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A quality of light – by Richard Wagamese

October 7, 2013

quality of lightI was talking with some of my colleagues about Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese, this year’s One Book One Community pick, and several of them agreed that this was not his best book. I was intrigued, because I thought Ragged Company was wonderful. After reading A Quality of Light, though, I have to say I agree; I liked this book even better.  The story is of a different type, more reflective and maybe a bit less intriguing than Ragged Company. Yet Wagamese’s talent to craft a story shines through more strongly, I think, in A Quality of Light. Or maybe it’s the material he’s conveying that for him, lends itself to powerful writing. Many times reading this book I was struck by his ability to put moments and deep feelings into words. Now that I think about it, with this book, Wagamese reminds me of Wendell Berry in a way.

This is the story of Joshua and Johnny, two very different boys who become blood brothers as boys in the 1960s and the bond remains despite many strains to their relationship as they grow up. Later in life, Joshua is a pastor, married and living near where he grew up, when he gets a call from a police officer: Johnny has taken hostages and created an armed standoff at an Indian Affairs office, and is he asking for Josh. As he prepares to meet with Johnny, Joshua recounts his childhood and youth and his friendship with Johnny.  Joshua was born Ojibway but adopted by a white farming couple in Bruce County; Johnny moves into town with his alcoholic father and the boys bond over learning how to play baseball. Joshua’s loving parents raise him with their Christian beliefs and traditional values, which Joshua wholeheartedly embraces; Johnny learns more and more about native issues in Canada and longs to become Indian and fight for justice. When they start high school, a violent incident brings Josh’s Ojibway background to the forefront and he begins to learn about this side of himself, while also becoming a member of his church – something Johnny does not understand.

The novel is not only an interesting story, but as I mention above, it is a powerful piece of fiction. I would definitely recommend this book, and I’ll leave off with a couple of my favourite passages; hopefully they will illustrate what I’m trying to say above about the author’s ability to express moments and feelings.

“So we looked for magic that summer. We found it in the wood duck chicks we watched feather and grow and fly, in the way the light diffused and colored on its way through the depths of our diving hole on Otter Creek, in the feel of a cow’s teats when you milk by hand and in the taste of the wind redolent with rain . . . We learned that it’s possible to invent the world. All you ever need are eyes open to magic and mystery, ears attuned to the sublime and the marvelous, a heart desiring of more and a spirit gilded with an expectant joy.” (92)

“The Hockley Valley is lush and rich. Verdant. In the early autumn the display of colors is spellbinding. Interwoven through the dazzle are pastoral stretches of tilled land and abrupt rustic vistas. Here, a cobwebbed cabin reduced to crumble by the disdain of time. There, a sleepy farm anchored against a wooded hillside like a gnome’s cottage . . . The skreel of a swooping hawk, the whisper of the wind through the branches and the muted crunch of our feet against the roots and detritus of the forest floor punctuated the morning air like canticles. We were joined, Johnny and I, by an unspoken reverence for the omniscient hymnodist who’d composed it all. In such times language can surprise you with its irrelevance.” (231)

“Good-byes have a residue that you carry into everything that follows. It shows itself in peculiar places as your life and your world meander through their course. You’ll find it in the face you swear you recognize, the snatches of song through the window of a passing car, the sudden slam of a screen door in summer, the perfect stillness of a child in slumber . . . That’s the joy of living inhabited lives – the recurrence of the profound in the ordinary.” (248)

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