Reviewed by Laura Rock
The Umbrella Mender opens with a scene of a woman giving birth alone. Lying naked on the ground, sheltering in a roofless stone silo in the middle of a field, she labours, heeding animal instinct and medical training—she is a nurse. When the baby is born, she knows how to clamp and cut the cord, which she does “without fuss.” Yet her vision is wide enough to admit the mythical. She has just seen her shadow: “voluptuous and perched on the brink of creation, a sketch on a cave wall, a sculpture anointed with the oil of a million million fingertips in a remote clifftop shrine.” Before settling next to her baby for the night, she takes a moment to sketch a protective symbol on the silo wall.
Thus, the story of Hazel MacPherson is launched, and a compelling story it is. Journeys to the north; Inuit, Cree and Anglo-Canadian cultures of the early 1950s; modern medicine and traditional healing; freedom and captivity; the artistry and violence wrought by a knife; and the lure of the natural world, especially river, white pine and falcon: from these disparate elements Christine Fischer Guy fashions a debut novel of subtle power, with Hazel at the centre. As a young tuberculosis nurse practicing in Moose Factory, Ontario, she is far from the conventions of southern hospitals and eager to learn from Lachlan Davies, the chief of staff who treats her as a near-equal. She studies the X-ray films Lachlan shows her, images of TB-clouded lungs. Eventually she is invited to work on the survey boat, a role unheard of for nurses at the time. But Hazel is not merely smart, strong and diligent; she is a complex, flawed character. A fierce independence allows her to question hospital practices and social protocol, but it also causes her to reject help when she most needs it. She is unaccountably drawn to a drifter who sets up camp near the hospital. Gideon, a visionary who can mend umbrellas and carve intricate designs on coins, longs to reach the Northwest Passage. He has an affinity with hobos and speaks to Hazel in a hep-cat slang.
Fischer Guy writes supple sentences that rarely call attention to themselves. They are as fluid and forceful as the river, uncommonly beautiful. The following passage, from Hazel’s trip on the survey boat, is just one example:
“Both would inhabit the certainty I’d just lost and I couldn’t decide whether their attitude would reassure or rankle. They would run tests and x-ray her lungs and probe her body in intimate places to create a sense of busyness that passed for optimism. They would slip tablets between her lips to make the passage to Moose Factory bearable. When she died before they reached the hospital they would feel that they had failed to solve the medical puzzle set for them. Her death in the windowless hold of a ship would be graceless.”
The novel unfolds in the present and past simultaneously through alternating chapters. Present-day Hazel is an old woman who has suffered a stroke. Lying in a hospital bed, she narrates the events of 60 years ago to her grand-niece, Jude, although the tale is trapped in Hazel’s head because she cannot speak. Jude is hardly a presence, but this is a minor concern. The framing device works effectively, allowing older Hazel to reflect on and amplify younger Hazel’s plight and decisions.
With The Umbrella Mender, Fischer Guy has given readers a story that is Canadian yet universal; of its time and timeless.
The Umbrella Mender is published by Wolsak & Wynn.