The Cure for Death by Lightning
by Gail Anderson-Dargatz
I have a simple philosophy when it comes to books: if I enjoyed them once, then I will enjoy them again, so I don’t give them away, nor do I lend them. During the pandemic, I’ve revisited many of the books that have sat on my shelves for years.
One of the books I was delighted to rediscover was The Cure for Death by Lightning, a wonderful story set in Canada that combines the struggle of frontier living with the shamanic lore and myth of the first inhabitants.
The Cure for Death by Lightning was published in 1996 and was the debut novel by Canadian author, Gail Anderson-Dargatz
The book was nominated for the Giller Prize and was awarded the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. It went on to become a bestseller in Canada, selling in excess of 100,000 copies.
The novel didn’t receive quite the same attention in Europe; however it still managed to scoop the Betty Trask Award for debut novelists.
I first read The Cure for Death by Lightning about twenty-three years ago. Since then I have read most, if not all, of Anderson-Dargatz’s work, including A Recipe for Bees and A Rhinestone Button, but Lightning remains my favourite.
“The cure for death by lightning was handwritten in thick, messy blue ink in my mother’s scrapbook, under the recipe for my father’s 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.”
These opening lines give an immediate flavour of the story to come, but it is the quality of the writing that compels the reader to read on.
The protagonist is fifteen-year-old Beth Weeks who lives in an isolated farming community in Shuswap Country, British Columbia at the end of the Second World War. This is her coming of age story, it contains elements of native magic and myth, but the story is not dominated by it.
Beth and her family contend with poverty as well as her erratic father who was injured when a bear savaged him and is growing increasingly paranoid and aggressive. His behaviour becomes so unpredictable it leaves the family as isolated in the community.
Matters for Beth are further complicated as her mother sinks into reverie, withdrawing from reality and leaving Beth to cope with the tasks of running a household and managing her abusive father. Beth’s brother, Dan protects her against the worst of her father’s abuse, but Dan plans to join the army as soon as he’s old enough and so escape what he views as a hopeless future on the farm. Beth knows she will soon be left alone, and some part of her seems to relish that idea.
Beth contends with life by immersing herself in it; she is a strong and reliable narrator and takes the reader with her on her journey. She finds comfort in milking the cows, cooking meals for her family, and the other daily task she shares with her mother. But beyond the farm, in the open country and in the town, she is certain something is watching her, a creature that lurks in the ditch rows and shadows; could it be the mischievous Coyote of Indian legend?
Many memorable, often humorous characters appear in the book, and Anderson-Dargatz draws them with great craft.
Filthy Billy is a hired hand with Tourettes, and Bertha Moses and her family of women from the neighbouring Indian reservation, are frequent visitors to the Weeks farm. Bertha Moses’s daughter Nora is a sensual native girl who Beth is in love with.
Beth’s haunted mother adds further to the story by way of her scrapbook which contains not only recipes, but luscious descriptions of food, of produce from the gardening, and of remedies, some of which are wonderfully bizarre.
The Cure for Death by Lightning, is as unmistakably Canadian as a Gordon Lightfoot ballad. Beth Weeks is a highly relatable heroine, she is compassionate, honest and strong and through her eyes, the Canadian West Coast landscape is seen as a place full of beauty, magic and mystery. With youthful wisdom and local knowledge, she leads us through forests and rivers, and details the rich native culture. We experience the raw beauty, but also the cruelty of an often harsh environment.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough; get your hands on a copy, just don’t ask to borrow mine.
If you enjoyed reading Dave Kavanagh’s review, then you might enjoy reading Dr Arthur Broomfield’s analysis of ‘Heart of Darkness’