Somewhere In-Between
by Donna Milner

Caitlin Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-927-57538-3.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 03/26/2014

Fiction: Mainstream

A conversation at Tim Horton's (a coffee shop) begins the story of a couple looking to buy a ranch in the Chilcotin region of British Columbia. Then the landscape takes over and the first chapter becomes a beautiful description of the expanse of land. It helps to ground readers in place and introduces one of the forms of silence explored in Somewhere In-Between. This particular silence is an appreciation of the surroundings: the old-growth forest, the willow-lined creek and "a haze of coastal mountains."

There's some mystery about the couple, Julie and Ian O'Dale. A tragedy has led to Julie leaving her career as a real estate agent and it seems they have lost a daughter. The silence that engulfs them is grief unexpressed. They are in a state, hanging on by a thread, between existing and living fully, between being parents and not having a living child.

The author, Donna Milner, is courageous in allowing this silence rather than filling it with activity. And one could say the couple is courageous in being with what is. The land, and the couple's silence, hold much more than first seen. One night the sky appears "like an electrical charged curtain" with the aurora borealis, the northern lights.

As the story unfolds, readers are introduced to the O'Dales' daughter, Darla, who communicates from her state of "in-between." These sections are reminiscent of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones in which the young victim speaks from beyond the grave.

While Darla sounds like a sassy teenager and refers to herself as a "dead white girl," she realizes she can't move on until everyone she loves lets her go.

As for the term "dead white girl," it could become one of those weighty book club questions. Darla recounts a story, "The Legend of Crow," that her boyfriend Levi Johnny told. There's a reverence for the story as she recalls the carved pendant of a crow Levi wore and later gave to her. And then she thinks he "takes this spirit guide thing way too seriously now." She mixes honour and a love for her boyfriend with a dismissing of his traditions.

This could this be the author's way of describing similar attitudes among non-Native people.

Darla's mother Julie, quite early on, addresses bigotry on the part of her family, remembering racist comments from her father. She is challenged by the fact that Levi, Darla's Native boyfriend, was the driver of the car in which she was killed. He and his family are also in a state of in-between, suffering from the emotional aftermath of the accident.

While Darla shares the past story, Julie is living in the unfolding present. She walks the land in silence and sits in silence with the tenant who lives in a cabin on the ranch: Virgil Blue. She learns of spirit animals and symbols.

Virgil is without a voice due to throat cancer and sometimes uses an electrolarynx or write notes. His very rich and poignant story is told by the narrator. I appreciated passages in which the details were meticulous and meditative.

The novel raised many questions which will stay with me long after closing the book. For instance, what can we "settlers" learn from people of the First Nations on whose traditional land we now reside? Is there any way we can help to change attitudes even if we can't change history? And what of our own heritage brought to Canada by our ancestors from elsewhere?

I imagine Julie and her family dealing with the same questions while reconnecting to one another. Julie remembers Darla singing "Galway Bay" and "Danny Boy" when she was just eight years old.

Donna Milner is the author of the internationally-acclaimed novel, The Promise of Rain, as well as After River, which was published in twelve countries and translated into eight languages. She lives in an off-the-grid, eco-friendly, lakeside home in the Cariboo woods of British Columbia with her husband, Tom, and their dog Beau. Visit her website.

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