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December 2010

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Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart, McClelland & Stewart, hardcover, 278 pages, $29.99, ISBN 978-0-7710-8646-5

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart - cover



By Alidė Kohlhaas

While some writers do not always live up to expectation in their latest works, Jane Urquhart has so far exceeded herself with each new book. Sanctuary Line, her latest novel, is a small gem, which reflects past and present, mythology and reality, vigorous growth and lingering decay. It may not be as monumental as The Stone Carvers, for one, but it stands on its own merit, being a kind of meditation on life and death, past and present, and the cycle of existence. Set in southwestern Ontario, Urquhart's novel is a family saga as recalled by Liz Crane, an entomologist, who is that family's lone female surviving member of her generation.

The novel travels at first at a slow pace, but quickens as it progresses in time and revelations. It paints this southern-most part of Canada with loving care and sure strokes. The author was born in northern Ontario and makes her home in central southern Ontario along Lake Ontario. This does not prevent her from describing the very different landscape of the promontory that reaches into Lake Erie.

Crane, the teller of the story, spends a great deal of her time charting the path of the Monarch butterfly. It is a butterfly that is becoming rare in many parts of Ontario through changes in weather and the unfortunate deforestation of its winter home in Mexico. This most unusual creature journeys from its summer home in Ontario to Mexico across the vast expanse of Lake Erie. The slightest miscalculation of the wind by the butterflies can throw them off course to places where they are doomed to die prematurely. Those who make it back to Mexico return in three stages of three new generations via the United States to summer in Ontario and procreate once more for the long return flight. Urquhart does not shy away from using this relationship between Ontario and Mexico to mirror the lives of Mexican migrant workers who return annually to Ontario to work on farms and then return home during the winter. At the time in which most of the novel is set, these migrant workers often lived under harsh circumstances and received less than minimum pay.

In Sanctuary Line, which happens to be the name of the road on which Crane's now barren family farm is located at the very southern tip of Ontario and Lake Erie, the lives of the migrants and that of the Butlers seemingly never intersected. Crane's mother was the sister of Stanley Butler, the progressive farmer and owner of the homestead. Her daughter Liz came there each summer as a child to visit her mother's family to be with her three cousins, two boys and a girl. The Butlers had emigrated to the New World from Ireland in the 19th century, with one branch settling on the American side of Lake Erie, the other on the Canadian side. Stanley had married his second cousin, Sadie, a member of the American branch.

Urquhart renders idyllic summers in which Liz spends time with her cousin Mandy, whom she saw more as a sister than a cousin. These are the kinds of summers we all love to recall, innocent and full of small adventures and discoveries. Family history is kept alive for the two girls through uncle Stan, who loves to spin family tales. Whether they are true or not is left open. What is certain is that some family members became lighthouse keepers, while the others turned to farming. Uncle Stan called his ancestors the Great-greats whenever he began another tale, often repeating one he had told in previous years, or spinning yet another new one.

The story of Liz and her family is told through flashbacks. Mandy only recently died in Afghanistan, serving her country. The strong bond between the two girls turns into one between of two women. They shared joys and sorrows, in Mandy's case it is an unhappy love affair, which is resolved in an unexpected manner at the end of the novel. But long before this, there are other unexpected events that lead to the demise of the once prosperous farm and the sudden departure of the Mexican workers. To say more will rob the reader of the suspense of finding out the whys and wherefores of this tale.

Liz ruminates on the past in the now lonely, somewhat dilapidated house, surrounded by empty fields and overgrown orchards. She needs to make sense of the events as they happened years ago and changed the idyllic into the macabre. When Liz turns to her mother, who lives in a seniors' residence, she refuses to acknowledge the past, feigning forgetfulness. But in the end even she relents to Liz's questions, filling in remaining pieces of the puzzle that was the Butler family of her generation. Liz also has to come to terms with her love for the Mexican boy, Teo, whom her uncle drew into the circle of children on the farm. She needs to confront the dark side of the family, the secrets that spilled out one summer night in which the Butler lives became forever shattered apart.

Urquhart created a rich tale filled with images of contrasting natures, with poetry, with joyful remembrances and sad ones. She may have been the first Canadian author who refers in a novel to that sad stretch of Highway 401 now called The Highway of Heroes. In her story she has Liz recall seeing the firefighters, veterans and civilians standing on an overpass paying tribute to the cortege that carried Mandy's remains, returned from Afghanistan, to the Ontario Coroner's office in Toronto before being released for burial. It is these touches by the author that bring the novel from the past into the present, and will remind future readers that the present will be as important as the past, and the past as important as the future.


Cape Breton Road & An Inexplicable Story have been moved to Archives
The Aviary Gate has been moved to Archives

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