Lonely Hearts Club: Settling in with Helen Humphreys

By Katherine Ashenburg. Reprinted from the Literary Review of Canada.

Rabbit Foot Bill
Helen Humphreys
240 pages, hardcover and ebook

Picture yourself finding a novel somewhere with its cover torn off and no identifying marks. It is slim, told in the present tense and in the first person, and beautifully written. The protagonist is solitary, with a longing for love that is rarely satisfied. At the same time, nature provides a powerful solace, as does the protagonist’s work, which is detailed, out of the mainstream, and intensely involving. Although the writing is usually unadorned, the author has a distilled, poetic way of describing how sunlight streaks across a path or how a river meanders its lazy way through a town. But these stylistic grace notes never slow the text’s forward momentum: it reads quickly. It wouldn’t take me long to guess that I had picked up a book by Helen Humphreys.

When an interviewer asked her in 2002 what she was reading , Humphreys mentioned a few titles: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys, and the works of Jean Rhys. “All those short novels that are so tragic and perfect,” she said on rereading Rhys. It’s not a bad description, if only slightly flattering , of her own achievements.

It would be hard to claim that Humphreys is neglected. She’s won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and has been a finalist for a Governor General’s Award, among others. She’s also received the Harbourfront Festival Prize for literary excellence. In her earlier life, she produced four collections of poetry, and she was poet laureate for Kingston — the Ontario city where she lives — between 2015 and 2018. And yet she is one of those writers of the highest quality who consistently fly just under the radar. Surely this is partly because these are quiet novels about quiet loners. (If you don’t find, fairly close to the beginning of a Humphreys book, that the protagonist is a bit of a recluse, you should check the title page.) In The Lost Garden, one of her three works set during the Second World War, Gwen speaks for many of the author’s characters when she thinks, “I have never been good at dealing with people. I much prefer to work alone.”

But pigeonholing these narratives as stories about introverts who contend with a strong undercurrent of melancholy, if not tragedy, doesn’t do justice to Humphreys’s unpredictability, her deft ways with plot, and, yes, her joie de vivre. Even her apparently conventional characters have disarming , revealing eccentricities. Rose, the heroine of The Evening Chorus, another wartime tale, recovers a brass Royal Air Force button and a front tooth from the crash site where her lover died. With no idea who they belonged to, she wears the button on a chain between her breasts and every so often slips the tooth into her mouth. It’s such a resonant image of the wish to keep something even tangentially related to a loved one as close as possible. Similarly, The Lost Garden ’s Gwen, a shy horticulturalist, regularly pinions herself under two enormously heavy volumes of an encyclopedia of roses, one on her chest and one on her stomach. It is, she says, a “ritual of comfort.”

This novel’s most bravura scene involves Jane, one of the young women assigned to help Gwen on the country estate where she is growing potatoes for the war effort. Worried sick about her fiancé, who is missing in action, Jane befriends a soldier from Newfoundland who knits sweaters for his sweetheart back home. Visiting with her one evening , the soldier announces that he is out of yarn and must return to his billet. “Here,” Jane says. “Use this.” With one movement, she pulls off her sweater and gives it to him. Gwen, watching this strange and disturbing scene — with Jane emaciated, sitting in her undervest — learns something fundamental about her friend: “There is no protection in the world for someone who loves like that.”

“In the course of the night, there is a moment of love, a tragedy, and the birth of a bittersweet friendship.”

“In the course of the night, there is a moment of love, a tragedy, and the birth of a bittersweet friendship.”

Humphreys’s plots are always tightly constructed, whether they are simple or complicated. Take Coventry, the brilliantly paced story of the night of November 14, 1940, when the city and its cathedral were bombed. Two fire-watchers, a woman and a young man, walk through the wreckage, as does the young man’s mother, who is searching for her son. They pass by vignettes of war’s grotesqueries, cats sitting peacefully on the windowsills of houses burned down to their frames, a man shaving outside with water hot enough to make tea (his rainwater tank was heated by a blast). In the course of the night, there is a moment of love, a tragedy, and the birth of a bittersweet friendship. That’s all, but it is more than enough.

When the subject demands it, Humphreys is more than willing to be daring. Her oddest book and one of my favourites, Machine without Horses, begins with a novelist, also named Helen Humphreys, reading the real‑life obituary of Megan Boyd, a world-renowned but utterly private salmon fly tier who lived in a cottage in the north of Scotland. Part 1 takes us backstage in the author’s world, showing us the research (which includes taking lessons in tying flies) and the back-and-forth that goes into giving fictional life and particularity to a woman who revealed little more than her obsession. Writers’ methods are famously interior and of little interest except to the authors themselves, but this first section is as intriguing as the events that follow. Like Megan Boyd’s beloved flies, made of tinsel, thread, feathers, and other bits, novels are also built of fragments, ruminations, and overheard conversations. Humphreys lets us watch these elements accumulate. Part 2 tells the story of Ruth, Boyd’s fictional alter ego, her relationship with her dogs, her rarely consummated romance with a married woman named Evelyn, and her lifelong need to tie the perfect fly.

While tragedy marks most these novels, they don’t always end in despair. In The Evening Chorus, a marriage falls apart, two women lose their lovers, and an English officer sees no point in being alive. Yet, almost as if she takes pity on the reader, Humphreys gives us one of her most optimistic endings. The bereaved women find the promise of love again: Enid with Margaret, a co-worker, and Rose with a man called Gregory. (Rose and Gregory have a canine connection, always a good sign with Humphreys.) And James, Enid’s brother and Rose’s ex-husband, is redeemed and given a reason to live by the sight of a flock of ducks moving into flight, their combined cries sounding like one voice:

And suddenly he can see how he belongs to all of it — to the morning and the ducks, to the men who were in the cage with him during the war, to his sister, even to Rose when she was his bride and their life together was new and untried. He has a place in every one of them. He is carried forward by their lives, even though those lives are largely lived without him now.

Here, as is so often the case, the natural world brings consolation and joy. The exception is Ruth in Machine without Horses, who cannot reconcile her love of salmon with the knowledge that her flies help to kill them. But usually nature provides a less conflicted sense of comfort. In The Lost Garden, Gwen is happily absorbed in restoring a secret garden on the estate where she is meant to be tending potatoes. In The Evening Chorus, while James is being held in a German prisoner-of-war camp, he begins watching a pair of redstarts from his window. Aided by the German commander, he researches and writes a definitive work on the birds. It is this act that sustains him through his time as a prisoner.

Although Humphreys emigrated to Canada as a child, five of her nine novels take place in England, the country of her birth. Until this summer, only her first book, Leaving Earth, which was published over twenty years ago, was set this side of the Atlantic. Her new work, Rabbit Foot Bill, is planted firmly in Saskatchewan, and is another story that draws upon real events, revisiting a chapter in health care that was, until recently, all but forgotten except by psychiatrists and medical historians.

The novel opens in 1947, in a small town called Canwood, with a lonely twelve-year-old boy, Leonard. He is profoundly attached to the local tramp, Rabbit Foot Bill, and is happiest when visiting him in his shelter carved out of a hill. Laconic, comfortable only with animals or his young companion, Bill spends his days setting snares, selling rabbits’ feet, and doing occasional odd jobs. When Leonard is bullied by an older boy, Bill murders his taunter without warning and goes to prison.

Twelve years later, Leonard, now a newly minted psychiatrist, arrives to take up his post at Weyburn Mental Hospital. In the 1950s and early ’60s, Weyburn was a world leader in the therapeutic use of LSD. Viewed as a single-dose treatment that would give patients, especially those with schizophrenia and alcoholism, insight into their illness, the drug was also taken by the medical staff so that they could better understand what they were prescribing. Its proponents claimed that it was successful, particularly with alcoholism, and could cut health care costs significantly — one of the aims of Tommy Douglas’s provincial government at the time. But LSD fell out of public and clinical favour, as people began taking it recreationally and stories of bad trips multiplied. (It is now making something of a comeback in psychiatric circles.)

Humphreys came to the murder in Canwood and to Weyburn’s work with psychedelics through Hugh Lafave, to whom she dedicates the book. Growing up in the town, he knew Rabbit Foot Bill, and later he worked as a superintendent at the hospital. From Lafave’s memories, Humphreys has concocted a tale of two killings, a long-held family secret (with its attendant guilt and responsibility), and a love story. The love story is that of Leonard and Bill. For the boy, it is a puppyish infatuation that no one understands, including him. When his father asks why he wants to befriend a tramp, he has no answer: “I can’t explain this feeling of running after Bill under the long , blue prairie sky. It is like he is leading me out of darkness, out of a loneliness I don’t even know I have.”

The second part of the narrative, which takes place at the hospital in 1959, reunites the two friends. Leonard had assumed that Bill was lost somewhere within the penitentiary system, but in fact he had been transferred to Weyburn, taking care of the farm horses in the vast hospital complex and living in the stable. Leonard is overjoyed: “I can feel it in my body, the pull of wanting to be near him, and I realize, with a shock, that nothing has altered with my becoming an adult, that I still love him as much as I ever did.” In his euphoria at rediscovering Bill and his desire to be with him, Leonard sleepwalks through the rest of his life, entering into an affair with his boss’s wife and neglecting his patients. At times, this part of Rabbit Foot Bill reads like an early Kingsley Amis novel about a man who is hopelessly incompetent at his job — but without the comedy.

“Humphreys’s characters, although solitary, often crave a kindred spirit.”

The medical scenes are the book’s only weak points. The dialogue where Leonard’s boss and staff explain the rationale behind the LSD experiments is strained and unconvincing. Surely Leonard would have known about Weyburn’s highly publicized experiments before he arrived. After a brief summary of their work, the doctors, including Leonard, each drink a liquid dose of the drug in water. “Bottoms up,” the director says. Neither this incident nor the nebulous demands of Leonard’s job, his inept dealings with patients, or the relative lack of supervision for a twenty-three-year-old newly qualified doctor struck me as believable. No doubt there is more than one fascinating novel to be written about the workings of Weyburn in those heady days, but I suspect that Humphreys’s heart was not in this part of the story.

On the other hand, her heart is undeniably in the developing or redeveloping relationship between the two men. Humphreys’s characters, although solitary, often crave a kindred spirit: they are constantly searching for love, and their author is always interested in parsing the different shades of intimacy. With Bill and Leonard, she has created her most complex relationship, one that remains, at some level, unknowable. When Leonard thinks of “the way my heart blooms in my throat whenever I see Bill,” he doesn’t wish to know what lies beneath their friendship: “I don’t know that I want to be cured.” Bill can seem a paternal figure, or at other times maternal, and occasionally childishly dependent on Leonard. There is a moving scene where he feeds Leonard from his own dinner plate that feels almost sacramental.

A more opaque character, Bill can’t help but express his love tragically. Believing that he is once again protecting Leonard, he kills an innocent man and is sent to prison, permanently this time. Leonard has been fired already for letting one of his patients escape, and he moves into an apartment in town. His former colleague, significantly named William, offers to be his psychiatrist, and they decided to do it “the old-fashioned way,” without drugs. William believes that Bill abused Leonard, which Leonard agrees does sound plausible. But if this was true, why then did he not fear Bill? When William probes the nature of his desire — was it sexual? paternal? caretaking? — Leonard answers that it was everything: “All at once. He was everything. As a boy and then now, as a man.”

In the powerful final section of the text, Leonard returns to Canwood for his father’s funeral. The family secret is revealed, making his attachment to Bill more understandable, and there is also a hint about the source of his friend’s reclusive strangeness. Leonard and his mother, another of the book’s strong , complex characters, have a poignant rapprochement. In Machine without Horses, Humphreys writes, “If just one scene, one line of dialogue, moves the reader to consider Megan Boyd not merely as an oddity, but as a fully realized human being , then I have done my job as a novelist.” In Rabbit Foot Bill, she has done that job several times over.

After the funeral, mother and son sit on the porch of their family home. Leonard’s mother says, “It’s been a long , troubling day, hasn’t it?” Then she adds, “But it’s a peaceful evening.” This is the resigned but quietly hopeful mood that often concludes these titles. Terrible things may have happened, but, somehow, life is going to improve. Leonard flies home to Toronto, to be with his wife and six-year-old daughter, and the narrative comes full circle. The book begins, “Bill never likes to leave town the same way twice,” and continues with a picture of a man moving rapidly through woods, bogs, and grasses, accompanied by a boy who is struggling to keep up. When Leonard gets home, his daughter asks for her favourite bedtime story. Obediently, he starts the tale. “Bill never likes to leave town the same way twice,” he says. “He strides out with an urgency I find hard to match.”