Synopses & Reviews
They're all dead now.
Here's a picture of the town where they lived. New Waterford. It's a night bright with the moon. Imagine you are looking down from the height of a church steeple, onto the vivid gradations of light and shadow that make the picture. A small mining town near cutaway cliffs that curve over narrow rock beaches below, where the silver sea rolls and rolls, flattering the moon. Not many trees, thin grass. The silhouette of a colliery, iron tower against a slim pewter sky with cables and supports sloping at forty-five-degree angles to the ground. Railway tracks that stretch only a short distance from the base of a gorgeous high slant of glinting coal, towards an archway in the earth where the tracks slope in and down and disappear. And spreading away from the collieries and coal heaps are the peaked roofs of the miners' houses built row on row by the coal company. Company houses. Company town.
Look down over the street where they lived. Water Street. An avenue of packed dust and scattered stones that leads out past the edge of town to where the wide, keeling graveyard overlooks the ocean. That sighing sound is just the sea.
Here's a picture of their house as it was then. White, wood frame with the covered veranda. It's big compared to the miners' houses. There's a piano in the front room. In the back is the kitchen where Mumma died.
Here's a picture of her the day she died. She had a stroke while cleaning the oven. Which is how the doctor put it. Of course you can't see her face for the oven, but you can see where she had her stockings rolled down for housework and, although this is a black and white picture, her house-dress actually is black since she was in mourning for Kathleen at the time, as well as Ambrose. You can't tell from this picture, but Mumma couldn't speak English very well. Mercedes found her like that, half in half out of the oven like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. What did she plan to cook that day? When Mumma died, all the eggs in the pantry went bad - they must have because you could smell that sulphur smell all the way down Water Street.
So that's the house at 191 Water Street, New Waterford, Cape Breton Island, in the far eastern province of Nova Scotia, Canada. And that's Ma on the day she died, June 23, 1919.
Here's a picture of Daddy. He's not dead, he's asleep. You see that armchair he's in? That's the pale green wingback. His hair is braided. That's not an ethnic custom. They were only ethnic on Mumma's side. Those are braids that Lily put in his hair while he was asleep.
There are no pictures of Ambrose, there wasn't time for that. Here's a picture of his crib still warm.
Other Lily is in limbo. She lived a day, then died before she could be baptized, and went straight to limbo along with all the other unbaptized babies and the good heathens. They don't suffer, they just sort of hang there effortlessly and unaware. Jesus is known to have gone into limbo occasionally and taken a particularly good heathen out of it and up to heaven. So it is possible. Otherwise....That's why this picture of Other Lily is a white blank.
Don't worry. Ambrose was baptized.
Here's one of Mercedes. That opal rosary of hers was basically priceless. An opal rosary, can you imagine? She kept it pinned to the inside of her brassiere, over her heart, at all times when she wasn't using it. Partly for divine protection, partly out of the convenience of never being without the means to say a quick decade of the beads when the spirit moved her, which was often. Although, as Mercedes liked to point out, you can say the rosary with any objects at hand if you find yourself in need of a prayer but without your beads. For example, you can say it with pebbles or breadcrumbs. Frances wanted to know, could you say the rosary with cigarette butts? The answer was yes, if you're pure at heart. With mouse turds? With someone's freckles? The dots in a newspaper photograph of Harry Houdini? That's enough, Frances. In any case, this is a picture of Mercedes, holding her opal rosary, with one finger raised and pressed against her lips. She's saying, "Shshsh."
And this is Frances. But wait, she's not in it yet. This one is a moving picture. It was taken at night, behind the house. There's the creek, flowing black and shiny between its narrow banks. And there's the garden on the other side. Imagine you can hear the creek trickling. Like a girl telling a secret in a language so much like our own. A still night, a midnight clear. It's only fair to tell you that a neighbour once saw the dismembered image of his son in this creek, only to learn upon his arrival home for supper that his son had been crushed to death by a fall of stone in Number 12 Mine.
But tonight the surface of the creek is merely as Nature made it. And certainly it's odd but not at all supernatural to see the surface break, and a real live soaked and shivering girl rise up from the water and stare straight at us. Or at someone just behind us. Frances. What's she doing in the middle of the creek, in the middle of the night? And what's she hugging to her chest with her chicken-skinny arms? A dark wet bundle. Did it stir just now? What are you doing, Frances?
But even if she were to answer, we wouldn't know what she was saying, because, although this is a moving picture, it is also a silent one.
All the pictures of Kathleen were destroyed. All except one. And it's been put away.
Kathleen sang so beautifully that God wanted her to sing for Him in heaven with His choir of angels. So He took her.
About the Author
Ann-Marie MacDonald was born in West Germany and spent the first few years of her life on a Canadian air force station near Baden Baden. Her father was an officer in the RCAF and the family was posted numerous times.
She attended one year at Carleton University, Ottawa, studying languages and Classics. She went to the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal where she trained as an actor, graduating from the program in 1980. She moved to Toronto where she began an acting career. She soon became involved in creating original Canadian work in a number of contexts: collective creation, collaboration and solo writing. The work always combined theatrical innovation, politics and entertainment. She worked as an independent artist, with Nightwood Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille as her principal theatre “homes.” Her seminal works include the collective creation This is For You, Anna, and the multi-episodic Nancy Drew: Clue in the Fast Lane. Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) was MacDonalds first solo-authored work.
She continued to work as an actor in theatres across the country and in many independent films, including Ive Heard the Mermaids Singing, Where the Spirit Lives and Better Than Chocolate. As well, she guest-starred on numerous television series, most recently Made in Canada. MacDonald was last on stage in the spring of 2001 when she starred in a sold-out production of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto. Currently, MacDonald is host of the CBC series Life and Times.
Her more recent work for theatre includes the play The Arabs Mouth, the libretto for the chamber opera Nigredo Hotel, the collectively created The Attic, The Pearls and Three Fine Girls in which she also performed, and, most recently, the book and lyrics for the musical comedy Anything That Moves.
MacDonalds work as an actor and writer has been honoured with a number of awards, including the Governor Generals Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Canadian Authors Association Award, the Dartmouth Award, the Gemini Award, the Chalmers Award and the Dora Mavor Moore Award.
Fall on Your Knees was MacDonalds first novel and is available from Vintage Canada. She lives in Toronto with her partner, her daughter and two dogs.
Reading Group Guide
1. A cedar box, a diary, a green dress, a scarecrow — examine MacDonald's use of repeated imagery in her exploration of family history. Are her interpretations of memory intended to be naturalistic? How does this square with her use of the spiritual life in this novel? What, for example, does Ambrose 'mean' to Lily and Francis, and why does Pete haunt Kathleen?
2. Examine your sympathies with the family members of this book. Does the author manipulate or confuse the alliances of the reader? How does she handle revelation? Try to define the way in which the narrator relates to the reader. The internal logic of the book is also defined by the ways in which the characters 'decide' to interpret each others' behaviour — are you surprised by the shifts in allegiance throughout the book — where does the force for these changes come from?
3. 'That night, the Virgin Mary tells her what to do.' (p.561) Could you have predicted the course of Mercedes' life? What do you take MacDonald to mean in her use of religion to shape Mercedes, and what do you understand about Mercedes from the ways in which she chooses to respond to events? How closely do the sisters mirror each others' behaviour?
4. 'The knowledge that it is to be a coloured child is most useful in determining its future. First of all, there is now no question of keeping it. Illegitimacy is a terrible but invisible blot, whereas miscegenation cannot be concealed.' (p.393) The book addresses several major themes of conflict in the 20th Century — racial strife and inequality, sexuality, religious oppression and belief, poverty. Is MacDonald successful in her integration of such powerful topics into this intimate family history? What methods does she use to sustain the pace of the narrative throughout the 560-odd pages of the book? Some of the revelations of the character make for uncomfortable reading — is the author consciously trying to alienate the reader, shock them? If so, is she successful, and why do you think she adopted this approach?
5. 'Frances's eyes burst open. She had a dream about Trixie just now.' (p.373) As a plot device, what function does Trixie serve?
6. Frances manifests a particularly brittle variety of humour and resilience. Compare her responses to 'damage' with those of her sisters, mother and father. What do you consider Frances's principal motivations to be, and to what use has the author put these, in her construction of this book? What do you consider the author intends us to understand from her use of illness and affliction in this book?
7. How do you interpret the 'visions' and 'intuition' of the sisters towards each other? What do you consider MacDonald is interested in exploring by this added dimension to the story? Do you think our understanding of the personal histories is intended to change our perception of the 'public' record of War history in Fall On Your Knees? Which characters constitute the most obvious links between the private and public?
8. 'The cave mind has entered into a creative collaboration with the voluntary mind, and soon the two of them will cocoon memory in a spinning wealth of dreams and yarns and fingerpaintings.' (p.151) Memory and its reinvention are central to the sisters' survival techniques in the book; how does the structure of the book assist in our understanding of this?
9. Do the histories, for example, of prohibition, or the miners strikes, serve as functional plot devices or as a metaphor?
10. How precisely imagined is this book? How important is this in the revelation of plot? Consider the book in relation to linear time. How much is this book about Kathleen's history, and how does our understanding of the circumstances of her life reflect on our reading of other characters?
11. Compare the symbolism of this book with the magic realism of Rushdie or Márquez. How does your understanding of 'magic realism' inform your reading of this work, if at all?
12. Consider the roles of Mrs. and Ralph Luvovitz, Leo Taylor, Theresa, Hector and Adelaide, and what light their interior life sheds on that of the Pipers. How does Frances compare with Theresa? Attempt to describe the relationship between the two. Which characters do you consider to be least successful in the story?
13. What do you take the meaning of the title of the book to be? How do the chapter headings, along with the quotes and passages that preface each section of the book serve to enhance your reading?
14. 'Frances has recently revealed a natural talent in the kitchen. She cooks and cooks. Roasts and curries, stews and casseroles. It's mystifying. Frances is like one of those strange persons who awake one morning and play the complete works of Bach with never a lesson.' (p.429) Discuss the roles of books, clothes, music and food in Fall On Your Knees. How many central themes are explored using these symbols?
15. Do you think that the 'real' aspects of the novel — MacDonald's powerful evocation of the trenches, for example — change the way in which we view the fictional lives she explores? Does the juxtaposition of 'known' history give more weight to the author's intent?