Cathie Pelletier's novel Once Upon A Time On the Banks employs a structure I particularly like. I have a fondness for the ensemble novel, which involves a large cast of characters and a number of subplots all wound around one central event. When properly used this format allows for a cataclysm of events both comic and tragic. Each subplot can be used to enrich all the others. And surely it’s an advantage for an author to be able to cast such a complex web of plotting instead of relying on a single piece of bait. The reader is bound to find one of the subplots compelling.
This novel is set in 1969 in Mattagash, a little backwoods town in Maine. The central event of this novel is the upcoming wedding of one Amy Joy Lawler, who has declared her intent to marry the French-Canadian Jean-Claude Cloutier. And one by one the other characters with their own intentions gather for Amy Joy’s wedding. Her mother, Sicily, takes to her bed at once. The Cloutiers vow that that they’ll never let their Jean-Claude marry that bossy English girl and Jean-Claude’s mother is praying to saints that have not even been canonized. Across town the two ne’er do well Gifford brothers are dreaming of the shining hubcaps they’ll glean from all the out-of-town wedding guest vehicles and their wives Goldie and Vera have begun a no-holds-barred feud over Goldie’s purchase of the town’s entire stock of Christmas tree lights. Eighty miles away in Portland Amy’s Aunt Pearl is longing to get back to Mattagash. Pearl’s husband Marvin Ivy is worrying about a shortage of customers for his funeral home. Amy’s cousin Junior Ivy is having an affair with the Ivy Funeral Home secretary, Monique Tessier. Junior’s wife Thelma is having a one-sided, Valium-aided love affair with Bob Barker from “The Price is Right” ("Come on dowwwwwn, Thelma!"). Thelma and Junior’s son Randy is racking up some true sixties experiences – dropping out, getting high, getting busted, getting VD, and getting in trouble with all of his authority figures. Albert Pinkham, proprietor of Mattagash’s only motel, is looking forward to some sure income and wondering if he should get a pool for the Albert Pinkham Motel since it’s sure to attract business and one of those plastic wading numbers can’t cost too much. And through every extravagant subplot and every tragic-comic moment, each character is aware of his or her own mortality, and of the urgent importance of living life the way it should be lived before it comes time to die.
A few pages into this novel when I first grasped the fact that it was set in a backwoods Maine town of only 456 people and ran into the first double name and double negative, I began to dread that this might be something in the Fanny Farmer vein, a novel that invites the reader to ridicule its rustic characters while expecting them to simultaneously admire what’s supposed to be homespun wisdom but is really facile platitudes costumed in picturesquely bad grammar and livestock references. But I needn’t have worried. Pelletier has Dorothy Parker’s gift for laying bare her characters’ silliness and idiosyncrasies while leaving their dignity intact, and her very own gift for creating regional flavour and characters who are simultaneously people of a specific time and place and people to whom anyone might relate. (A friend of mine who is orginally from New Brunswick assures me that Pelletier NAILED the atmosphere of a small town on the east coast.)
There is much to laugh at and the Ivys must surely be fiction’s most hilariously dysfunctional family, but there is also much that is admirable and moving, and Pelletier is perceptive and poetic in her rendering of what might so easily have slid into banality. When 23-year-old Amy Joy sits in front of the mail-order vanity table that she has had since eighth grade and gazes into the heart-shaped mirror while putting on her blue eyeshadow, Pelletier manages to make it a poignant moment. Amy Joy is thinking how her unmade-up face reminds her of the little girl she once was, who was made perfectly happy by a swim in the river, a good towelling, and the run home towards her mother’s cooking, and feels the disconnect between that joyful little girl and her surrender to the moment at hand, and her adult decision to marry Jean-Claude, a decision she sees as something that is “crystallizing” her, something that will leave her “sealed forever”. When Goldie Gifford and her children decorate their yard with all forty boxes of Christmas lights in early spring it’s Goldie’s first signal effort to save her six children and herself from their former status as Giffords, the dole-collecting pariahs of the town. Her children can pride themselves on having the most Christmas tree lights of any family on earth, and once they have felt this pride it’s easier to get them to pick up the trash in the yard and do their homework. In the end, Pelletier’s Mattagash seems less like a backwoods than like the centre of a universe where all the important things happen, and like any fully realized universe it comes complete with a gravitational pull too strong to resist.