The Holding
Merilyn Simonds
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The Holding

Merilyn Simonds
W.W. Norton
320 pages
September 2005
rated 4 of 5 possible stars
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The Holding is about two women living in different centuries but forever drawn together by the landscape around them and by the hardships they are forced to endure. This is a lovely, symbolic and highly literate novel that exposes the troubled inner lives of its main characters and recounts, with a startling precision, how these women struggle to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds.

In the mid 1800s, Margaret MacBayne travels to Canada from Scotland with her mother, father, and three brothers. The MacBayne's are sad to leave behind Pittenweem, a small provincial town by the sea, but the hope of a better life in the new world spurs them forward. Upon arrival in Ontario, the children are separated from their father and faced with the death of their mother. Margaret and her brothers struggle to make ends meet in up north in Madawaska.

In the early 1990s, Alyson Thomson has forsaken the hustle and bustle of city life for the wilds of Ontario. She and Walker, her disconsolate and melancholy ceramicist husband, hope to further their artistic endeavors and find artistic inspiration iving in the wilderness. Pregnant and desperate for a child, Alyson is devastated when she learns that Walker is prepared to take a job up north for the winter. Finding herself alone and isolated, and with the first of the season's storms brewing, the young woman finds unexpected solace in the hidden writings of Margaret.

Author Merilyn Simonds steadily draws the reader into the drama: Alyson and Margaret, although separated by generations, form an unlikely bond, anchored by the beauty of the earth around them. Alyson, separated from Walker and now questioning the validity of her marriage, is smudged with unresolved sorrows of the past. Although their relationship seems to have lost much of its early passion, anticipation at his homecoming is like a "ragged ebb and flow" that wears at her heart. While Alyson struggles, Margaret is forever bound by the restraints of her time; unable to own property, she becomes like an "orphan in the wilderness," deserted by her brothers, left to tend the oxen and the fire.

These women exist in a landscape that is riddled with risks and temptations. Margaret registers shock at this new country, and she realizes that it is life in the bush that is steadily changing her, bearing on her more heavily than the sea by Pittenweem. In the forest, she finds no relief: "nothing in the landscape is familiar not the bald, grey rock, not the endless towering trees. Not the stillness of the wind nor the awful heat of the sun."

The novel is a horticulturalist's delight, constantly pungent and always mysterious, the medicinal uses for herbs and flowers meticulously researched by the author. The prose is fluid and languid, purposefully reflecting the natural beauty of the landscape. Time periods change and the perspective constantly shifts, the author's voice moving back and forth between Alyson and Margaret, their new world inevitably forcing them to change and to grow.

Margaret eventually finds inspiration - and a certain freedom - in an unexpected friendship, while Alyson is forced to confront some difficult questions about her marriage. Essentially a story about the lives of women, love, loss, and also one's place in the world, The Holding is also about the land and the earth and the people who work tirelessly to stake out a life for themselves in such harsh wilderness, carving out ranches, homes and barns. It is also a haunting tale of two spirited, strong women of frugal and careful means who ache to find happiness in a seemingly uncaring world.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2006

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