A Novelby Kathleen Winter
Award-winning Canadian author Kathleen Winter’s Annabel is a stunning debut novel about the family of a mixed-gendered child born into a rural hunting community in the 1960s.
Kathleen Winter’s luminous debut novel is a deeply affecting portrait of life in an enchanting seaside town and the trials of growing up unique in a restrictive environment.
In 1968, into the devastating, spare atmosphere of Labrador, Canada, a child is born: a baby who appears to be neither fully boy nor fully girl, but both at once. Only three people are privy to the secret—the baby’s parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and their trusted neighbor and midwife, Thomasina. Though Treadway makes the difficult decision to raise the child as a boy named Wayne, the women continue to quietly nurture the boy’s female side. And as Wayne grows into adulthood within the hypermasculine hunting society of his father, his shadow-self, a girl he thinks of as “Annabel,” is never entirely extinguished.
When Wayne finally escapes the confines of his hometown and settles in St. John’s, the anonymity of the city grants him the freedom to confront his dual identity. His ultimate choice will once again call into question the integrity and allegiance of those he loves most.
Kathleen Winter has crafted a literary gem about the urge to unveil mysterious truth in a culture that shuns contradiction, and the body’s insistence on coming home. A daringly unusual debut full of unforgettable beauty, Annabel introduces a remarkable new voice to American readers.
“Utterly original . . . A haunting story of family, identity, and the universal yearning to belong.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Absorbing, earnest . . . Beautifully written.” —Stacey D’Erasmo, The New York Times Book Review
“Affecting . . . Winter possesses a rare blend of lyrical brilliance, descriptive power, and psychological and philosophical insight. Her way with fate and sadness recalls The World According to Garp without the cute irony. A compelling, gracefully written novel about mixed gender that sheds insight as surely as it rejects sensationalism. This book announces the arrival of a major writer.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[Winter’s] lyrical voice and her crystalline landscape are enchanting.” —The New Yorker
“Annabel is a mature and beautifully-crafted debut, full of savagely clear-eyed observation and startling compassion. Kathleen Winter has brought us a mesmerising portrait of a remarkable land and its remarkable inhabitants.” —A. L. Kennedy
“A novel about secrets and silences . . . Annabel is less about chromosomal anomaly than it is about human potential, for cruelty and neglect and ignorance as much as for tolerance and generosity and strength. What Winter has achieved here is no less a miracle than the fact of Wayne’s birth. Read it because it’s a story told with sensitivity to language that compels to the last page, and read it because it asks the most existential of questions. Stripped of the trappings of gender, Winter asks, what are we?” —Christine Fischer Guy, The Globe and Mail
“Sincere . . . The novel’s moral of acceptance and understanding is sure to win Winter many fans.” —Publishers Weekly
“Beautifully observed . . . Reminiscent of Middlesex, Winter’s treatment of such a delicate issue is amazing and incredibly engaging. Her novel is written with immense sensitivity and grace, not to be missed.” —Jim Piechota, Bay Area Reporter
“[A] fascinating debut novel . . . Annabel is a novel about divisions, not only between the sexes but also between social classes and, perhaps most crucially, ways of being. . . . Both the fear and the beauty [of Wayne’s condition] are given vivid expression in this finely crafted novel.” —Barbara Carey, The Star (Toronto)
“[A] beautiful novel . . . Lyrical . . . [Winter] captures the way children simultaneously understand and don’t understand, the way parents simultaneously protect and harm their children, the way the truth both imprisons us and sets us free. She embodies these paradoxes and breathes new life into them. . . . Annabel is a novel that evokes deep emotion . . . Simple, touching, real, absolutely convincing and sympathetic in its portrayal of well-intended people in their attempts to deal with a person who defies the most basic categorization: the first question we ask when we hear a baby has been born.” —Daniel Stolar, The Rumpus
“Stunning . . . Winter creates an opening, an opportunity to consider how society looks upon those it considers marginal, and how it sees those it considers ‘normal.’ . . . Annabel is less about gender divides and more about the gossamer lines that connect one to another. A book like this, its topic and beautiful language, the unrelenting sorrow, Winter’s insightful characterizations and utter sensitivity, is difficult to do justice to with these few words. I simply want to tell people: read this book. Read it though you know little or nothing about its subject or the author. It will open you up. It will change you.” —Carla Maria Lucchetta, The Ottawa Citizen
“Dramatic, thematically rich . . . [with] skillful prose . . . An impressive first novel.” —Quill & Quire
“Annabel is a beautiful book, brimming with heart and uncommon wisdom. Life is ambiguity and flux and mystery and Winter has written a gorgeous, searing love-letter to the possibilities that lie just below the surface of the everyday.” —Michael Crummey, author of the Canadian bestseller, River Thieves
“A mesmerizing combination of crisp language, deep empathy for her well-wrought characters, and a world-savvy wisdom. . . . [Winter] shows us the humanity that overrides gender and age, and the basic human traits and desires that unite us all. . . . Destined to be one of the biggest novels out of Newfoundland this year.” —Chad Pelley, The Telegram (St. John’s, Canada)
“A beautiful book, lyrical and compelling . . . I have never read such an intimate portrait of a person struggling to live inside a self that the world sees as a dreadful mistake.” —Katherine Govier, The National Post (Canada)
“[An] aching tale of . . . identity, acceptance, and family. . . . Annabel is a stunning and stirring debut.” —Stephen Clare, The Chronicle Herald
“An astounding achievement . . . Remarkably lucid and forthright . . . Wonderfully exhilarating . . . In Winter’s deft hands, Labrador becomes a magical land of mystical wildlife and magnetic earth. . . . Finely observed detail and gut-wrenching honesty, together with some rich characters and a perfectly rendered world, make Annabel a rare treat.” —Debbie Patterson, Winnipeg Free Press
A Kirkus Reviews Best Debut of the Year
A New York Times Editors’ Choice
Finalist for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize
Shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Finalist for a Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction
Winner of the inaugural 2010 Independent Literary GLBTQ Award
A Quill & Quire Top Book of 2010
Selected as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Spring 2010 title
#1 Macleans bestseller (week of November 15th, 2010)
1 — New World
Wayne Blake was born at the beginning of March, during the first signs of spring breakup of the ice—a time of great importance to Labradorians who hunted ducks for food—and he was born, like most children in that place in 1968, surrounded by women his mother had known all her married life: Joan Martin, Eliza Goudie, and Thomasina Baikie. Women who knew how to ice-fish and sew caribou hide moccasins and stack wood in a pile that would not fall down in the months when their husbands walked the traplines. Women who would know, during any normal birth, exactly what was required.
The village of Croyden Harbour, on the southeast Labrador coast, has that magnetic earth all Labrador shares. You sense a striation, a pulse, as the land drinks light and emits a vibration. Sometimes you can see it with your naked eye, stripes of light coming off the land. Not every traveller senses it, but those who do keep looking for it in other places, and they find it nowhere but desert and mesa.
A traveller can come from New York and feel it. Explorers, teachers, people who know good hot coffee and densely printed newspapers but who want something more fundamental, an injection of New World in their blood. Real New World, not a myth that has led to highways and more highways and the low, radioactive buildings that offer pancakes and hamburgers and gasoline on those highways. A traveller can come to Labrador and feel its magnetic energy or not feel it. There has to be a question in the person. The visitor has to be an open circuit, available to the power coming off the land, and not everybody is. And it is the same with a person born in Labrador. Some know, from birth, that their homeland has a respiratory system, that it pulls energy from rock and mountain and water and gravitational activity beyond earth, and that it breathes energy in return. And others don’t know it.
Wayne was born, in bathwater, in the house of his parents, Treadway and Jacinta Blake. Treadway belonged to Labrador but Jacinta did not. Treadway had kept the traplines of his father and he was magnetized to the rocks, whereas Jacinta had come from St. John’s when she was eighteen to teach in the little school in Croydon Harbour, because she thought, before she met Treadway, that it would be an adventure, and that it would enable her to teach in a St. John’s school once she had three or four years of experience behind her.
“I would eat a lunch of bread and jam every day,” Joan Martin told Eliza and Thomasina as Jacinta went through her fiercest labour pains in the bathtub. Every woman in Croydon Harbour spoke at one time or another of how she might enjoy living on her own. The women indulged in this dream when their husbands had been home from their traplines too long. “I would not need any supper except a couple of boiled eggs, and I’d read a magazine in bed every single night.”
“I’d wear the same clothes for a week,” Eliza said. “My blue wool pants and grey shirt with my nightie stuffed under them. I would never take off my nightie from September till June. And I would get a cat instead of our dogs, and I would save up for a piano.”
The women did not wish away their husbands out of animosity—it was just that the unendurable winters were all about hauling wood and saving every last piece of marrow and longing for the intimacy they imagined would exist when their husbands came home, all the while knowing the intimacy would always be imaginary. Then came brief blasts of summer, when fireweed and pitcher plants and bog sundews burst open and gave the air one puff, one tantalizing scented breath that signalled life could now begin, but it did not begin. The plants were carnivorous. That moment of summer contained desire and fruition and death all in one ravenous gulp, and the women did not jump in. They waited for the moment of summer to expand around them, to expand enough to contain women’s lives, and it never did.
When Jacinta was not groaning with the mind-stopping agony of having her pelvic bones wrenched apart by the baby that was coming, she too indulged in the dream. “I don’t believe I’d stay here at all,” she told her friends as she poured scalding coffee from the small enamel pot, her belly as big as a young seal under her blue apron covered in tiny white flowers. “I’d move back to Monkstown Road and if I couldn’t get a job teaching I’d get my old job back at the Duckworth Laundry, washing white linen for the Newfoundland Hotel.”
Thomasina was the only woman who did not indulge. She had not had a father, and she regarded her husband, Graham Montague, with great respect. She had not got over the fact that he could fix anything, that he did not let the house grow cold, that he was the last man to leave for his traplines and the first to come home to her, that he was blind and needed her, or that he had given her Annabel, a red-haired daughter whom she called my bliss and my bee, and who helped her father navigate his canoe now that she was eleven years old and had a head on her as level and judicious as Thomasina’s own. Graham was out now, as were all the hunters in Croydon Harbour, on the river in his white canoe, and Annabel was with him. She rode the bow and told him where to steer, though he knew every movement he needed to make with his paddle before Annabel told him, since before she was born he had travelled the river by listening and could hear every stone and ice pan and stretch of whitewater. He told her stories in the canoe, and her favourite was a true story about the white caribou that had joined the woodland herd and that her father had encountered only once, as a boy, before he had the accident that blinded him. Annabel looked for the white caribou on every trip, and when Thomasina told her it might not be alive any more, or it might have gone back to its Arctic tribe, her husband turned his face towards her and silently warned her not to stop their daughter from dreaming.
As her baby’s head crowned, Jacinta’s bathroom brimmed with snow light. Razor clam shells on her windowsill glowed white, and so did the tiles, the porcelain, the shirts of the women and their skin, and whiteness pulsed through her sheer curtains so that the baby’s hair and face became a focal point of saturated colour in the white room; goldy brown hair, red face, black little eyelashes, and a red mouth.
Down the hall from Jacinta’s birthing room, her kitchen puckered and jounced with wood heat. Treadway dropped caribou cakes into spitting pork fat, scalded his teabag, and cut a two-inch-thick chunk of partridgeberry loaf. He had no intention of lollygagging in the house during the birth—he was here for his dinner and would slice through Beaver River again in an hour in his white canoe. His hat was white and so were his sealskin coat and canvas pants and his boots. This was how generations of Labrador men had hunted in the spring.
A duck could not tell a white hunter’s canoe from an ice pan. The canoe, with the hunter reclining in it, slid dangerously through the black water, silently slowing near the flock, whether the flock flew high overhead or rested their fat bellies on the water’s skin. Treadway lived for the whiteness and the silence. He could not see with his ears as Graham Montague could, but he could hear, if he emptied himself of all desire, the trickle of spring melt deep inland. He could inhale the medicinal shock of Labrador tea plants with their leathery leaves and orange, furry undersides, and watch the ways of flight of the ducks, ways that were numerous and that told a hunter what to do. Dips and turns and degrees of speed and hesitation told him exactly when to raise his gun and when to hide it. Their markings were written on the sky as plain as day, and Treadway understood completely how Graham Montague could hit ducks accurately even though he was blind, for he had himself noticed the constant mathematical relationship between the ducks’ position and the hollow, sweeping sounds their wings made, a different sound for each kind of turning, and their voices that cracked the silence of the land. The movements of the ducks were the white hunter’s calligraphy.
This was a kind of message younger people had lost, but Treadway was attuned to every line and nuance. There were words for each movement of a duck, and Treadway had learned all of the words from his father. People five years younger than he knew only half the words, but Treadway knew them all, in his speech and in his body. This was how he lived, by the nuances of wild birds over land and water, and by the footprints and marks of branches in snow on his trapline, and the part of him that understood these languages detested time in houses. Clocks ticked, and doilies sat on furniture, and stagnant air rushed into his pores and suffocated him. It was not air at all, but suffocating gauze crammed with dust motes, and it was always too warm. If the women dreaming of life without their husbands could know how he felt, they would not imagine themselves single with such gaiety. Treadway did not tell this to other men, laughing over broken buns of hot bread and pots of coffee, but he dreamed it nonetheless. He dreamed living his life over again, like the life of his great-uncle Gaetan Joseph, who had not married but who had owned a tiny hut one hundred miles along the trapline, equipped with hard bread, flour, split peas, tea, a table made out of a spruce stump with two hundred rings, a seal-hide daybed, and a tin stove. Treadway would have read and meditated and trapped his animals and cured pelts and studied. Gaetan Joseph had studied Plutarch and Aristotle and Pascal’s Pens’es, and Treadway had some of his old books in his own trapper’s hut, and he had others besides that he read deep into the nights when he was blessed with the solitude of his trapline. A lot of trappers did this. They left home, they trapped, and they meditated and studied. Treadway was one of them, a man who studied not just words but pathways of wild creatures, pulsations of the northern lights, trajectories of the stars. But he did not know how to study women, or understand the bonds of family life, or achieve any kind of real happiness indoors. There were times he wished he had never been seduced by the pretty nightgowns Jacinta wore, made of such blowy, insubstantial ribbons and net that they would not have enough strength to hold the smallest ouananiche. The closest thing to these nightgowns in his world outdoors was the fizz of light that hung in a veil around the Pleiades. He had a Bible in his trapper’s library, and he remembered his wife’s loveliness when he read the lines Who can bind the sweet influence of the Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? He read these lines on his hard daybed when he had been away from her for months, and they made him remember her loveliness. But did he ever tell her this? He did not.
Home from the trapline, recovered from all loneliness, Treadway loved his wife because he had promised he would. But the centre of the wilderness called him, and he loved that centre more than any promise. That wild centre was a state of mind, but it had a geographical point as well. The point was in an unnamed lake. Canadian mapmakers had named the lake but the people who inhabited the Labrador interior had given it a different name, a name that remains a secret. From a whirlpool in the centre of that lake, river water flows in two directions. It flows southeast down to the Beaver River and through Hamilton Inlet and past Croydon Harbour into the North Atlantic, and another current flows northwest from the centre, to Ungava Bay. The whirling centre was the birthplace of seasons and smelt and caribou herds and deep knowledge that a person could not touch in domesticity. Treadway left this place at the end of the trapping season and faithfully came back to his house, which he had willingly built when he was twenty, but he considered the house to belong to his wife, while the place where waters changed direction belonged to him, and would belong to any son he had.
And now the head of his and Jacinta’s first baby glittered beautifully in the white bathroom without his witnessing it, and so did the shoulders, the belly with its cord, the penis, thighs, knees, and toes. Thomasina hooked a plug of slime out of the baby’s mouth with her pinky, slicked her big hand over face, belly, buttocks like butter over one of her hot loaves, and slipped the baby back to its mother. It was as the baby latched on to Jacinta’s breast that Thomasina caught sight of something slight, flower-like; one testicle had not descended, but there was something else. She waited the eternal instant that women wait when a horror jumps out at them. It is an instant that men do not use for waiting, an instant that opens a door to life or death. Women look through the opening because something might be alive in there. What Thomasina knew, as she looked through the opening this time, was that something can go wrong, not just with the child in front of you, another woman’s child, but with your own child, at any time, no matter how much you love it.
Thomasina bent over Jacinta and the baby in a midwife’s fashion, a ministering arc, and wrapped a blanket around the child, a cotton blanket that had been washed many times. She did not believe in putting anything new or synthetic next to a newborn’s skin. As she adjusted the blanket she quietly moved the one little testicle and saw that the baby also had labia and a vagina. This she took in as Treadway, in another room, threw his teabag in the garbage, as he gave his crust to the dog and clicked shut the front door, as he went out on the last perfect duck hunt of his days, and she let Treadway go. Thomasina asked Eliza and Joan to get the warm towels for Jacinta. She herself handed Jacinta the thick pad to soak up the postpartum blood, and helped her into the terrycloth robe that Jacinta would wear for the next few days.
Then she said, “I’m going to ask the others to leave, if it’s all right with you. We have something to talk about.”
2 —Beaver River
Had Wayne not been born in 1968 in a place where caribou moss spreads in a white-green carpet, and where smoke plumes from houses, and where gold sand is so remote no crowds gather—the sand is a lonely stretch under the northern lights—things might have gone differently. Treadway was not an unkind man. His neighbours said he would give you the shirt off his back—and if that shirt had not been full of sweat from hauling wood and skinning animals and auguring ice, he might indeed have done so. He was a soft-hearted man when it came to anyone he felt was less practically talented than himself, and this covered a lot of people. He would help a man split wood, build a house, or cut a hole in the right place in the ice, not to show off his superior skills but to save the man time. He did these things out of pure helpfulness, with kindness thrown in.
Pure kindness he saved for his dogs. On one hunting trip he had accidentally shot the eye of his old English setter, a mild-mannered dog whose jaw quivered with tenderness around any bird Treadway asked it to carry. Treadway had ended the trip although it meant he would have to launch it again later, at considerable expense in provisions and time, in order to have enough duck in store for the winter. He had carried the dog a hundred miles on his sled and paid Hans Nilsson the veterinarian a hundred dollars to get up in the middle of the night and tend to the wound, and when Hans told him the dog had to lose the eye, Treadway cried because it was his fault, and he did not eat again himself until the dog could eat, not even when Jacinta fried meat cakes with knobs of pure white pork fat and juniper berries in them. He believed sight to be something the dog loved, valued, and even enjoyed, and it hurt him deeply that he had ruined the dog’s ability to practise the talent for which bird dogs are born. He kept the dog though it could no longer hunt, and no one in Treadway’s ancestry had ever kept a dog that was just a pet, until the dog grew old. Only when the dog grew so arthritic it could not walk without pain did Treadway consent to have it put down, and on that day he walked to the river and stared at the water for more than an hour, thinking about not just how he had failed his dog but how he could be a better man all around if he paid more attention to every detail and let nothing pass that was off-kilter.
After he lost that dog, Treadway hauled and skinned and sweated, and, in his own way, he loved. He loved Jacinta because she was decent and kind to him; the last thing he wanted to do was to hurt her. He played games with her in the part of the season when he lived at home, games she liked, such as cribbage, which she had taught him when they were first married. He had to force himself to do it, to take his mind off the way he planned to sharpen the runners on his sled or condition the jaws of his traps with seal oil, but he did tear himself away from these things so that when he was with her, she would not feel that his mind was far away. He felt a tenderness that was, in part, a feeling of being sorry for her, for she had to stay indoors and lead a gentle life unconnected with all that was great and wild, and he did not see how she could enjoy this. He knew, during the crib games and the times they ate intimately together over the lamplit table, that she would have liked something more, but he did not know what it was. He did not know it was the city she came from, it was rain on the slate roofs of the shops on Water Street in that city, it was a man who would read poetry and philosophy but not keep it from her, who would lay the book right there on the table, beside the bread and the fragments of roast duck leg and the wine, and would talk about it with her.
Days after the birth, in the manner of secrets held from the world of husbands, Treadway had not been told the truth about his child. Jacinta examined her baby with gentle fingertips when Treadway was not in the room, and when he was, or when neighbours visited with bake-apple tarts and partridgeberry cake and hot caribou stew baked under a thick crust with gravy bubbling out of the knife holes, she gazed on her child with the full power of her concentration, and nothing could break that gaze. Neighbours walked and talked around her, and it was as if she were underwater and they were not, and this did not seem too different from the way it normally was with a new mother and her child. No one expected her to come up with idle conversation.
It was Thomasina who took care of the linguistics. Thomasina who, by miracles of deflection, managed to leave unspoken the first thing spoken of any newborn. To Treadway she appeared the most sensible of his wife’s friends.
“Eliza Goudie,” he had once told Jacinta, “Spends far too much money on white sandals and those dresses out of the catalogue, the ones covered in blisters.”
“And white sandals. Things that are not practical to wear in this climate.” And he could not get over the fact that Joan Martin had forbidden her husband to pile wood near their house so she could plant some kind of fancy tulip that should grow only in a botanical garden somewhere.
“Emperor,” said Jacinta. “Those are Emperor tulips.”
It was a testament to Thomasina’s powers that she managed to stay eight days in Treadway’s house without his protesting. Not even Jacinta’s mother had been able to do that, when she was alive. Treadway did not ban a person outright, but he had an ability to give off such a chilled and hostile response to any guest who overstayed her welcome that no guest, not even the most impermeable, could stand it. He was a man who did not want strangers to observe his routine, not that there was anything remarkable about his habits. He simply liked to inhabit his house, when he had to inhabit it, and go about his ordinary pathways in it without being looked at or talked to, except by his own wife, who did not appear to him to mind it when he ignored the fact that she was there.
“If I didn’t say anything to him,” Jacinta sometimes told Joan and Eliza, “I think he could go a whole year without speaking to anyone but his dogs.” She said this, though she felt disloyal, when she got caught up in the women’s derisive talk about husbands in general. And because they knew things like this about him, Joan and Eliza had an air about them, one Treadway could detect, of faint amusement towards him, and he could not tolerate them in the house, so when he was home, they hardly ever came. But because she had more gravity than they did, and because she did nothing for herself and everything for Jacinta and the baby, Thomasina was able to stay the eight days without Treadway’s disapproval, even though it meant the only time he had alone with his wife was the half-hour before sleep.
“Everything all right?” he asked Jacinta on the eighth day, his huge, comforting paw heating her belly down into her skin, her fat, her womb and ovarian tubes and ovaries, down into the small of her back. She did not tell her friends about his calm heat, or about the deep trust she had in his ability to create a secure home. There were a lot of instabilities in Eliza’s home. Her husband drank, and she was forever falling in love with someone—this year it was her children’s new geography teacher, a man ten years younger than Eliza, who had come from Vermont and lived in an apartment in the local wildlife officer’s basement. Eliza’s infatuations were always onesided, but they powered her in a way her real life did not, and as a result her own house always felt uninhabited by her, and her children and husband walked around lost in it. Joan was less susceptible to falling in love, but her husband was not. All of Croydon Harbour knew he had an Innu wife in the interior, and that while Joan had no children, his other wife had three daughters and a son.
“Everything’s perfect.” Jacinta never lied to Treadway. He ate steel-cut oatmeal every morning for breakfast, with salt on it. His underclothes were of ewe’s wool. When they made love, she climaxed every time, and when she did, he knew. If she were bone tired he stroked her forehead and her hair until she fell asleep. If he did anything that irked her, like drape filthy socks on the bedspread, she asked him not to do it and he did not mind. She agreed with him about Eliza’s impractical sandals but disagreed with him about the Emperor tulips. “It won’t hurt Harold Martin,” she said, “to pile and cut his wood at the bottom of the fence so she can get some enjoyment,” and Treadway did not argue with her or take it as an insult against husbands.
But about their own newborn baby, Jacinta did lie.
Siamese twins had been on the news, joined so tightly at the skull doctors the world over had despaired, and the mother—Jacinta had watched her on television—had loved those babies, and had decided, fiercely, that it didn’t matter if they were joined. She would bring them both up in the world just like that, no matter what, and Jacinta had not felt sorry for her. She knew better than to feel sorry for anyone. It was one of the things she had learned. Feeling sorry for a person was no help to them at all. People should get on with things. Privately she thought the woman would come to her senses one day and allow the babies to die.
But when you are the mother, you take it in stride. You take albino hair in stride, when you are the mother. When you are the mother, not someone watching that mother, you take odd-coloured eyes in stride. You take a missing hand in stride, and the same with Down syndrome, and spina bifida, and water on the brain. You would take wings in stride, or one lung outside the body, or a missing tongue. The penis and the one little testicle and the labia and vagina were like this for Jacinta. Baby Wayne slept in his cradle under his green quilt and white blanket. His black belly button stuck out, and Jacinta cleaned it with an alcohol swab, waiting for it to fall off. She played with his little red feet, and felt close to him when he crammed her breast in his mouth and sucked while raising his eyes slowly, slowly across her collarbone, across the ceiling, gazing at Thomasina or the stove or the cat, back again to her collarbone, then up, up, till he found her eyes and locked on, and that was a kind of flying, flying through the northern lights or a Chagall night sky, with a little white goat to give a blessing. There was blessing everywhere between Jacinta and this baby, and there were times when she completely forgot what it was about him that she was hiding from her husband.
“Everything,” she told Treadway, “is all right,” and she believed that this was about to become true.
“All I need,” she had said earlier to Thomasina, “is a little more time, and everything will become clear. Everything will straighten itself out. The baby will, in some way we still have to learn about, be just fine.”
Treadway persisted. “Baby’s healthy?” Jacinta knew he never spoke idly, and he was not speaking idly now, and he was asking her for an honest answer. But what was the most honest answer?
“Yes.” She tried this in a normal voice but it came out as a whisper. The strength of her voice, her real tone, which was a tone of plainness, like rain, which Treadway loved but had not told her he loved, did not inhabit the whisper. She wished she could go back and say yes again. Heat still radiated from Treadway’s hand deep into her belly.
“He’s a big baby,” Treadway said, and the heat stopped.
Jacinta wanted to blurt, “Why do you say he? Are you waiting for me to confess?” But she did not. She said yes, louder than normal this time because she did not want another whisper to betray her. Her yes was a shout in their quiet room. Their bedroom was always quiet. Treadway liked a place of repose, a tranquil sleep with a white bedspread and no radio music or clutter, and so did she. She lay there waiting for his hand to heat her belly again, but it did not. Had he moved it away consciously? Treadway was a man whose warmth always heated her unless an argument stood between them.
In the morning Jacinta told Thomasina, “I went stiff as a hare. What are we going to do?”
Any time fortune came to Thomasina—acceptance of her grass baskets by the crafts commission, the flowering of a Persian rose in this zone where no one could grow any rose, not even the hardy John Cabot climber—she knew happiness was only one side of the coin and the coin was forever turning. She had been single until she was well past thirty, when Graham Montague had told her he didn’t care that she had a curved spine and felt old—he wanted to marry her if she would marry him. Annabel had been born the following year and Thomasina had every reason to be happy, but instead she held her heart at the same level she had always held it, because she did not trust extremes of feeling. Now she told Jacinta, as they spread jam on toast thinly, the way they both liked it, so gold shone through, “We will love this baby of yours and Treadway’s exactly as it was born.”
“Will other people love it?”
“That baby is all right the way it is. There’s enough room in this world.”
This was how Thomasina saw it, and it was what Jacinta needed to hear.
For days after the birth Treadway knew there was a secret, and it was only a matter of opening his attention in a way he was used to doing out on the land before the truth about the baby came to him. He did not need to investigate with his hands or move close when no one was looking. In the wilderness when he opened his attention, it was a spiritual opening, a way of seeing with your whole being, and it helped him see birds and caribou and fish that were invisible to anyone who was not hunting and had not opened their second eyes. He felt the secret in the house exactly as he felt the presence of a white ptarmigan behind him in the snow, and he understood the secret’s details, its identity, as easily as he would know the bird was a white ptarmigan before he turned around and saw it. He knew his baby had both a boy’s and a girl’s identity, and he knew a decision had to be made.
Where had their baby come from? There was no relative in the past, no story to which Treadway might turn. There was only the fact of which sex organ was the most obvious, which one it would be most practical to recognize, the easiest life for all concerned. For if there was one thing Treadway Blake considered with every step, it was how a decision of his affected not just himself but everyone. He understood privacy but he could not understand practical selfishness. Every part of him knew it was physically connected to every part of everyone else on this coast, and not just to people but to the sky, and the land, and the stars. He was both Scottish and Inuit, and he was nothing if not fair. To him the land was a universal loaf of bread, every part nourishing and meant for everyone.
It never once occurred to Treadway to do the thing that lay in the hearts of Jacinta and Thomasina: to let his baby live the way it had been born. That, in his mind, would not have been a decision. It would have been indecision, and it would have caused harm. He did not want to imagine the harm it would cause. He was not an imagining man. He saw deeply into things but he had no desire to entertain possibility that had not yet manifested. He wanted to know what was, not what might be. So he refused to imagine the harm in store for a child who was neither a son nor a daughter but both. He filled a bag with bread, meat, and tea and went outdoors. He went without his gun and walked to a height of land from where he could consider the eagles and foxes and let them teach him the path of most practical wisdom.
Thomasina worked in his kitchen those first eight mornings, kneading touton dough, soaking beans, wringing diapers, and administering to the mother, because without company Jacinta would have wandered off in a drift of worry. Everything Treadway refused to imagine, Jacinta imagined in detail enough for the two of them. Whereas he struck out on his own to decide how to erase the frightening ambiguity in their child, she envisioned living with it as it was. She imagined her daughter beautiful and grown up, in a scarlet satin gown, her male characteristics held secret under the clothing for a time when she might need a warrior’s strength and a man’s potent aggression. Then she imagined her son as a talented, mythical hunter, his breasts strapped in a concealing vest, his clothes the green of striding forward, his heart the heart of a woman who could secretly direct his path in the ways of intuition and psychological insight. Whenever she imagined her child, grown up without interference from a judgemental world, she imagined its male and female halves as complementing each other, and as being secretly, almost magically powerful. It was the growing up part she did not want to imagine. The social part, the going to school in Labrador part, the jeering part, the what will we tell everyone part, the part that asks how will we give this child so much love it will know no harm from the cruel reactions of people who do not want to understand.
Thomasina brought Jacinta back from these thoughts with her wholehearted company. She kept the kitchen going, the fire crackling, the hum and heat of normal life throbbing, and the undercurrent of her seemingly ordinary, homey activities was one of open acceptance. Jacinta could feel, when Thomasina took the child and held it so she could eat or go to the toilet or rest on the daybed for half an hour, that Thomasina believed the child’s difference was a strange blessing that had to be protected. That it was a jeopardized advantage, even a power. Thomasina hid this undercurrent behind business so apparently normal that even the most vigilant opponent of enchantment would not perceive it was there. When Treadway came in from his trip to the height of land, Thomasina was boiling partridgeberries and sugar, and the kitchen was full of their bloody, mossy tang that smells and tastes more of regret than of sweetness.
When he finally spoke, Treadway caused no drama. He sat at the table stirring his tea for a long time. Thomasina was in a state of something akin to prayer, but not as helpless. Bearing the situation up, sitting with it.
As Treadway regarded his blue Royal Albert saucer, Thomasina saw he knew what had been going on with the baby whom Jacinta nursed on the daybed by the stove under a crocheted blanket.
“Since neither of you is going to make a decision one way or the other,” he said, “I’m going to make it. He’s going to be a boy. I’m going to call him Wayne, after his grandfather.”
Jacinta continued to nurse the baby. A look of relief crossed her face. Not at his decision but at his acknowledgement that their baby had been born the way it had. Thomasina stood up, looked at Treadway, and said, “Be careful.”
“We’ll get the doctor in,” Treadway said, “and we’ll see.”
After Treadway had spoken, there was a holy lull in the house in which Treadway and Jacinta cared for each other and for the baby alone, with no one to look on or advise and with few words of their own. Treadway moved Jacinta’s hair tenderly to behind her shoulder so he could see the child nurse, and at no time did he examine the child or treat it critically. She could see he loved it. There was nothing wrong with the child other than its ambiguous sex. It nursed and cooed and slept, and its skin was dewy and cool, and when the kitchen grew too hot, its parents let the fire die down in the stove so that the child’s cheeks would not have red spots, and if it grew too cool they wrapped the baby securely. Treadway sat and rocked it, and he sang to it as well. His singing was one of the beautiful things women other than Jacinta did not know about. He sang his own songs, songs he improvised after his time alone in the wild, as well as ancient Labrador songs passed down by generations of trappers and nomads and hunters who have heard caribou speak. The baby loved this; it began a life of waking to warmth and song and colour and drifting into dreams threaded with parent song.
After a fortnight Treadway left to go hunting. It was one of the last days you could go white hunting. When the ice melted to a certain degree, when whiteness in the natural world decreased by a margin every hunter knew by an inner system of measurement, white hunting was no longer done. Not because it had become ineffectual—ice still existed in large pockets around the shore, and a hunter could stay well hidden—but because it was unfair; migratory birds were returning in larger numbers to nest, and many had young or needed to keep their eggs warm. The birds’ travels were hunting journeys, short flights to find food for their young, and the Labrador hunters knew what was at stake. The next year’s hunting was at stake, but so was the livelihood of the flock, and the hunters respected that intrinsically, apart from any vested interest of their own.
So on this day, close to the end of the hunting season, Treadway left his family at home, and so did the other men of Croydon Harbour. And so did Thomasina’s daughter, Annabel, and husband, Graham Montague, to navigate the Beaver River in a white canoe.
Guide by Barbara Putnam
1. How is Wayne a litmus test for the humanity of others in the novel? How does he challenge their preconceptions?
2. What is Thomasina’s role in the book? How do other people react to her?
3. Jacinta always fears for Wayne’s growing-up world, the taunting that seems inevitable. Yet Jacinta raises Wayne with a sense of possibility. How does she foster his love of art, music and fantasy?
4. What does the practical Treadway hope to instill in his son? Is there a spiritual element in this Labrador trapper? How is this world part of the legacy he hopes to leave Wayne?
5. “There were so many ways Wayne could fail” (p. 134). How does Treadway’s disapproval make his son’s “chest tense up”? From the Carnation milk, to the bridge, to his class-dance boycott, the boy is a sore disappointment to the father he loves. How do they treat each other? “Wayne did not want to admit that Wally was teaching him the alto harmony for Faure’s song, or that he was copying postcards from Thomasina” (p. 133). Do you recall Treadway’s trying to understand the boy? When does Wayne feel as though he is walking on eggs? Cite instances of his being judged harshly by others.
6. Do you think marriage is extolled in this book? Whose? Is it seen by any of the married people as a full salvation? Talk about Thomasina and Graham Montague. How does she survive grief after Graham and Annabel drown? Is Jacinta set apart in the town because she takes marriage seriously as compared to her silly friends, Eliza and Joan? Why do women stay rooted in place after being ignored or betrayed? “A family can go on for years without the love that once bound it together, like a lovely old wall that stays standing long after rain has crumbled the mortar” (p. 150). How do women prop up their lives? “It is amazing how small things keep you anchored in a place. . . . Material things were important. Her slippers. Her sewing basket with sinew in it and needles with the right-sized eye for sewing leather. The cribbage board . . . But was there a place where she could live with truth instead of lies? . . . If you held back truth you couldn’t win. You swallowed truth and it went sour in your belly and poisoned you slowly” (pp. 150-151). Does Wayne cement or fragment his parents’ marriage?
7. “Wally Michelin had stomped through kindergarten and grades one and two with a certainty Wayne found fascinating. . . . Wayne was in love with her from the moment he heard her crumbly voice. So in love he wished he could become her. If there was a way he could make himself into a ghost without a body—a shadow—or transparent like the lures his father used to catch Arctic char, he would have done it. He would have transformed into his father’s lure, slipped under Wally Michelin’s divinely freckled skin, and lived inside her, looking through her eyes” (p. 99). Talk about the love that feeds these children in youth and later.
8. Would you say the glory days of Wayne and Wally are on the Ponte Vecchio? How does Thomasina trigger the idea of the Ponte Vecchio? How is it built, and what goes on there? When Wally wrote in her diary under the Christmas lights and “sang as Wayne drew his designs, the bridge took on the enchantment of an airborne caravan, something out of a dream” (p. 129). What assails their dream world on the bridge? Does Treadway learn something from this cauterizing that helps him years later understand what the hawk tries to tell him?
9. The flowers that begin to bloom in Wayne are not only sexual. Through Wally, Thomasina, and Jacinta, how does he, nose twitching, get a scent of a world larger than his own home? “The kitchen: his mother, her pans of fried liver heart, little shoulder chops of caribou, and the other animals his father hunted—was that all? There was always what Jacinta called beautiful music: Brahms, Chopin. But the music came in to them through the radio, and there was no portal back out through which his mother could leave the realm of the ordinary. Wayne knew Jacinta had come from another world, that she remembered an elsewhere, but she was here now. She was staying here and the radio music could visit her, but she could not escape” (p. 114). What does music do for Wayne?
10. What is the origin of Gabriel Faure and “Cantique de Racine”? How is it important in the story? Talk about the phantom music Wally describes in her diary. Would she trade these “voices” for some anodyne?
11. Are some of the hateful villains themselves anomalies? What about Victoria Huskins’s scrolling back over their early years. Who are the nasty people that provide such satisfying evil? Think of that snake, the new girl in town, Donna Palliser. “She had a slow way of turning her head and giving a poisonous look to anyone she was taking out” (p. 99). How do those poisonous looks transmute into real treachery? Give details. Mr. Henry, the substitute teacher of the strong brown soap smell, is another narrow fellow in the grass, slimier than Donna Palliser. What happens in the cloakroom that terrifies eleven-year-old Wayne? What are the “ugly flowers” (p. 107) of evil that betray the boy? “If you ever need someone to talk to, about special things, things you don’t want anyone to know—Mr. Henry’s voice was so low it was deadly, as if he were saying Wayne could murder someone and tell Mr. Henry about it and Mr. Henry would help him conceal the crime—’you can come to me’” (p. 108). How is the boy saved from the moment of Mr. Henry’s tenderness? But what is Wayne left with, “like the bulb of any bloom, underground” (p. 109)?
12. Luckily “Thomasina saw that the child she had secretly named Annabel, in memory of her own lost daughter, had become graceful and mysterious. . . . He had no idea of the circumstances that had surrounded his birth, yet a thoughtfulness lay in his eyes that the other children, save for Wally Michelin, did not have. It was the spirit a poet might have, or a scientist, or anyone who sees the world not as he or she has been told to see it, with things named and labelled. . . . When Wayne Blake walked, he floated. He was Wayne, she saw now, and he was Annabel. He was both at the same time, but he did not know this” (pp. 171-172). After reading this book, have your ideas about hermaphrodites and perhaps other anomalies expanded?
13. “Wayne dreamed he was a girl again last night” (p. 148). Wally’s diary is found and read by Treadway in his blitzkrieg of the children’s bridge. What would you do with a child who is different? Handicapped or gifted or both together? What families have you known to transcend the conventions and see themselves as blessed for the child they have? “To Thomasina people were rivers, always ready to move from one state of being into another . . . Everyone was always becoming and unbecoming” (p. 41). Do you think this philosophy helps Thomasina in the loss of her own family, Graham and Annabel?
14. Talk about escape in Annabel. Think about Thomasina and Europe, Treadway and the bush (his trapline, books, and solitude), and Jacinta, if only in her mind, with her memories of music and movies in St. John. Then there is Wally, with her music, her Boston and London, her memory of Lydia Combs whose nun-teacher did not escape: “Run away, before it’s too late” (pp. 115-116). What are the compromises some of these people have to make? How do you define responsibility and duty when it your own soul you are trying to save?
15. Music and dancing expand Wayne’s sense of possibility. While dancing “you could say anything you wanted when you were that close. The normal restraint that made you keep things private was gone for the few minutes of the song; that’s what music did, with the darkness and the closeness. If he could get that close to Wally Michelin, for one dance: that’s what a dance was, he saw. It was to get the two of you together in your own world. You could make that world anything you wanted. You could make it as far from here as possible, yet to the rest of the room you would look as if you were still here. They would have no idea where the two of you had gone. . . . A feeling of mystery and going forward with more than just your body. Underground streams feeding your mind. You’d ask questions and get lost together” (pp. 277 – 278).
16. Gracie, his actual prom date, is nothing if not persistent. “What’s so interesting about Wally Michelin anyway? . . . What are you hoping to get with her? That you couldn’t have with me? . . . He tried to explain. Remember the last poem we did in English? [Gracie:] The one nobody had a clue about what it meant? [Wayne:] By John Donne . . . ‘dull, sublunary lovers’ love, whose soul is sense” (pp. 276 – 279). Why is this poem, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” a key to Wayne and Wally’s story? How does the compass image reflect their own separation, as well as that of the lovers in the poem?
17. Near the end, why does Treadway want that orange as he plots the trapping tip of his life? What is the outcome? Is it possible to relate the journeys of father and son in the novel?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson; The Bird Artist by Howard Norman; Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugendies; The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff; Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner; Fault Lines by Nancy Huston
Q: How did the desire to write about a baby who is born intersex come to you?
A: I began hearing several stories of children who had been born like this in small, rural communities: born beyond gender. I have always been fascinated by how our society places people at extreme ends of what I see as an artificial gender spectrum. When I began thinking about these children I knew I wanted to write about a character like Wayne/Annabel. I wanted to write into the question of what happens to personality if you take gender extremes away.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from their experience with Wayne and his shadow-self, Annabel?
A: I’d like readers to see Wayne/Annabel the way they see themselves, and look at the “other” gender within themselves. I feel point of view is everything, in life and in literature, and I hope the book treats the points of view held by its divergent characters with equal respect. In many ways, this book is, for me, about suspending judgment. When you understand why someone acts the way they do, even if the actions cause sadness or difficulty, then I think you can redirect your energy to something more fruitful than judgment. I also hope the reader will have the kind of reading experience I think books are really about: a connection with the characters and a suspension of the loneliness of being human. I hope this story, like all good stories, might give the reader a kind of relief and a joy.
Q: Treadway, the baby’s father, is a woodsman and a hunter. How did you develop such a familiarity with this way of living?
A: My mother is a city girl and my father is a woodsman and hunter. I have both those impulses in me, so I have spent a lot of time in the wilderness myself, fishing, mushroom hunting, making fires on the beach, and walking alone in places where there are owls and caribou and other wildlife. I lived for much of the past fifteen years in a house in the woods in Newfoundland. Whenever I meet an old trapper or hunter I like to get in his truck or on the back of his skidoo and see some of his world. I like talking to older men about their wilderness adventures, and comparing them with my own. Labrador, for me, is a place full of magnetic energy, and I have gone on extended trips there and listened to people and let the power of its landscape soak into me. People who live there have generously shared the land and its lifestyle with me, from ice fishing for smelt, to staying in Innu encampments, and learning how to sew rabbitnose slippers out of caribou hide. I have also studied a lot of maps and nonfiction books about that land, though I never intended to write a novel set there until this novel presented itself to me.
Q: Why is writing about Newfoundland and Labrador important to you?
A: It is the place I have lived from the time I was eight years old until recently. When I was eight, my family moved there from the industrial north of England, so the new landscape was a seismic shock to me; a complete departure from what I had known as a child—and I think the sudden wilderness with its stark, primeval landscape became a kind of second geography that I have used some of my writing to explore.
Q: What do you plan to work on next?
A: I’m working on a comic murder mystery narrated by a woman who stumbles upon crimes while she is trying to write a manifesto on how to grow old magnificently instead of being defeated by age. It is set in Montreal, where I now live, and it taps the urban side of my imagination rather than the wilderness side of Annabel. The murder mystery is illustrated, and I see it as the first in a trilogy.