Monday, January 20, 2014

Bill Gaston's The Order of Good Cheer

By alternating two distinct stories in a back-and-forth sequence of four chapters each (plus a coda from the first one), Bill Gaston, in his 2008 novel The Order Of Good Cheer, is hoping to make specific connections. The main thematic of acceptance of circumstance, no matter how dire, with joy and courage, is a fascinating and important one. In l’Habitation, Gaston’s fictional account of 1606-07 Port-Royal, the carpenter Lucien provides the positive character study, spurning the humourless and danceaphobic authority of Champlain in order to roam and, eventually, couple passionately with an indigenous Mi’qmah woman. (There’s a further association one can make with Lucien’s profession and his eventual outsider status, especially considering Champlain's reluctance to convert heathens desirous of the Christian faith.) Andy Winslow, in the contemporary Prince Rupert story, is the passive obverse. At thirty-nine, and still pining for his high school sweetheart, the grain worker’s pensiveness and insecurity deepens when he learns that she’ll shortly be arriving in the port town.

Gaston’s tone is compassionate, his writing is crisp, even elegant, if a little over-reliant on eighteenth-century mannerisms (“he must needs” appears as a frequent all-purpose crutch) in the generative narrative, and his characterizations are colourful and distinctive. Champlain, here, is a complex character. Deeply afraid of a repeat of the “scurve” among his men, he comes around to the idea that those susceptible to the sickness are weakened by their own gloom. So, despite his own anguish, he proposes an “order of good cheer”, a feast and convivial appreciation, every evening in attempt to waylay the insidious disease. From our superior position in history, we can laugh at the luck involved in the vitamin C-laden needles mixed in with the chef’s beefy kitchen compositions. Perhaps Gaston is saying that fate favours the imaginative and proactive. Andy’s own story-closing party is similarly informed by a hopeful communal urge, as well as an unconfident one. And because Andy’s runaway will-she-won’t-she fretting over Laura’s incipient reception of him became overmuch by mid-book, it was good to see the relationship work out in a more complex series of questions and open-ended possibilities in that last full chapter.

The powerful idea behind The Order Of Good Cheer is at times telegraphed too obviously, the ties between one chapter and the next unsurprising. But Gaston also works that idea with wisdom and sharp realization, even with a subtle accusation and anger, as in, “[i]t is exceeding strange how many will search deeply in themselves for sign of sickness, and therefore find it, but not fall as truly ill”, from the beginning of the last full “Champlain” chapter.

Enjoying the book throughout, but wary of an unearned feel-good ending, I was relieved to see the various ideas work themselves out organically.

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