The Lavender Child

 Saskatoon StarPhoenix, January 10, 1998

The thought of two men loving Rachel at the same time was so unbelievable, she laughed at the idea. When she was growing up in small town Saskatchewan, there were few choices and little time to choose. You married a man, learned to love him, and found happiness. In that order.

It didn’t quite work out that way for her daughter Louise. She fell in love, found happiness, then married Gavin Protheroe. Now in her late 30s she’s struggling to hold on to her youth, which was lost somewhere between six children and a responsible lifestyle.

And so different were Rachel’s courting days from those of her eldest granddaughter Celia, who puts her acting career before marriage, refuses to label an evening out with a guy a “date,” and contemplates becoming a single mom one day — by choice.

Through the minds of three generations, we meet a group of unique and captivating personalities who put their own bona fide spin on the definition of “family.”

The Lavender Child is a year in the life of the Protheroes and the first year of baby Dion’s life. Brain-damaged at birth, Dion’s wit is as pale as the color of lavender, yet his sweetness and innocence as alluring as its scent. Although he doesn’t develop as quickly as other babies do, he has the special power to enchant his parents, five sisters and grandparents. After his birth, Rachel is able to renew her role as a mother to Louise, who comes to terms with approaching middle age. Gavin, in his quest for his long-lost mother, finds his role as a son, and Dion’s sisters learn that happiness exists in their own household.

In her first novel, Saskatchewan writer Harriet Richards sails smoothly along many streams of consciousness, taking you deep inside her characters’ minds. We decode the intricacies of each personality—their fears, desires, weaknesses, regrets — by following the dreamy flow of their thoughts.

Stream of consciousness is not an easy technique, but Richards excels at it. Readers will be amazed at her ability to convey the discomfort of an aging grandmother as convincingly as she depicts the wonder and excitement of a developmentally-delayed nine-month-old boy discovering the world.

Her skill is most impressive in one passage that takes you inside Dion’s thoughts. After struggling with a blanket in his crib, he becomes stuck in an uncomfortable position and cries for help. Big sister Gale comes to the rescue. He looks up at her face, with its “chatty” freckles he loves dearly. “He was happy, but it took time for his body to know that — his body still made mad noises.”

Dreams also play an important role in the novel, and not just those of the REM variety. Richards concentrates on the roles dreams play in our conscious lives as well as in our sleep. Louise’s father Harold lives in a dreamworld as the effects of Alzheimer’s take hold of his mind. Her neighbor. Myrtle Murray, believes in her own clairvoyance and depends on dreams for insight. And during the excruciating trauma of childbirth, Louise floats into an out-of-body experience, before she realizes that annoying, relentless screaming voice is her own.
It was a dream which launched Richards’ writing career several years ago. She originally worked as a visual artist (one of her early paintings appears on the book’s cover). After a dry spell, she wrote a short story based on a recurrent dream that “refused to translate into a painting.” Since then, her work has appeared in such arts publications as the Antigonish Review and Planet: The Welsh Internationalist.

Richards was born in Toronto, one of seven children. She moved to Saskatoon in 1960 and now lives just east of the city in Asquith with her husband and four children.

Proud Prairie dwellers will appreciate numerous references to the province’s natural beauty. Richards’ narrative shows you combines in late September, the flocks of birds in spring sunsets and Saskatchewan winters “that begin in September and last until April” (okay, not this winter).

The Lavender Child is tender, confidant and clever. As Richards’ first novel, it is a triumph.— Sue Bachner

Planet, the Welsh Internationalist, #130

The Lavender Child is a novel about families. It is also a novel about what does, or should, constitute family values. Set in Saskatchewan, Canada and based around a year in the life of the Protheroes, father, mother and five daughters, it offers an unusual blend of dream, myth, realism and good old-fashioned moral rectitude.

The birth of Dion, sixth child, first son, and brain-damaged at birth is a focus for moral and emotional growth in all the main characters. His development over the year, from a scarcely human inertia to a tolerable degree of physical control and emotional mutuality, provides the coping stone upon which all other modes of development rest. Louise, mother and sometime hippie, passes through despair to a realization of the life-giving force of continuity and of community. Gavin, husband, father, traditional breadwinner, gives up his fantasy of reconciliation with the mother who abandoned him, for the more solid foundation of present familial love and responsibility. The various daughters at their different stages and ages each find, separately and together, a surer sense of their own identity and life-direction.

Harriet Richards writes with conviction and wit, and with a pleasingly deft sense of timing:
“There’s only one thing in this world 1 do on my knees”, (declared Twvia). Gavin said, “Well now, I expect your husband appreciates that.” She looked at Gavin kind of funny. He said, “You praying so much.”

She employs a variety of voices, which span the sexes and the generations in a way which is often convincing. Teenage Celia’s responses to the handsomest boy in her High School class has the ring of truth:

His lips fascinated her as they talked. She’d never actually wanted to grab a guy before and kiss his mouth as bad as she wanted to kiss Jason right then. But it was like he read her mind, and he laughed.
Louise’s mother Rachael, out at her farm alone while her deranged husband Harold has a spell in hospital, captures the reader’s imagination in her contemplation of the long vista of the past:

Eighteen years earlier Rachael had bought light rose paint from the Co-op... She looked now proudly, then regretfully, for the paint had baked in sun and worn in rain, peeled away in spots to bare wood and even if she had the energy to hold a paintbrush, wood like that couldn’t tolerate paint.

My house has turned to old toothpicks... The moon was barely over the half, rising in the east, white in the spring blue.

Indeed, it is in this section that the novel comes most wholly alive, and attracts to itself a pace and a poise that were somehow previously lacking. This lack resides perhaps in two interrelated aspects. The first is a certain scarcity of memorable characterization. The second devolves from a combination of diversity of modes and themes, and the sheer proliferation of narrational focus. In seeking to present “growth” or “reconciliation” or “love” in terms not only of a rather large family, but also in relation to the wider community, the drive and direction of the tale are sometimes lost.

There is a comparable confusion in what might be called the Celtic connexion. Celticism — here specifically related to Welsh ancestry — is associated at once with mysticism, vision, and roots. Gavin “believed he possessed the authentic Celtic soul, the mystic shade that travels unaided at night.” And yet, the reader is left uncertain as to the function of this strand of narrative, except that somehow the “mystic” or the “Celtic” is an element of great importance in the living of life.

Despite these reservations, The Lavender Child is a novel with much to commend it. If the values it puts forward are at heart rather conservative, its central message is one, ultimately, of optimism: what will survive of us is love. This is not a new message, but is perhaps a necessary one. It attracts to itself, as the novel progresses, an increasing resonance. — Clare Morgan