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The Sky is Falling ~ Reviewed by Annie Vigna

The Sky is Falling by Caroline AddersonThe Sky is Falling by Caroline Adderson
Toronto:  Thomas Allen Publishers, 2010
310pp. $32.95
ISBN 978-0-88762-613-5

Review by Annie Vigna

Do you remember reading The Story of Chicken Little?  Perhaps the version you read told of Chicken Little being in the woods one day when an acorn fell on her head.  It scared her so much she trembled all over.  She shook so hard, half of her feathers fell out. She shrieked, “Help! Help! The sky is falling!  I have to go tell the king!”  Other versions have her running to her granny.  As she runs, she gathers Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey and, finally, the villain Foxy Loxy.

This tale purports to be a story for teaching courage amid doomsday warnings by confirmed pessimists. “Chickle schtick” investigates metaphorical connotations and supports the Jungian view “that the end of the world is an archetypal motif; that is, it may be constellated [I love this word “constellated”] by circumstances (inner or outer) in anyone or in any culture, at any time and in any place”.

What a great title for this novel whose characters are so well defined! And written by an author whose language is rich and precise. Could a careful reader compare her characters to the farm animals of Chicken Little? I won’t try.

Caroline Adderson’s latest work is truly a Canadian novel, set in Vancouver, with characters foreign to Vancouver, but nonetheless Canadian. The historical story begins in 2004, when what happened in 1983 and 1984 becomes clearer twenty years later.

When the first person narrator awakens from a bad dream, it’s springtime in Vancouver, and the “snow-white magnolia was peaking” reminding her of “The Cherry Orchard, all of us reading it on the front porch while we swilled plonk”.  And then, “that bad decision”.  Twenty years ago, she saw the world through the words and moods of Chekhov’s characters, and is again disturbed by everything that happened, how “we wanted to get rid of all the bombs, but look what happened”.  Now, retrieving the Vancouver Sun, she sees a picture of Sonia, with one of Pete below. They are alive.

The narration belongs to Jane Zed (Zed, not Zee — her father’s Polish name is too difficult, it would appear, and is uttered finally on page 263: “Zwierzchowski”). Originally from Edmonton, the very naïve Jane is taking Slavonic Studies at UBC, studying Russian language and Russian literature in translation. She has just moved out of Aunt Eva’s house in Burnaby into the Trutch house in Kitsilano.

This shared accommodation is occupied by a very emotional, pessimistic waif, Sonia, in Education, from “up north, 100 Mile House”; Pete, the anarchist, an Engineering student from Toronto; and Dieter, in Poli Sci and Spanish, from Esterhazy, Saskatchewan.

Belinda-Isis, Hector, Carla, Ruth, Timo, and Pascal also figure prominently in the novel.  Along with these persons, we have the influence of Pete’s hero, the late Peter Kropotkin, nineteenth century anarchist and author of revolutionary writings; and we come to know many literary antecedents supplied through stories by nineteenth century Russian authors, including Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Turgenev.

Everything is brand new and possible for Jane, as she is accepted into this Bohemian group, caught up in the hysteria of trying to save the world for future generations.  How like the nineteenth century tensions felt by Chekhov’s characters in his short stories.  “I love the people in them.  How they strive.  They have these hopes for the future. They’re guilty and idealistic and jaded—all at the same time.  And always there’s this mood”.

“The miracle of literature is that the more particular the story, the more universal”.  Jane sees her new friends through Chekhov.  Sonia is likened to Anna Sergeyevna of The Lady With a Lapdog; Pete, like Misail, the egotistical narrator of My Life.  Jane equates herself with the hapless, bewhiskered Staff-Captain Ryabovich from The Kiss. And while reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, she is awed by Tolstoy’s exposure of “the girl crush” relating it to her feelings for Sonia.

When Sonia hears of the Korean Airlines flight shot down by Soviet Union on September 1, 1983, she has an apocalyptic vision–the sky is falling.  Then Pete’s doomsday warning:  “This is it…This is the shot that rang out in Sarajevo.  Get ready, people.”

What was to be done? The self-identified student anarchists, members of NAG, a non-violent, anti-nuclear action group, planned peaceful demonstrations, but while their objective was to get rid of the bombs, they mistakenly set off one of their own. And that is why the picture of her beloved Sonia is staring Jane in the face from the front page of the Vancouver Sun on this Chekhovian bright and beautiful day in spring of 2004.

Jane is happily married to Dr. Joe, and they have a teenager Joe Jr. all spiked, grometted and pierced, apathetic towards his mother until now when he realizes that she might have been a terrorist and that makes her interesting.  He says to her, “You don’t have any idea? How cool you are?  You’re bad”.  “Which reminded [her] of Bazarov’s words to Arkady:  ‘Don’t you know that in our dialect ‘not all right’ means ‘all right’?”

Jane worries that seeing Sonia will corrupt her current circumstances. Would those latent feelings for her cause problems? Would the sky fall?  She takes Joe Jr. with her for the reunion, for a shield.  “The hug went on and on, as I imagined it would, but it smelled less like spring.  This is how I knew my heart was safe where it was.  How perfectly Tolstoy had nailed the girl-crush”.

My favourite part of the novel is the Jane meets Joe, Jane loves Joe part.  Like Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina, they speak in code but Adderson’s original treatment of the “courtship” is definitely twenty-first century, and totally credible.

The ending is very strong, very persuasive, and ties up the past and present threads effectively.  Somewhere between the sky and the ground is life, the present.  It seems that Jane knew that, for hadn’t she been cognizant, through Chekhov’s observations, of footwear throughout the novel?  The future is allusive; the present is pretty darned good. “And afterward, as we lay there breathing hard, Joe singing “Fucked Up Ronnie” under his breath, I realized this just might be the thing.  Better than Chekhov even. Better than Xanax or Ativan or Tolstoy.  Because pleasure is so distracting when you allow yourself to feel it”.

Chicken Little and others have been predicting a falling sky for many thousands of years, and it’s still there. That’s something! No doubt the Greek police are concerned with fresh anarchist attacks as trial begins today, January 17, 2011, for thirteen suspected members of the Greek radical anarchist group that staged bomb attacks against state buildings and foreign embassies.  Is the sky falling?  Will it fall? Jung’s views bear repeating:  “The end of the world is an archetypal motif; that is, it may be constellated by circumstances (inner or outer) in anyone or in any culture, at any time and in any place”.

Caroline Adderson has given us a set of real circumstances, Soviets shooting down a Korean airline in 1983, to challenge the reaction of fictional characters, and to remind those who did not witness these events that sometimes only the names and places change.  911 did happen in 2001, and those of us who witnessed that catastrophe would be able to wrap our minds around something that happened twenty years previously, and even World War II some forty years before that, apropos of Pete’s announcement, “This is the shot that rang out in Sarajevo”.

Caroline Adderson is two-time winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and three-time winner of the CBC Literary Award.  She was also the recipient of the 2006 Marian Engel Award.  Caroline is the author of two previous, internationally published novels (A History of Forgetting, Sitting Practice), two collections of short stories (Bad Beginnings, Pleased To Meet You), as well as several books for young readers.  Her work has been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. She lives in Vancouver.

Annie Vigna is a former bookstore owner. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.

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Posted by Pearl on May 31 2011. Filed under Book Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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