Like another fictional Canadian ragamuffin, the child at the heart of Heather Tucker’s first novel—which is set in the 1960s—The Clay Girl, is very concerned about the spelling of her given name. Her mother, Theresa, who has a long track record of making very bad choices about men and drugs, adds to that record by bestowing the misspelled name Hariet on her youngest, who comes into the world yet another not-son, at the end of a line of girls named Jennah, June, Jacquie, Jory and Jillianne. Hariet has Anne Shirley’s spunk, imagination and romantic temperament, but unlike the famous orphan, she also has a home and a family.
Despite that, Hariet is deprived of more than a second “r” in her name. Her father Vincent Appleton is a sadistic pedophile who’s interfered sexually with most of his daughters, and in one final blaze of hatred blows off his own head. Theresa, addled by drugs and selfishness, is unable to care for her girls at all—she fails to protect them while Vincent is alive, and after his death, she farms them out to aunts, scraping the bottom of the barrel for Hariet. At the age of eight years old, and without so much as a pair of underpants to her name, she’s sent to stay with Vincent’s sister Mary Catherine, who Theresa disparages for her lesbianism. The ticket-taker, William, takes young Hariet under his wing for the journey:
“Quite the journey you’re taking. Someone meeting you in Halifax?”
“No. My Auntie Moral Corruption is collecting me in Sydney.”
“After my sisters got doled out she was the only one left.” I heave the God-have-mercy load off my chest. “Beans. There’s big trouble with them.”
She needn’t worry. By the time the train arrives in Sydney and she meets up with Aunt Mary Catherine (who lives with, as Hariet puts it to a kind woman on the train, “her lady friend. They eat little girls like bean burritos…”) and is bundled home to meet the lady friend in question, Nia, it’s clear Hariet has found a soft place to land. Before long, Aunt Mary has found a new name within Hariet’s misspelled abomination, and she becomes Ari Appleton. The Aunties are artists, and soon Ari is throwing pots alongside them and selling them to tourists who wander up the road. Their work with clay provides the central metaphor for the novel: “Jacquie’s the smartest Appleton,” Ari tells Nia during a game of Scrabble. “I’m dirt stupid.” Nia assures the girl she’s clay, not dirt.
Her time in Cape Breton molds Ari from a scared, neglected, but plucky near-orphan into a confident, bright ten-year-old by the time her mother is back on her feet and demands the aunts send Ari home.
And in fact, there is a bit of a home to return to. Ari’s mother has taken up with a new man, a kind and gentle soul named Len. He owns a general store and Ari works there as she grows into her teen years. That adolescence coincides with the mid and late sixties, and Ari puts to use the artistic and entrepreneurial lessons learned from her aunts, making beaded jewelry and tie-dyed shirts to sell at the general store, turning it into an Age of Aquarius hotspot. The lessons in her own worth and potential stick, too. Despite the positive influence of her stepfather, Ari’s mother continues to be a disaster and it’s not long before she’s finding ways to complicate Ari’s life. Meanwhile, all our heroine wants is to return to Cape Breton, to her aunts and her love interest, Jake.
Heather Tucker has created incredibly memorable characters here. Ari is bright from the beginning, even in such grimy circumstances, and her love of language rivals, maybe even exceeds, that of Anne Shirley herself. She mis-hears grownup conversations with hilarious results, as when she comes to understand her sister Jacquie has a bustard in her belly and, confused, takes a trip to the local library:
I walked to the counter. ‘Excuse me, ma’am. I’m looking for a book about…’ I hushed my voice, ‘…bustards.’
The library lady peeked over her glasses. ‘Would that be greater or lesser bustards?’
With all the wailing going on I knew the situation was big. ‘Greater, ma’am.’
Ten times through the book and I still couldn’t figure out how such a thing had happened. Bustards were long-necked, pea-eyed birds not even common to these parts. How one got in Jacquie was a Jesus-landing-in-Mary mystery.
She’s also prone to more poetic flights of fancy that describe her feelings about Jake as she prepares to leave Cape Breton with her sister Jory, who’s come to bring her home to Ontario:
His grease-mucked hands have me feeling fiddle music in my toes until he looks past me to Jory. Buttery hair melts on her shoulders. Her fourteen-year-old chest is near spectacular. She’s as beautiful as a lynx. Next to her, I’m a gerbil with stressed fur.
The language changes as Ari does, signalling the passage of years as it grows more coherent. It’s a relief when it does—though Tucker’s language is fresh and florid, it is almost too much of a good thing, especially in the first fifty pages of the book, during which readers must get to know a dozen characters quickly through the eyes of a child who sees a lot but doesn’t understand much. Tucker’s hardscrabble family story with heart is reminiscent of Sarah Mian’s When the Saints, or even Ann-Marie Macdonald’s Fall on Your Knees.
As the book follows Ari through her adolescence and brings her closer to the life she wants despite the formidable obstacles she faces, the story sometimes strains against the pacing. Ari becomes a star of the Yorkville scene in the late 1960s, waiting tables at the famous Riverboat Cafe, and making crates of cash selling love beads and the aforementioned T-shirts at her stepfather’s general store. She finds kindred spirits in the unlikeliest of places, and takes on responsibility for young and vulnerable step-siblings. She even hob-nobs with the chief of police and is interviewed by June Callwood, a real-life journalist who was just hitting her stride in Toronto in that era, and photographed by real-life artist Lorraine Monk.
There’s little doubt Ari’s story will have a happy ending, and there’s also little doubt she’ll meet the challenges that arise in order to shelter others from the abuse she and her sisters endured. The gentleness of those stakes can make the book’s latter third feel like a long, slow denouement. Too long, and too slow. Still, the language that takes us on the journey makes it a pleasant one, and Ari Appleton a most welcome travelling companion.
ECW | 352 pages | $18.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-1770413030