Monday, September 19, 2016

Small-town secrets

What we may think of as simpler times weren't really all that simple, at least not to those living in those times. So Canadian writer Richard B. Wright makes clear in his absorbing 2002 novel Clara Callan. Set during the years from 1934 to 1938, Wright's characters wrestle with confusing new technology like party-line telephones, home entertainment delivered via radio, long-distance air transportation and the conversion of coal furnaces to oil. And as for personal relationships, well they were certainly as complex then as now.

Clara Callan is a young school teacher, introverted and unmarried, in an Ontario village a few miles outside of Toronto. Her younger sister, Nora, more beautiful and outgoing than Clara, has just moved to New York City and very quickly become a star on a popular radio soap opera. The entire novel is told through Clara's diary entries during those years and in letters exchanged between the two sisters and with a few other characters.

Clara's quiet life is disrupted when she is raped while walking along some railroad tracks. When she discovers she is pregnant, she enlists Nora's help, without telling her how the pregnancy happened, in getting an abortion in New York. Wright leaves hints that Clara might seek revenge against the man who raped her, as she seeks him out and stalks him, but then she meets a man in a Toronto theater and, for the first time in her life, falls in love. Of course, Frank turns out to be married. And so this bland schoolteacher has another secret she must hide from the nosy people of her village, made all the more difficult when she gets one of those party-line telephones.

How this timid teacher ultimately becomes the bravest, if not the wisest, resident of her village makes fine reading.

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