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The Boy ~ Reviewed by Pearl Luke

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The Boy by Betty Jane HegeratThe Boy by Betty Jane Hegerat
Oolichan Books, 2011. 288 pp.

Reviewed by Pearl Luke

In 1959, the Cook family—all but one—met a gruesome death, shot and bludgeoned in their Stettler, Alberta home. Policed detained son Robert Raymond Cook, 21, not long after he traded in the family station wagon for a sporty Impala convertible. At the time of his arrest, he was in possession of his father’s wallet.

Cook was accused and later convicted on circumstantial evidence of murdering his father, Raymond Cook, stepmother, Daisy Cook, and five young half-siblings, ranging in age from three to nine. All seven bodies were found wrapped in bloody sheets in a pit in the family garage.  In 1960, proclaiming his innocence to the end, Cook Jr. gained further notoriety as the last man hanged in Alberta.

This would not be an easy story for a writer to tackle. The deaths are horrific, and although Cook’s end is certain, his guilt is not, which creates a quandary for a writer who must decide how to portray him.

The Boy is Betty Jane Hegerat’s fourth book, and she admits that she struggled, though that struggle is nowhere in evidence.

“The compulsion to write The Boy,she says, “was the same sort of compulsion that drives all of my fiction.  I seem always to be trying to make sense of something that either intrigues or troubles me.  In this case, the big difference was that I was not only troubled, but frightened in a deep and almost primal way.”

Hegerat begins with Louise, the fictional stepmother, a creation with whom she feels some maternal affinity. “I came to this story from the perspective of a mother,” Hegerat tells me, “and I wanted to know Daisy, mother of her own five small children, and how she might have felt about this boy who was a problem from the time she met him.”

“Cook was dead,” she writes.  “Whether he was guilty or not, whether he deserved to hang or should have been back in the news like Steven Truscott, finally free but still trying to clear his name, wasn’t the question I was chasing. I insisted to myself that I didn’t feel any kind of attachment or obligation to the face staring out from the cover of the Work of Justice. I wanted to know Daisy Cook. I wanted to know if, when she’d married Ray Cook, Daisy had imagined herself able to love his son.”

Louise, Daisy’s fictional counterpart, comes across as a smart woman, one who could have loved her stepson, given a chance. She is a sympathetic and realistic character, easy to believe in.  As a teacher, she hates end-of-school celebrations. What she really wants is to go home and have a glass of wine in solitude, but always there is the round of drinks with her fellow teachers, the very people she’s looked forward to escaping for two months.

It is, however, at this end-of-school celebration that Louise meets a kind and charming widower, Raymond Cook, Sr. She marries him, and is at once saddled with a sullen and seemingly disturbed stepson who sneaks around, often just a flash in the corner of her eye as he spies on her, other times a real presence as he tries to ogle her naked.

The story ultimately has three threads, that of the fictional mother, Louise, doing the best she can with the life she has chosen, a thread as satisfying and engaging as that in any good novel; crisp, fascinating journalistic sections that bring to light little known facts of the Cook murder case; and a third, mildly distracting thread that explores how characters such as Louise can come alive in an author’s mind, and how Louise resolutely pursued Hegerat even when she was not working on the book.

Most of the story alternates between the fictional account of Louise as a loving but harried mother—stepmother to a difficult child—and the factual study of the case. Every so often, however, the two genres overlap, with the character Louise challenging author Hegerat, guiding her, pushing her in directions Hegerat is unsure she wants to follow.

For example, Louise asks, You’re not going to try and prove that Robert Raymond Cook was the victim, are you? Bleeding heart kind of story? And then, You want to find those clues, don’t you? You want to prove that the writing was on the wall, but no one read it.

The bulk of the narrative is engrossing and expertly written, so these brief intrusive sections act as a clever bridging of fact and fiction that others may well enjoy. Had they been edited out, I would not have missed them, but they in no way change my feeling that The Boy is a gripping, well-executed blend of fact and fiction.

Throughout my reading, I felt intense admiration for Hegerat’s skill as an author. She writes honestly, eschewing sentimentality, in an accomplished style that shows her equally at ease with fiction and journalism. My interest in this book was captured on the first page and never faltered as I raced through it, only disappointed to reach the end.

Betty Jane Hegerat is certainly a writer to watch. She is both skilled and prolific, and with The Boy, she is poised to become one of Canada’s leading writers.

Pearl Luke is the author of Burning Ground and Madame Zee. She is the editor of BookClubBuddy.com

Read an interview with Betty Jane Hegerat about The Boy

 

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1 Comment for “The Boy ~ Reviewed by Pearl Luke”

  1. Wonderful review. Intriguing. I read and enjoyed Hegerat’s last novel, and am looking forward to this one.

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