Fiction – paperback; McClelland & Stewart; 225 pages; 2009.
Every now and then I stumble upon a book that offers up a complete cast of characters, immerses me in their lives and makes me feel as if I know them all personally, their flaws and foibles, and then, when I come to the end, I’m left bereft at having to say goodbye. This is how I felt when I read David Adams Richards’ 1988 novel Nights Below Station Street.
The story is set in rural Canada (the blurb tells me it’s New Brunswick) in the early 1970s.
There’s no real plot; instead, we meet a handful of locals and follow their ordinary working-class lives in a small mining and timber mill community over the course of a year or so.
In effortless, stripped-back prose, Adams Richards depicts complex familial and neighbourly relationships, the day-to-day struggles of the poor, and the very personal battles faced by those with addiction (or illness) and the subsequent outfall on their families.
A family under stress
The novel largely revolves around the Walsh family, which is headed by Joe, a labourer, who injured his back at work several years earlier and now struggles to hold down a full-time job. He’s battling alcoholism and has secretly joined AA in a bid to give up the booze. But his good intentions are constantly under threat by peer pressure and a lack of family support.
Joe’s will power and resolve is also tested by his always angry and bitter teenage stepdaughter, Adele, who rails against him, claiming Joe is a no-hoper because he isn’t the breadwinner of the household. That role falls to his wife, Rita, who provides childcare in her own home in order to bring in money.
When the desperately social Rita joins a local curling club and tries to drag Joe with her, it causes all kinds of consternation because she wants to be an active participant in the community, while Joe, an introvert with a stutter, would prefer to hide under a rock.
The story features a host of other colourful, well-drawn characters, including Ralphie, Adele’s kind-hearted boyfriend; Cindi, a student at Adele’s school who has epilepsy; Myhrra, the divorced next-door neighbour struggling to raise her 12-year-old son, Bryan, who’s acting out and becoming obnoxious; and Vye, a local man, who wants to marry her.
All are linked together because they live in the same small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business — whether they like it or not.
Lost in a blizzard
While not much seems to happen over the course of the novel, everything comes to a head at the end when a snowy blizzard puts lives at risk — but the conclusion is an uplifting one.
Nights Below Station Street won the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction at the 1988 Governor General’s Awards. It is the first volume in David Adams Richards’ Miramichi trilogy, which includes Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace (1990) and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down (1993).
It’s a compelling account of small-town life and the ups and downs we all face as the world turns, and is a powerful portrait of a deep-seated human need to belong — and to be loved.
Fans of the late Kent Haruf will find much to admire there because the work is deeply reminiscent of Haruf’s eloquent heartfelt tales about a Colorado farming community.
This is my 13th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it at a charity book sale earlier this month for $4 and am kind of cheating by including it in my TBR.