Fiction Review by Donna Kane

Caroline Woodward, Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny (Fernie: Oolichan, 2010). Paperbound, 256 pp., $18.95.Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny

In her new novel, Penny Loves Wade, Wade Loves Penny, Caroline Woodward uses a familiar line from T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”— “the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time”—as an epigraph to her book. If this doesn’t provide the reader with a clue that Woodward’s story is one of journey and return, then the palindromic effect of her title might. And if that still doesn’t do it, then laying the tale of Homer’s Odyssey over her characters and events like a tissue pattern will. Penny Toland, reigning lady of home economics, is Woodward’s Penelope. Penny is a somewhat manic whirl of ability and energy who, at middle age, has found herself and her husband saddled with a debt-ridden ranch in the Peace River country of northern British Columbia after twenty-five years of building it up under the thumb of Penny’s oppressive and somewhat monstrous father-in-law. Now, obsessed with “money, money, bloody money!” Penny is not only a contemporary Penelope but a penny pincher too. Penny’s husband, Wade, serves as Woodward’s Ulysses, and in the novel he comes off a tad inept. His truck is the ship he sails and, duped by his father and now by his truck driving partner, he’s adrift on a voyage complete with islands and storms, lotus-eaters, wrecks, and sirens. Forgetting to phone home or mail his cheques to Penny so she can pay the bills, Wade seems to fumble under the cast of his wife’s goddess-like shadow. At home she waits, where she fends off suitors, of course, but also keeps the proverbial ship afloat by selling gravel, harvesting pumpkins, making crafts, and subbing at the local schools. Penny cans, quilts, dries herbs for tea, cooks, cleans, insulates her home, cuts her own hair, is volunteer secretary and history book editor for her community’s historical society, sings in a choir, feeds chickens, pigs, horses, and more. Mother of two, Penny is “all that Women’s Institute … stuff” and educated to boot.

The genre-crossing of classical myth with a contemporary love story concerning two salt-of-the earth folks might seem a bit of a stretch, but Penny Toland is larger than life too and, in Woodward’s hand, any exaggeration simply gives the story a playful edge. Indeed, the similarities and differences to Homer’s epic create a refreshing and imaginative air, adding substance and depth to a story that is, at first glance, a rather conventional one. Woodward’s characters may be types, hard working rural folks a bit on the conservative side, but Woodward knows these characters well and her book becomes a sincere and authentic homage to homesteading stock. Indeed, Woodward’s eye for detail saturates the entire book. We see Penny’s house down to the Kelvinator fridge and the Arborite table. We know the view from Penny’s kitchen window as clearly as we know what’s in Wade’s pocket—“a toothpick, a small rectangle of sugar-free gum…eye drops.” While some might find the reach of details exhaustive, any belaboured descriptions are generally saved by Woodward’s ability to write a fast-paced sentence that often mimics Penny’s manic mind: “I zipped through the change clackety-clack, trying to slow myself down so when I turned to count it out to him, I could be normal and friendly and there you go, sir, thank you very much.” Snappy sentences, colloquial diction, and a narrator never far from the character’s immediate thoughts, give the story zest and presence. The writing would have benefited, I think, from some paring down of adjectives and Woodward’s technique of shifting scenes by changing the tense and the narrator’s points of view—while adding a stylistic energy—caused occasional confusion.

As time goes by, history can become more myth than fact. In Woodward’s book, this is evidenced by the Goodland Historical Society and the “formidable Edna Buford [who] is of the opinion that homesteaders are the ’real‘ settlers, the ones who endured the northern prairie climate, patriotically reproduced and cleared their quarter sections of any trace of pack trails, pemmican caches or teepee poles, never mind suspected grave sites.” The book further hints at the way in which things, by their absence, become mythic. Those resourceful and competent-beyond-measure Peace River farm wives are fading away and, like Woodward’s Penny, are already moving a bit closer to myth. Using the template of Homer’s epic, Woodward has written a refreshingly down-to-earth story of a hard-working couple whose journey is mostly consumed with paying bills and trying to keep their love alive. Woodward reminds us that some myths start out in very ordinary ways.

—Donna Kane

As in The Malahat Review, 174, Spring 2011, 93-95