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Guide to Penny Loves Wade, Wade Love Penny by Caroline Woodward

Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny (Oolichan Books: 2010):

Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny, by Caroline WoodwardBackground information

Several decades ago in a writing workshop discussion about heroes in literature, I blurted out that Penelope, of Odysseus and Penelope, was, in fact, a hero. The rest of the class paused briefly (why is she bringing Homer Simpson into the discussion when she obviously doesn’t know he’s married to big-blue-haired Marge?!) and moved on to the action figures of their liking. I sighed and filed away the notion of Penelope and courage and tenacity.

A dozen years later, I began a short story with a contemporary land-owning Penny holding covetous neighbour at bay while her well-meaning but amnesia-afflicted husband went missing. The short story floundered under its own weight, picked itself up, jogged sideways and became a script treatment. With my impeccable timing, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier was published to great acclaim in the U.S. and ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’, the hilarious movie with a great soundtrack, directed by the Coen Brothers and starring George Clooney, appeared shortly after. My efforts were saved on a disc, the notes shoved into a file. I worked on other projects. I read The Odyssey in a number of translations meanwhile, absorbing the skirmishes, marvelling at the characters.

Something about this stalwart woman holding the fort, quite literally, defending the kingdom of Ithaca in ancient Greece, this faithful, wily, determined Penelope unravelling her weaving by night and keeping the suitors at bay until she had completed her masterpiece, had its hooks in my imagination. I wrote a few drafts of a novella but the story wanted to be a novel. I sighed and kept at it. Meanwhile Margaret Atwood wrote an opera about Penelope and her maids and premiered it in London, England. I sighed deeply and wrote yet another draft. If I didn’t have staying power, how could I expect my book to endure for the ages?

That question became my motto and my mantra as I wrote and rewrote and set it aside for months at a time, working fulltime at very demanding jobs throughout, writing during precious escapes to house-sit for friends or during brief retreats, whole Saturdays or Sundays spent in a quiet corner behind the foreign language bookshelf in the Courtenay Library.

I wanted to honour the hardworking women and men who carry on, holding onto their ranches and farms despite the vagaries of the weather and the market. I had to go back to my first landscape, the one I still feel I know best, the wild and fertile and amazingly beautiful Peace River Plateau of northern BC and Alberta. I wanted to re-imagine a contemporary rural situation where both adults work on and off the land in order to keep it, a situation that is more common than not, all across rural Canada.  Then there is the question of one’s doppelganger, the person we think we might have been if we’d made different choices, taken other paths, stayed home and not wandered or raced, pedal to the metal, down other highways and byways of life. Wade means ‘wanderer’ from the old Norse while Penelope, thanks to Homer, connotes ‘faithful’ and Toland is exactly what it sounds like it should be, a family name linked to land.

So, as a writer, I felt I had such scope to explore both the domestic goddess and the extroverted traveller that I am, bolstered by a grand sweep of western Canadian landscape and informed by Homer’s epic story of one man’s long journey home. My novel gives equal time to Penelope and I gave her much more interesting and modern tasks than chatting up the traitorous maids and weaving a funeral shroud for her dead father-in-law. Likewise, instead of sending Wade off to war in slavish imitation of The Odyssey, I wanted to explore the lingering, toxic aftermath of war on men’s psyches, on generations of a family and on a small community decimated by the deaths of their strongest, healthiest young men. Where I did consciously utilize characters based on Homer’s great tale, I trust they will ring true whether the reader is familiar with the Greek classic or not. Little literary gifts lurk for the careful reader who has read the original though, so think of it as a Where is Waldo? for Classics geeks.

Researching the book led me back to early aural history interviews with Peace River pioneers I’d done as a university student in the mid-seventies, the tapes of which are housed in the Royal BC Museum Archives in Victoria. I was also directed to some wonderful letters by 1920’s homesteaders in the Fort St. John Library and in the midst of all this, I was greatly honoured to be asked to write the foreword to my own Peace River community’s first history book, A Community Tells Its Story: The History of Cecil Lake. The thing about interesting research (the more tangents the better)which I truly enjoy doing as it’s so much easier than the hard, solitary work of writing, is that it’s very easy to end up with a cast of thousands. Chop, chop, nip, tuck, rewrite, rewrite….

I also had a lot of fun inventing my own versions of the ancient Greek bad guys of both genders and the B.C. locations for nefarious skulduggery because if writing isn’t any fun at least some of the time, as the great poet John Newlove once told me, why the heck do we bother doing it?

Questions From Caroline

Penny and Wade experience love, or at least intense mutual attraction, at first sight. How is this phenomenon handled in other stories or novels? Is it sustainable, how so, and if so, what do some literary couples do to endure the pitfalls and temptations that beset every marriage? How do members of the community and other family members support or undermine Penny and Wade’s marriage in this novel? What do Penny’s attitudes toward other Goodland couples, including the hypothetical situation of Sherwin Evers and a foreign bride, reveal about her?

Some readers have told me how much they enjoyed reading about middle-aged couples who have each other’s backs, who still laugh at each other’s jokes and who still make each other feel very desirable despite grey hair or no hair, love handles and bad backs. Is adultery or any form of emotional abandonment more interesting to read about than the challenges of fidelity and hanging in there for each other during the rough patches? Why or why not? Any other books you’d recommend?

How does the aftermath of World War One affect generations of Toland men? How does it affect the women in the family, as well as the children? What other books would you recommend that handle this subject primarily or well? I would recommend any book written by Timothy Findley, particularly The Wars and Famous Last Words and Bobbie-Ann Mason’s Up Country.

Why do Penny and her mother and Wade and his father have such troubled relationships? How has this affected Penny and Wade’s own relationship and family life?

Penny no longer has a close woman friend in the community. Does she seem to need a confidant? Who can she trust in Goodland? What does her participation in the Goodland Choir and the historical society show about her character?

What kinds of changes do you think Wade will make to his life now that he’s been given a second chance? Do you think his stay with the two healers after his accident mended more than his bones? How so? If you were to advise Penny and Wade on a new course of action, what would you offer them as possible options? It would be great to hear back from groups who have come up with answers to some of my questions so do feel free to respond to this site and I will read and respond as time permits. (if we can swing this technically? I would take the time to reply to thoughtful responses.)

Finally, my culinary recommendations to book clubs, which always have wonderful potlucks in my experience, are as follows.

For afternoon meetings and for teetotallers, serve dried cranberry scones with cream cheese and lime-zucchini marmalade (recipe at the back of the novel) and Murchie’s Orange Spice tea.

Summer meetings cry out for grown-up picnic fare: a menu of wonderful salads, an array of cheeses and cold cuts, rhubarb chutney (recipe at the back of the novel), an assortment of interesting crackers and do beg the bread baker in your group to make a batch of Parker House rolls, fresh orchard fruit and berry desserts and a glass of Little Straw Winery’s Sauvignon Blanc or a St. Hubertus Gewürztraminer. If you aren’t fortunate enough to find these sublime whites, do enjoy the cheap and cheerful, 5% alcohol of Portugese vinho verde wine, dry and slightly effervescent, just perfect for a summer’s day. For designated drivers, try the Rhubarb Punch recipe at the back of the novel, and you won’t feel deprived at all.

Chilly winter evenings are warmed by good food, good books and good company, just the thing to get us through November to February or even March. May I suggest hearty fare, a fantasy 100 Mile Peace River Feast, and smuggle in some feisty, fabulous BC Okanagan red wines? The centrepiece could be a moose roast with a green peppercorn sauce (the perfect place to hide your Uncle Ed’s homemade saskatoon port as a marinade and when you deglaze the pan, bonus!) or venison, elk or whatever you have on hand.

If your hunters come home empty-handed and all else fails, kill the cranky rooster! Flank your centrepiece with mashed Yukon Gold potatoes grown on the Class I land of Bear Flats, also a dish of roasted beets, carrots and parsnips glazed with Peace River honey, a Waldorf salad of celery, crab-apple, red and green cabbage, sunflower seeds, dried blueberries and cranberries, your Grandma’s best little plates filled with dilled garlic cukes and beet pickles and a basket of warm sourdough bread. Sip away at one of the wonderful Pinot Noirs from N’kmip Vineyard in Osoyoos or from Westbank’s Little Straw Winery or try to get your hands on the amazing 2006 Okanagan Vineyard edition. I’m too full for dessert but tiny wild blueberry tarts with whipped cream would be perfect. Just don’t drink any of Uncle Ed’s rotgut saskatoon port!

If you have all worked too hard and run out of time and energy, there is absolutely nothing to complain about with a menu of the best pizzas you can make or buy and an agreeable assortment of chilled beer. Phillips Slipstream Cream Ale or Nelson Brewing Company’s After Dark Ale would be my personal choices. Do feel free to offer feedback and your menu suggestions as well because we know all good book clubs come up with the best theme menus to complement the books we’re all reading. Salut! Here’s mud in your eye! Enjoy!

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Posted by Pearl on Sep 12 2010. Filed under Reading Guides. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.
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