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Starting out in the Afternoonby Jill Frayne
Synopses & Reviews
Jill Frayne's long-term relationship was ending and her daughter was about to graduate and leave home. She decided to pack up her life and head for the Yukon.
Driving alone across the country from her home just north of Toronto, describing the land as it changes from Precambrian Shield to open prairie, Jill finds that solitude in the wilds is not what she expected. She is actively engaged by nature, her moods reflected in the changing landscape and weather. Camping in her tent as she travels, she begins to let go of the world she's leaving and to enter the realm of the solitary traveller.
There are many challenges in store. She has booked a place on a two-week sea-kayaking trip in the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia; though she owns a canoe, she has never been in a kayak. As the departure nears, she dreads it. Nor does it work any miracle charm on her, as she is isolated from her fellow travellers; yet the landscape and wild beauty of the old hunt camps gradually affects her. Halfway, as she begins to have energy left at the end of the day's exertions, she notes: This is as relaxed as I have ever been, as free from anxious future-thinking as I have ever managed.
From there she heads north, taking ferries up the Inside Passage and using her bicycle and tent to explore the wet, mountainous places along the way. Again, she feels self-conscious when alone in public, but once she strikes out into nature, the wilderness begins to work its magic on her, and she begins to feel a bond with the land and a kind of serenity. Moreover, she comes to realize that this self-reliance is an important step.
Many travel narratives involve some kind of inner journey, a seeking of knowledge and of self. Set in the same part of the world, Jonathan Raban's A Passage to Juneau ended up being an exploration into the wilderness of the human heart. Kevin Patterson used his months sailing from Vancouver to Tahiti to consider his life in The Water in Between, while the Bhutanese landscape worked a profound transformation on Jamie Zeppa in Beyond the Sky and the Earth. In This Cold Heaven, Gretel Ehrlich chose not to put herself into the story, but described the landscape with a similar hunger and intensity, while Sharon Butala has written deeply and personally about her physical and spiritual connection with the prairies in The Perfection of the Morning and other work.
In Starting Out in the Afternoon, Frayne struggles to come to terms with her vulnerabilities and begins to find peace. In beautifully spare but potent language, she delivers an inspiring, contemplative memoir of the middle passage of a woman's life and an eloquent meditation on the solace of living close to the wild land. Eventually what has begun as a three-month trip becomes a personal journey of several years, during which she is on the move and testing herself in the wilderness. She conquers her fears and begins a new relationship with nature, exuberant at becoming a competent outdoorswoman. Despite a late start I expect to spend the rest of my life dashing off the highway, pursuing this know-how, plumbing the outdoors side of life.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
1. “Out over the fireweed two hummingbirds joust in mid-air. The water is grey-green silk, the colour of bay leaves. The wind has dropped and there are no bugs. Mountains across the way are banded in light and shadow, and in the shade the timber looks like animal fur, plush and dark.” Travelling alone allows the author to observe closely the environment around her. What other advantages are there? 2. Getting out there and roaming the country increases the author’s awareness of the natural environment and makes her care about the outdoors, but she is concerned that travelling in the wilderness is intrusive, even destructive. How did you feel about this? 3. “To go into these last places, to go alone or to go with the companion I have found, long after I was content to have no companion, is all I’ll ever need.” To what extent is this book about learning to be alone, and finding freedom?
About the Author
Jill Frayne works as a family therapist in a children’s mental health centre, but, “like lots of women,” has kept a journal all her life. Even in her journal, she edits herself and does the best writing she can. As she approached fifty, she says, “I wanted to impose on myself the discipline of doing the very best writing I could,” not necessarily for publication but for herself. Her three-month journey across the country, and her memory of connection with nature, offered itself as a story. A writer friend read it and said she knew a publisher who would like it.
The publisher advised that it was full of great writing about landscape, but that the reader needed to get to know the person at the centre. Jill asked her daughter Bree and long-term partner Leon for their permission, and wrote herself into the book. During her self-imposed exile in the Yukon, she had been free to examine her life with some sort of detachment, and in rewriting the book she brought that awareness and self-examination into the narrative. She is clear-eyed about human flaws, especially her own.
Jill Frayne grew up in Toronto, one of four children of June Callwood, noted author and social activist, and Trent Frayne, sportswriter and author of many books. When she was growing up, her parents both had offices in the house, clacking away on their typewriters in the midst of family life. There was no expectation on the children to become writers; the parents just “hoped they’d be happy.” Like Jill, her brother and sister have come to writing in their fifties.
Working in Toronto and bringing up a daughter, Jill didn’t properly begin to get at the outdoors until she was well into her thirties, when she edged out of the city, moving to a schoolhouse near Uxbridge, where she “began to roam around the farmers’ fields.” She found the outdoors simultaneously soothing and exhilarating. She says many readers have described her journey as a challenge, but it was actually “the opposite of setting a challenge”: what she was looking for was the comfort she knew the outdoors could give. This journey would be one for which she didn’t need another person.
As the title of the book reflects, Jill was beginning a new phase of life in middle age, and “looking for what to do next internally . . . We have a few starting out times in our lives, not just when we leave home. I was starting out some time after noon.” The biggest challenge in the writing was the process of self-editing, which she describes as being like “combing tangled hair, every draft getting better, until finally the comb starts to run smooth.” Like most writers, she says, she can edit endlessly.
One outcome of the three-month journey into the wilds of Canada was a new home on a bush lot at the northern tip of Algonquin Park, where she has lived now for eleven and a half years. “Life is pretty simple,” she says. “It’s the most soothing place.” Her house has lots of comforts but no plumbing, so she has to fetch water from a nearby well — by car in the summer, and by toboggan in the winter, when the roads aren’t ploughed. She is surrounded by good neighbours: “It’s the practice to stop or at least wave when you drive by . . .slow and chat about the weather, about tasks at hand . . . . Right now the neighbours are taking sap from the trees [for maple syrup].” Driving south to work, she passes small communities where “guys work on the roads or in the bush, and women work in services.” Going into Toronto to visit family and friends is fun. This morning, she describes the gorgeous scene outside: “a sheet of crust,” where yesterday’s warm temperatures and then a sudden drop to 7 below formed ice on the layer of pure snow, which now glints in the sun. Boy, are we lucky!”
She writes on weekends and holidays, when she’s not working; “I love writing.” With the publication of her first book, she is too distracted to think about what she might write next, although there are certainly things she wants to do. “I don’t expect to have this again, but I will certainly keep writing, at least for the drawer.”
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