The power of a good night’s sleep should not be underestimated.
When her fourth child started to sleep through the night, affording GG finalist Carrie Snyder the same privilege, she says she developed superpowers: “After all,” she told Descant, “I hadn’t slept through the night for eight years.” This is the only explanation for her next thought: “I think I’ll compete in a triathlon” (swimming, bicycling, running). The only experience that prepared her for this was her enjoyment of hot yoga: in her mid-30s, Carrie set out to learn how to swim.
[Note to those of you sizing up potential life partners: in response to Carrie's announcement, her husband said, "Wow, that's awesome! You should do that!" And she did.]
Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories was one of five finalists for the (English language) Governor General’s award in 2012. Although it is a work of fiction, the novel-in-stories has roots in Snyder’s own childhood experiences. Her parents were peace activists and her family lived in Nicaragua during the era described, but, in her own words, “the characters in the book are fictional creations, as is the bulk of the plot and storyline.”
Carrie Snyder’s family. Redheads in the fall, wow. Photo courtesy of Carrie Snyder.
If you read her blog, you will either feel energized and motivated to get a lot done today, or, you will say to yourself: “Well, isn’t it great that there are people like Carrie in the world so that some of the rest of us don’t have to feel guilty about how little we get done in a day.” If you are among the latter, and in need of a nap, then click here and Carrie will sing you a lullaby. Don’t click on that link if you’re at work.
Carrie Snyder’s exciting news is that her new novel, Girl Runner, about a 1928 Olympian, will be published by House of Anansi Press in the fall of 2014 and has already been picked up by US, UK and European publishers.
The Hamilton-born writer lives with her husband and four children in Waterloo, Ontario, where she writes and teaches creative writing at the University of Waterloo.
Here is Descant’s own Michelle Alfano’s review of The Juliet Stories.
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 when the young Juliet Friesen’s family lands in Nicaragua in the early 1980s during the reign of the Sandinistas, whom the Friesens support against the Contras. Three children, 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 their 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, and her parents’ Latin American colleagues are sometimes disdainful, hostile even.
We also see that the very human Bram and Gloria have had their trysts, their dalliances, with like-minded activists. Bram, a respected leader in their district, attracts every young woman 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 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 and Gloria has 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 break up and then her mother’s remarriage, and dealing with an increasing 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. Her parents took 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.
Carrie Snyder’s latest book, Girl Runner (Anansi), will be in your local bookstore in the fall of 2014.