Synopses & Reviews
"The cure for death by lightning was handwritten in thick, messy blue ink in my mothers scrapbook, under the recipe for my fathers favourite oatcakes: Dunk the dead by lightning in a cold water bath for two hours and if still dead, add vinegar and soak for an hour more.
So begins Gail Anderson-Dargatzs extraordinary first novel, a seductive and thrilling book that captures the heart and imagination, as filled with the magic and mystery of life as it is with its lurking evils and gut-wrenching hardships. The Cure for Death by Lightning sold more than a staggering 100,000 copies in Canada alone and became a bestseller in Great Britain, later to be published in the United States and Europe. It was nominated for the Giller Prize, the richest fiction prize in Canada, and received a Betty Trask Award in the U.K.
The Cure for Death by Lightning takes place in the poor, isolated farming community of Turtle Valley, British Columbia, in the shadow of the Second World War. The fifteenth summer of Beth Weekss life is full of strange happenings: a classmate is mauled to death; children go missing on the nearby reserve; an unseen predator pursues Beth. She is surrounded by unusual characters, including Nora, the sensual half-Native girl whose friendship provides refuge; Filthy Billy, the hired hand with Tourettes Syndrome; and Noras mother, who has a mans voice and an extra little finger. Then theres the darkness within her own family: her domineering, shell-shocked father has fits of madness, and her mother frequently talks to the dead. Beth, meanwhile, must wrestle with her newfound sexuality in a harsh world where nylons, perfume and affection have no place. Then, in a violent storm, she is struck by lightning in her arm, and nothing is quite the same again. She decides to explore the dangers of the bush.
Beth is a strong, honest, and compassionate heroine, bringing hope and joy into an environment that is often cruel. The character of Beths haunted mother infuses the book with life by means of her scrapbook of recipes scattered throughout, with luscious descriptions of food, gardening, and remedies, both practical and bizarre. Seen through Beths eyes, the West Coast landscape is full of beauty and mysteries, with its forests and rivers, and its rich native culture.
The Globe and Mail commented that The Cure for Death by Lightning was "Canadian to the core," with hints of Susannah Moodie and Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. Anderson-Dargatzs vision of rural life has drawn comparisons with William Faulkner and John Steinbeck. A magic realism reminiscent of Latin American literature is also present, as flowers rain from the sky, and men turn into animals. Yet the style of The Cure for Death by Lightning, which the Boston Globe called "Pacific Northwest Gothic," is wholly original. Launched in a year with more than the usual number of excellent first novels (1996 was also the year of Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald and Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels), this book with its assured voice heralds a worthy successor to Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro.
Winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the VanCity Book Award.
Shortlisted for The Giller Prize and the Chapters/Books in Canada
First Novel Award. A Globe and Mail Notable Book of the Year.
About the Author
Gail Anderson-Dargatz, whose fictional style has been coined as “Pacific Northwest Gothic” by the Boston Globe
, has been compared by critics to John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez. Her novels have been published worldwide in English and in many other languages. A Recipe for Bees
and The Cure for Death by Lighting
were international bestsellers, published worldwide in English and in many other languages, and were both short-listed for the prestigious Giller Prize in Canada. The Cure for Death by Lightning
won the UK’s Betty Trask Prize among other awards. A Rhinestone Button
was a national bestseller in Canada and her first book, The Miss Hereford Stories
, was short-listed for the Leacock Award for humour.
Her mother, who also wrote, instilled literary confidence in Gail, so that by the age of eighteen, Gail knew she wanted to be the next Margaret Laurence, writing about Canadian women in rural settings. "Laurence's interest in them made me feel that their and my experience was important."
In her early twenties, the future author got a job as a reporter for her hometown paper, the Salmon Arm Observer, but continued to enter her fiction in competitions, and she started to win. One submission caught the attention of the writer Jack Hodgins, who encouraged her to enroll in his course at the University of Victoria. She graduated from there with a B.A. in creative writing.
Gail's literary career began to take off when she won first prize in the CBC Literary Competition for a story taken from an early draft of her first novel, The Cure for Death by Lightning. When a Toronto literary agent took her on she already had a short story collection ready to go: The Miss Hereford Stories. Set in the 1960s in the fictional town of Likely, Alberta, ("what you call a half-horse town") the book, with its cast of colourful eccentrics, was published in 1994 and nominated for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. The Cure for Death by Lightning, her first novel, followed two years later.
Saturday Night magazine has said that the inclination to write about rural characters sets Anderson-Dargatz apart from many writers of her generation, who tend towards urban fiction. What does she find so fascinating about small-town and country life? "Once you step off the concrete, life stops being abstract and starts being very real, very immediate, very fundamental and very sensual." On this topic, the Financial Post said, “Anyone who thinks rural characters in Canadian fiction are dull and bland should pick up one of Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s novels. … The only certainty in her world view is that anything can, and very often does, happen.”
Although she is influenced by Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, her mentor Jack Hodgins and favourite writers such as Toni Morrison, she says her inspiration comes “from the people and landscapes around me more than from other books." Her style has been called "Margaret Laurence meets Gabriel García Márquez" because her writing tends towards magic realism, but she says the ghosts and premonitions in her writing arise from family stories of the Thompson-Shuswap region, which she carefully transcribed. "My father passed on the rich stories and legends about the region I grew up in, which he heard from the interior Salish natives he worked with. And my mother told me tales of her own premonitions, and of ghosts, eccentrics and dark deeds that haunted the area."
Gail Anderson-Dargatz has just recently returned home to the Thompson-Shuswap region found in so much of her writing, and she currently teaches advanced novel and advanced fiction in the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of British Columbia.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. “Dunk the dead by lightning in a cold water bath for two hours and if still dead, add vinegar and soak for an hour more.” (p. 1) In this opening passage, how is Beths mother revealed through her scrapbook, through her gallows humour and her rather brutal method of remembering the fragile determination of a butterfly? What does it say about the circumstances of Beths childhood?
2. “The scrapbook was my mothers way of setting down the days so they wouldnt be forgotten. This story is my way.” (p. 2) How is Beths approach to memory-keeping different from her mothers?
3. “When it came looking for me I was in the hollow stump by Turtle Creek . . .” (p. 3). What is this “it,” also variously referred to by Beth as “the thing,” or as Coyote? How does Beths attitude to “it”/Coyote change through the course of her story? Who ultimately wins, and how?
4. In this threatening landscape, women and livestock are closely guarded from dangers both real and perceived. Bells are tied around the necks of the livestock to keep track of them. Bells are given as love tokens. And Nora, too, wears bells. When Beth hears the bells tinkle, what does it often mean? What is their association for her?
5. Bertha describes Coyote as a complex devil figure, linked to the madness of world events. “Of course the old men here wouldnt agree with that,” she says. (p. 170) Consider Berthas description of Coyote, of the mix of good and evil that he brings and of his sorrow and regret. What does this say about her worldview? Do you see this version of Coyote reflected in any of the characters in the novel?
6. Beths mother remains generally distant, only revealing herself through the pages of her scrapbook, which she guards from Beth, and in her mutterings to her own dead mother. She appears to have a wish to protect Beth, yet continually places her in jeopardy, and its unclear if shes aware of the extremity of Beths trauma. What is Beths perspective on her mother? Do you think she will forgive her? Could you?
7. The colour red - the colour of berries, of beet wine, of lipstick and of blood - carries great significance in the novel. Do you see a pattern in its associations, for example with sexuality, with violence, with nature and with the lives of women?
8. When Bertha hears of Beths lightning arm, she tells Beth the story of Lightning and Mosquito who were both attracted to the sweet blood of a young girl. (p. 171) What do you think the lightning strike means to Beth in light of Berthas narrative?
9. Beth feels pulled by the desire coming from Dennis, from Nora and from Billy. How do the three differ in who they are and what they want from Beth? How are they similar? What is it about each of them that attracts Beth?
10. Men do not have the fear of Coyote that women, children and livestock share. The only exception is Billy. Why is he pursued by Coyote? What is their relationship?
11. Why doesnt Beth leave? What is really keeping her on the farm?
12. Some characters have totem animals associated with them; for instance Coyote Jack and Bertha with the birds. Do you see any other totem animals in the novel? What do they mean to Beth?
13. There are many recipes and anecdotes from Mrs. Weeks scrapbook reproduced in Beths story. What do they lend to the narrative? Will you try any of the recipes? Are there any scrapbooks or recipes passed down through your family? What do they mean to you?