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Author strikes home with tale of lives not lived and growing up, again

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Rush Home Road

Little Brown & Co., 2002 (387 pages)

Reviewed by J.G. Cowan

It takes a combination of indomitable spirit, strength of character and delusion to endure a slew of heart breaking hardships yet manage to wrench free and hold onto only the joy of life. Adelaide Shadd is a woman seething with these qualities.

Born into a black family in rural Southwestern, Ontario after the turn of the century, Addy was restricted from the start. Though the hamlet of Rusholme, where she grew up, was largely immune to the racism of post slavery America and other parts of Canada, she was destined to encounter hurdle after hurdle and limit after limit. And though at times practically hobbled by the relentless barrage of obstacles, nothing stops Addy from doing her best and savouring her rewards, however paltry.

Lori Lansen's powerful debut novel takes us through the long, tumultuous life of Addy Shadd, now ailing and withering in a trailer park on the edge of Lake Erie. Her life is suddenly turned upside down when a trashy neighbour abandons her mulatto daughter to her care.

Sharla Cody is six and a disaster. Dirty, neglected, unloved and seemingly unlovable, the child's arrival is yet another test of Addy's patience and perseverance. Yet little by little, she realizes becoming Mum Addy to someone once slighted and sidelined can have transformative powers – for both the child and for her.

Confronting demons she thought she'd buried with her long dead brother Lil Leam, first love Chester Monk and assorted friends, caregivers, husbands, lovers and even children, Addy's life is not only turned upside down by Sharla Cody's need to be nurtured, it's also enriched and fulfilled.

The book begins after Sharla's mom Collette, a sleazy, single mom angling for any man with a pay cheque and a heartbeat, bolts with her current swain Emilio. Duping Addy into believing she'll be paid to care for young Sharla for the summer, she ditches her child. Sharla's arrival sends Addy reeling through the sheer physical demands of late life mothering and a series of flashbacks that take her on a journey back to Rusholme, the town she grew up in, and ran from, under a cloud of desperation and death.

From a happy, and for a black woman of that era, privileged childhood, Addy's life careens out of control after a strawberry Sunday picnic. Completely besotted with the oversized and awkward Chester Monk, Addy is slighted when her beloved shows affection for another girl. She leaves the picnic in a huff setting off a horrifying chain reaction that begins with a brutal assault and ends with murder. Forced from her family and her town, Addy sets out on a long, sad series of events, eventually finding compassion, kindness and even love.

A professional screenwriter, whose work includes the forgettable film about small town life, South of Wawa, author Lori Lansens has adopted a different tone in this book, found her voice and created a memorable novel. That an elderly black woman's voice has emerged so beautifully from a young, white woman, has aroused the occasional taunt of appropriation, but the book is both insightful and thoughtful.

Laced with the ache of lives not lived and roads not taken, the novel manages to avoid being sombre. By jumping back between past and present, the remarkable transformation of Sharla Cody counterpoints the sad journey of her newly adopted mum Addy. Though occasionally slipping into sentiment, and presenting situations which can seem a tad too coincidental, the book isn't treacley.

If Rush Home Road screams Oprah Book Club, it manages to stay in the echelons of the literary taste maker's finer choices, including Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections – books that while plundering the depth of human depravity manage to afford, in the former case, glimpses of hope and redemption and in the later, scathing insight and black humour.

But if this book isn’t afforded the Oprah seal of readership, Lansens can rest assured it has a good chance of moving to greater public acclaim. The film rights are rumoured to have been bought by Whoopi Goldberg, who apparently plans to star.

Jennifer Cowan 7174 Spruce Grove Circle, Whistler, BC V0N1B7

GST R12435881

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