Brand building through storytelling

“Such a lovely family, we never saw it coming”

Halfway through my breakfast toast, I read a news story that demanded silent meditation on one of the toughest conundrums there is—how much any of us will ever know about the people in our midst. It was a story I read before, the only variations being the number and ages of the dead who were discovered in their blood-spattered home. A loving home, as far as outsiders could tell. Such things are not supposed to happen in the refuge where bedtime stories are read, and cookie jars stocked, and shiny rainboots lined up in the doorway, biggest to smallest, a different crayon colour for each child.

This time the family had lived in a Calgary suburb (mom, dad, two little girls and a young tenant). This time the baby had been spared, an exception that underscored the baffling, come-from-nowhereness of all the other deaths. According to Calgary police (at least one of them reportedly wept at the scene), the suspected “domestic homicide” was the worst mass murder in 20 years. Friends and neighbours described a picture-book family: frolicksome children and devoted parents, both occupational therapists. Mom was “the biggest pacifist,” one friend told the Calgary Herald. Dad had written his master’s thesis on holistic birthing.

Today I’m thinking not only of the slaughtered family, but of all the people whose lives they touched, and who will likely never stop asking, in the unexpected moments of reflection that can suddenly yawn like chasms in the most meticulously ordered life: Why that family—the kind of family young couples aspire to create?

Mary SwanI’d been primed to ask those questions myself. I had just finished Mary Swan’s arresting and devastatingly assured first novel, The Boys in the Trees, which explores the decades-long reverberations of domestic homicide in a nineteenth-century Canadian town (the Victorian setting heightens the unsettling modernity of the theme). William Heath, an abused child from a hard-scrabble background, dreams of paternity and prosperity in a better place “where people would know his name.” Through a combination of bad luck (three children lost early to illness) and professional ineptitude (compounded by an act of desperate dishonesty), this devoted, well-intentioned family man becomes what he fears—a more dangerous man than his father. He buys a gun and plans the shooting of his wife and two daughters, but stops short of killing himself. That falls to the justice system. The result, a botched hanging that appalls the witnesses, further scars the anguished community.

A more predictable writer would lead us inside the tortured head of William Heath, but Swan bucks convention. She suggests that Heath killed his family for fear of the poverty that might overtake them if he were found guilty of embezzlement. But she pretty much leaves it at that. Instead, she explores the emotional landscape of just about everyone except William Heath—notably the doctor who treated one of the murdered children for a puzzling chronic illness, the teacher who holds herself responsible for one of the deaths, and the classmate who became the reluctant, lifelong custodian of the family’s most poignant memento.

Swan’s deliberately oblique storytelling has frustrated readers who like their narrative lines straight and all the loose ends tied up in a big bouqet of redemption. I’m in the other camp. With originality and courage, Swan illuminates the solitary islands from which her surviving characters look out on the same ocean—a single human being they thought they knew. They inhabit the same fractured community. Their common tragedy is that they don’t know it.

When a bottle of water drenched my copy of The Boys in the Trees, I kept turning the sodden pages. It’s that powerful.


Posted by Rona

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