everyone. As Liz reveals that tragedy and its aftermath in bits and pieces, she also ponders Mandy’s more recent death and the secret affair Mandy was carrying on with a high-ranking officer. While Liz’s own adulthood remains mostly a blank, Urquhart sensitively portrays her limited perceptions in childhood.
Heavy with literary allusions and overt symbolism, Liz’s ruminations make for a ponderously slow if finely tuned read.