Sunday, November 24, 2013

Gone to flowers, every one

And where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing?
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to flowers, every one!
When will they ever learn, oh when will they ever learn?

Where Have All the Flowers Gone ~ Peter, Paul and Mary

The Juliet Stories
by Carrie Snyder (House of Anansi, 2012) 324 pages

This is a sometimes disturbing look into a familial situation where the political and personal goals of the adults trump the personal desires and happiness of the entire family, particularly the children. This may not have been the author's intent but this is what we take away from it as readers.

It begins with the young Juliet Friesen's family landing in Nicaragua in the early 1980s during the reign of the Sandinistas, whom the Friesens support against the Contras. Three children ranging in age from a toddler (Emmanuel) to a pre-pubescent boy (Keith) to a near teenager (Juliet) accompany their parents, Bram and Gloria Friesen, social activists involved in a group known as the Roots of Justice.

Rising opposition to the Somoza dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s fomented the Nicaraguan Revolution led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) which attempted to oust the dictatorship in 1978-79. The FSLN then governed Nicaragua from 1979 until 1990. The Contra War was waged between the FSLN and the Contras (supported by the American government) from the early 1980s to 1990. The Friesens arrive in the midst of this chaos. 

Would it shock you to learn that the Friesens live in impoverished, difficult circumstances where the children face a sometimes hostile environment, squalor, and a sense of alienation from the general (and much poorer) Nicaraguan populace?

Through Juliet's eyes - bright, inquisitive, sensitive Juliet - she bears witness to all. Snyder doesn't shy away from presenting the Nicaraguans as flawed human beings rather than as a victimized, near saintly group striving towards noble revolutionary goals against the Contras. The maid steals, Juliet's playmates torment or ignore her, her parents' Latin American colleagues are sometimes disdainful, hostile even.

We also see that the imminently human Bram and Gloria have had their trysts, their dalliances, with like-minded activists. Bram, a respected leader in their district, attracts every young thing with a political motivation and a lonely heart; Gloria too becomes smitten with a Dutch Red Cross worker who pays her courteous, almost courtly, attention but who returns dutifully to his wife after the families nearly drown during a boat ride in a sudden storm.

Life is random, suddenly frightening or exhilarating:
Life is nothing like Choose Your Own Adventure [a children's book Juliet is reading]. Except for when it is, in its randomness: a cancer cell splitting and and spreading ruthlessly within the bloodstream; a storm rising on a deadly lake. Except for when it is, in the way the ending changes - in memory, in meaning, rather than substance.
A rally that the family attends serves as an apt metaphor. As Gloria surges forward with the crowd trying to touch the sleeve of Daniel Ortega, then President of Nicaragua, as if he is a Messiah, a god, Juliet is swallowed up by the crowd and almost trampled and Keith is lost amongst the rallyers. It is some time before Gloria realizes what has happened and then she dissolves in hysterics.

The parents lurch from one disastrous situation to another - some might call them brave but I find them to be fools who jeopardize the health and happiness of their children. 

Eventually, due to a medical crisis in the family, the Friesens, temporarily sans father Bram, return to Canada with Gloria dissolving into a nervous breakdown before the plane even lands. But the narrative tension shifts with the move to Canada perhaps in a manner that does not aid the novel. 

Juliet's issues seem more mundane, less exotic in Canada: fitting into a new school, dealing with her brother's serious illness, discovering her sexuality and coping with how to present oneself as a female (makeup, clothes, attracting male attention), watching her parents' marriage dissolve and her mother remarrying, dealing with an increased attraction to her new stepbrother. 

Unsupervised, or nearly unsupervised, Juliet drifts into the usual predictable sort of trouble  a teenage girl drifts into. Juliet is brave, sometimes foolish, anxious for experience of all kinds, and Snyder paints a sensitive and poignant picture of the young adult Juliet: 
She thinks of what she is willing to sacrifice in order to burn, to feel her light burning. It is dangerous close to the fire, and she does not feel afraid.
But I feel the second half of the novel set in Canada does not hold together as well as the first half set in Nicaragua. It feels fragmented, snippets of Juliet's new life pieced together to form not quite a whole. Why include the grandmother's admission that she had a brief tryst with a married man during the war? Why include a longish chapter about Juliet's attraction to her stepbrother? There is a randomness that undermines the cohesiveness of the novel.

In her acknowledgments, Snyder notes with gratitude her own personal history and relation to the novel with her parents taking her to Nicaragua as a child and no doubt, in retrospect, it may have seemed an exciting adventure but as it is presented here, and I realize that it may be largely fictional, the adventures appear an exercise in chaos and poor choices in pursuit of a fantastic political ideal, if any, that few could realize.

I fluctuate between the desire to know what is autobiographical and what is not but then I realize it doesn't matter, Snyder has written a truth so beautifully and powerfully about this young girl that it overrides any reality. 

*Originally published on on November 14, 2013

Carrie Snyder 

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