Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cannonball Read #16: Fall On Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Quick note: Congratulations to Neil Gaiman for his receipt of the Newbery Medal. The Medal is presented to the author of "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children," and Gaiman's Graveyard Book is this year's winner. It looks like 2009 is going to be quite the year for Gaiman, with the movie adaptation of Coraline coming out soon. Bravo!

This is another one suggested by fellow bibliophile Celia, who packed me home from a visit in the Seattle/Tacoma, WA area with The Historian and this book. This one came with a warning: "it's really dark. No, Jos, seriously, it's really dark." Boy, she was not kidding.

Fall On Your Knees is a massive work of genealogy, chronicling five generations of a seriously messed up family, the Pipers. The story is set in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, in a fairly rough-and-tumble mining town. From the very beginning, the family is mired in trouble; James marries the extremely young Materia in secret, and when they are discovered, she is disowned by her family, which needless to say, completely destroys them. Rather than spinning the story into a happy one about how love conquers all, MacDonald then proceeds to describe three more generations of misery and unrest in the Piper family. Horrific things happen to these people...the children are more or less adrift in the world, only attended by their parents through abuse, and over the entire saga, every character bows under the worst of Catholic guilt. Even when one of the girls manages to break free and leave Cape Breton, she winds up chased by the endless bad luck of the family, and pursued even to New York by her horrible father.

The most remarkable thing about this book, however, is that you are still able to find things to appreciate about the characters. There's a fine point in literature for character development, where a truly bad character must be skillfully handled to avoid making the book as a whole repulsive. (This might only be true for me.) The perfect example is that of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov's Lolita...a foul individual, but Nabokov is able to crack him open and use him to make a definitive statement. The existance of evil is not enough to add to a book. It has to do something, and what it does is essential. The great evil in Fall On Your Knees is James Piper, and though his actions have no valid excuse, MacDonald takes care to show you that his actions are about more than some innate propensity to sin. All of the characters carry the scars of their family and the larger world, but they are so well handled that they are able to rise above and show us more than their problems.

This is worth a read, but I'd say leave it until spring or summer...had I read it in the depths of winter rather than around the holidays (yes, I'm that far behind), I don't know that I would have been able to deal with the weight and sadness of this book. I had a bit of a problem adjusting to the somewhat telegraphic style of the opening chapters, but the style develops as you go, and by the middle of the book, it meshes really well with the path of the story.

656 pages

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