W.D.Valgardson reviews When We Are Broken

Author W.D.Valgardson recently reviewed Luanne Armstrong’s When We Are Broken. You can read his review here:

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to have Luanne Armstrong as a student in my creative writing workshop at the University of Victoria. Like most students, she reveled in her creativity, learned, wrote, and then disappeared. Students live intensely in the present and their talent takes them on long journeys to far places in the future. Some people complain about Facebook but I have found that it brings me together again with people I haven´t heard from in decades. We are searchable, we are findable, we are communicable. Some times that reconnecting is very rewarding. In a recent Facebook message Luanne said that her two years at UVic were the best of her life. That made me ask myself what were the best two years of my life and the answer was immediate: my two years in the Creative Writing program at the University at Iowa. She gave me that the way that someone might come across a piece of worn but beautiful coloured glass on the beach and handed it to someone.

On her journey, she earned a Phd, she has published twenty books, she has lived the struggle of being a writer in a country where no matter how well you write, no matter how beautiful the geode that you find and break open, you are seldom rewarded financially. Her talent is such that she writes young adult books, fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Her work has been anthologized. She has been nominated for and won numerous awards. I think of her books and awards as Christmas decorations on a young fir that grows beside her path to Kootenay Lake.

Her latest book, When We Are Broken, has the subtitle, The Lake Elegy. It is a book of reflections, illustrated with photographs of mountains and lake, streams and fields, shares with us the things that must still be done, the stove that gulps wood, the dogs that must be fed, the cat coaxed into the house at night.

This is a book for people who have the understanding of age in the same way that Sharon Butala’s recent collection of short stories, Season of Fury and Wonder, profiles older women and their life’s struggles. Here, in When We Are Broken, is one of those older women speaking about her life and approaching death. The first lines say “The late season dahlia heads, suffocated by heat, droop on their thin stalks. Dead gold grass mats under a confusion of fallen grapes—flashes in the slant light of fragrant sun.” The writing is filled with surprising images. “Today, after the walk with the dogs and the white cat, there is tea and chips and the garden left untended.”

But age, for all of us who have survived any great length of time, is always a comparison and it is those comparisons that reveal who we have been and who we are. She says, “At twelve, I was proud of my strength. One August day, I worked the whole day with my dad, piled hay from the field into a stack for winter, dug, bent my back and straightened, heaved. Again and again, all day, back and arms, down and up with my three-tined hay fork….I was a summer girl who ran barefoot, who worked all day, swarmed up trees and ladders, swung a forty-pound box of cherries onto my shoulder.” It is this image that lets us understand the losses created by time.

I found moments like this made me reflective, made me recall my young moments of triumph, those times I was proving myself, not so much to my father or any other adult, but to myself. I found that throughout When We Are Broken, I frequently stopped reading to reflect on what was the equivalent in my life.

But it is not just the past of childhood that she will miss. She has, after all, grown into an adult with adult concerns and adult successes. “I think when I finally do go, I will miss so much the plain cadence of people patiently waiting in line; I will miss the scent of coffee at the bookstore, and the lifted faces of old friends, and conversation in the grocery aisles”. Yes, I want to say when I read that, these are the things that knit our lives together and, once again, the author has started me off down my own path to my own lake, down my own path of memories.

“my old friends, my cadres, my agemates. We will see each other out of the world. For now, at Solstice parties, or over coffee, we ask, we plan, how to shed this world with grace: furniture, clothes, books, goals” Yes, I would say if I were at that bookstore with a cup of coffee in my hand, I’d say how difficult it is to shed those things that it took us a lifetime to gather, that have meant great things to us but now are just old clothes, old dishes, old books.

“And there were places all around the house with names and stories, so the house had a map of its own, and time surrounded it and the walls opened every day to new light and new stories and new names, as the gardens were made the fields were planted and harvested. But…the house, made of dreams…now sits square on the stones of its foundations….All the gates are open now, and the fences collapse into tall grass.” My life is littered with these houses, carrying their history but a history unknown. How often have I returned to the Interlake of Manitoba to look at houses abandoned, houses as Luanne says, that were filled with dreams.

“Another morning with a white cat, a white dog, a black dog for company and the day’s quota of friends.” And that is how we live, with our cat, our dog, our companion, present or past, that is as precise as Lunanne’s. Her language is precise, sensory, making her memories shareable. The Kootenays are far from many of the places I have known, far from the places that you have known, but if you read When We Are Broken, they will stir in you your own memories, make you want to say, do you remember when, or did I tell you about? It will make you think on a life lived. It will, I think, comfort you and encourage you to write that life.

After a certain age, our lives change, something in the ballast of the ship we have sailed shifts, whatever cargo we have carried is being readied for its final destination, and with it a desire for understanding, an acknowledgement of the inevitable. We are no longer sailing through ocean storms to discover new worlds, seeking fortunes. We have, as the author has said, learned to value “the lifted faces of old friends.”

Luanne Armstrong

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