Gaspésie Revisited

Last August, after leaving New Brunswick, my husband and I followed the south side of the route 138 loop along la baie des Chaleurs until we reached Percé, Québec. While the countryside is undeniably beautiful, it is not as spectacular as the rugged north shore.

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We stayed at the same hotel as last year, Les Trois Soeurs, but on the second floor, so our view of the famous rock was even better. The delicate pastel shades of the sunset were just lovely.

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Unfortunately, our friends were not able to join us, so we spent more time wandering around Percé. One thing I hadn’t noticed before was the plaque on a rock in front of a large yellow house across the road.

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During WWII, the French poet André Breton spent the summer of 1944 in this house with his female companion, Elisa.

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It was here that Breton was inspired to write one of his surrealist masterpieces, Arcane 17.

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Goodreads describes the book as follows:

Using the huge Percé Rock—its impermanence, its slow-motion crumbling, its singular beauty—as his central metaphor, Breton considers issues of love and loss, aggression and war, pacifism, feminism and the occult, in a book that is part prose and part poetry, part reality and part dream.

Breton was not the only artist inspired by the Gaspé peninsula. Earlier, in the summer of 1932, Georgia O’Keefe drove there and painted several barns that prefigured her later work in New Mexico.

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I also came across an exhibit about a prominent group of radical Québec artists and musicians, including the Quebec superstar Robert Charlebois, who gathered in Percé in the late 1960s at a bar known as La Maison du Pêcheur.

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By 1969, Percé had become a Quebecois hippy haven. Ironically, the original house is now a prosperous restaurant; pictured above is a reconstruction for a 2013 film of the same name.

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 This was not the Quiet Revolution of the early 60s, which modernized Québec and made it a secular society.

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Perhaps the surrealist poet Breton best captured the essence of Gaspé. The forces of change are being felt once again, but in the form of climate change. In the fall of 2015, two violent storms hit Percé and caused considerable damage, destroying part of the boardwalk and beach. La Ville de Percé built a new green walkway and decided to leave the damaged section for tourists to view as part of an exhibit on climate change and the coastal environment.DSC02534.JPG

The Québec government acknowledges that climate change is being caused by greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activities.

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Touring Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

After teaching two demanding upper level summer courses, I set off with my husband and a friend for Nash Creek, New Brunswick, where we stayed in a huge farm house of about twenty rooms built in 1930 that had been converted into a B&B but is no longer in operation. Nash Creek is a tiny community of only 400 residents, but it is a lovely place to live, situated on the Baie des Chaleurs.. Unfortunately it rained the day we spent there, but the spacious house and generous hospitality of the woman who lives there made it a very comfortable stay.

On Tuesday morning my husband and I drove off to Liscombe, Nova Scotia, on the eastern shore of the Atlantic. Naturally, we stayed at the Liscombe Lodge, where we had a lovely little cabin overlooking the Liscombe River. That evening we dined on their famed planked salmon, made from a recipe that derives from the indigenous Mi’kmaqs of the region.

Planked salmon is made by repeatedly basting the salmon with a sauce made from butter and maple syrup. It is cooked on a cedar plank placed close to an open fire. Need I say it is delicious!

The following morning I was sorry to leave, but we had a reservation in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, from where we toured Cape Breton. After checking into our hotel, I still had time to visit the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. According to Parks Canada’s description, the museum

commemorates the genius and compassion of renowned inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Exhibits show how he and his associates achieved Canada’s first powered flight with their airplane Silver Dart, produced the world’s fastest boat, advanced recording technology, designed giant kites and, of course, invented the telephone.

Bell was born in Scotland, moved to London, England, and then migrated to Nova Scotia, as did many Scotts — hence the name. Along with Bell’s magnificent summer home, Beinn Bhreagh (see postcard below), there is a Gaelic College on Cape Breton.

Nova Scotia has a fascinating history. In addition to its strong Scottish heritage, there are the first nations Mi’kmaq, the Acadians and the Loyalists. According to Wikipedia, “During the first 150 years of European settlement, the colony was primarily made up of Catholic Acadians and Mi’kmaq.” The Mi’kmaq (Mi’kmaw, Micmac or L’nu, “the people” in Mi’kmaq) are Aboriginal peoples who are among the original inhabitants of the Atlantic provinces of Canada. The Acadians are the descendants of French Catholic settlers who came to North America from 1604 onward and settled in the territory known as “Acadie,” which included mainland Nova Scotia. Later, there was an influx of American colonists who came to be know as Loyalists.

Loyalists … supported the British cause during the American Revolution (1775–83). Tens of thousands migrated to British North America during and after the revolutionary war — boosting the population and heavily influencing the politics and culture of what would become Canada.

The next day we began our tour of Cape Breton Island, following the Cabot Trail, named after the explorer John Cabot, who arrived on Cape Breton in 1497. The Trail is a 297-kilometer loop around most of the island, passing through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park at its northernmost point. The park is flat-topped plateau cut by deep river valleys, a wilderness home to moose, black bears, and bald eagles.

As you can see in the enlargement, the Cabot Trail skirts the edges of the island, at times clinging to steep ocean side cliffs. The views are spectacular.

We spent another night in Baddeck and then stopped near Shediac, the lobster capital of the world, where we indulged in a seafood dinner on the wharf. The next day we set off for the magical Gaspésie.

 

Me and You

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Last Saturday afternoon I went to see Talia Hallmona and Pascal Brullemans’ play Me and You. It is about the sensitive issue of immigrant integration in Québec. Moi et l’Autre was originally written in French and won the Louise-LaHaye prize, an award that recognizes excellence in plays for a young audience. Here is the synopsis from the Talisman Theatre’s website:

A young actress recalls her childhood memories and her arrival in Quebec. As the story unfolds, she recounts her meeting with Julie Sirois, her best friend—a quebecoise who dies in an accident. Denying this reality, Talia will interrupt the story and change the course of her destiny by giving her role to Julie. But she soon discovers that sharing her life with others has risks, especially when it comes to uniting two cultures that everything dissociates. Autofiction where reality and freedom are scrambled, Me and You portrays a friendship that defies conventions and looks at the identity of the immigrant, posing the question : Do we acknowledge the Other for what he gives us, or for what he takes from us?

The structure of the play is interesting. Numbered cards are brought out to introduce each brief scene. The two girls meet in high school and become fast friends, but only after Talia (Mirian Katrib) has been taunted and ostracised by her classmates for being an immigrant. The horrors of high school are intensified. Talia is half Egyptian and half Greek/Italian.

The acting was impressive. Kathleen Stavert as Julie, the rock’n roll teenager from Laval was electric. Although it is a short play, time passes quickly (in both senses) and we learn what life is like for Talia — confusing to say the least. After high school, she decides to become an actress, perhaps in the hope that assuming scripted roles will provide her with an identity, however temporary. Before long she announces to her mother that she now wants to be a revolutionary, so to get that out of her system, her mother brings her to an Egyptian community meeting where she is rudely denigrated by a young man for not speaking Arabic and for being a slut. Her mother overhears the conversation and is angry that her daughter didn’t tell him to go to hell, so they quickly leave. Katrib does a fine job switching from mother to daughter.

At one point, we overhear her mother on the phone to Egypt. For me this was really where the play took off. Not only is it difficult for immigrants to create a place for themselves in Quebec society, but the problems they have escaped from remain very real for them when they have left loved ones behind and hear of the horrors taking place but can do nothing. Although I belong to a minority in Québec, as a middleclass anglophone, I am not subjected to this painful reality. Of course I can watch news reports on the CBC or Aljazeera, or watch various YouTube videos about the war torn middle-east, but I can always turn the TV or computer off and forget about it.

Nonetheless, it was a pleasant surprise to read a recent online article reporting that the Syrian refugees in Canada had organized a fund-raising campaign on Facebook. They wanted to help the people who had to flee from the ranging fires in Fort McMurray, in northern Alberta, near the Canadian tar sands. The Syrians said they understood exactly what it was like to suddenly lose their homes and wanted to do something in return for the help they had received from the people of Canada.

The sense of reconciliation Me and You suggests also merits comment. When we learn that Julie has died in a car crash, Talia quickly denies that this has happened. From that point on Sylvie inhabits part of Talia’s psyche, an idea which I think is well illustrated in the advertising poster shown above. The original French title is somewhat different: it emphasizes the opposition between self and other, yet the play collapses that seemingly unbreechable distance. What is remarkable is that all these various parts end up contributing to the construction of an identity — one that is not necessarily coherent. Perhaps it would be helpful to add that coherence may not be necessary.

 

 

Patrick Modiano’s Honeymoon & Dora Bruder

Patrick Modiano’s Honeymoon opens in Milan. It is August and insufferably hot. Jean, the protagonist, is on his way home to Paris but between trains. Since he has four hours to kill, he stops in at the bar across from the train station. It is dark and cool and practically empty. He overhears the conversation between the barman and a customer, who are talking about a French woman who committed suicide in the hotel two days earlier. Intrigued, Jean buys a newspaper and reads the obituary once he is on the train. Later we learn that he knew the woman, Ingrid Teyrsen.

Eighteen years later, Jean returns to Milan. As a documentary filmmaker, he has spent most of his adult life making films about explorers who disappeared. Not only is he tired of making films no one cares about, but he’s tired of his life, so he decides to disappear.

Modiano’s novels often engage with this theme. In Dora Bruder, which I read soon after Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014, he investigates the disappearance of Dora, a teenager who ran away from the convent her parents had placed her in during the Occupation in 1941, undoubtedly for her safety. In this work of creative nonfiction, Modiano strives to understand why she would have done such a thing. We soon learn that she and her father were both deported to Auschwitz in September 1942. What happened to her in the interim? Modiano writes:

It seemed to me like I would never find any trace of Dora Bruder.Therefore the yearning that I felt drove me to write a novel, Honeymoon, a way as another for keeping on concentrating my attention on Dora Bruder, and maybe, I said to myself, to elucidate or guess something about her, some place she had been, a detail of her life.

So Honeymoon was written while writing Dora Bruder, as an exercise to help him understand why Dora ran away. The exercise appears to have worked. Once Jean has staged his disappearance, he returns to Paris, to the shabby suburbs where he once lived, and begins writing the biography of Ingrid Teyrsen, who (like Dora Bruder) was sixteen when he first met her. The writing of the biography triggers a series of flashbacks and speculation about what might have happened to her during the war, all interspersed with glimpses of Jean’s life, both past and present. By the end of the novel, Jean understands only too well why Ingrid took her own life.

Although Dora’s running away was in a very real sense suicidal, the ending of Dora Bruder is somewhat different in tone. However vague, we do get a sense of her life. Modiano writes:

I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret that not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Depot, the barracks, the camps, History, time–everything that defiles and destroys you–have been able to take away from her. (119)

In writing about Dora’s life, Modiano gave it meaning, at the same time granting a sense of reality to all the others who disappeared and died during the Holocaust. For this, he undoubtedly deserved the Nobel Prize.

Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton: A Novel

While the subtitle of this book announces itself as a novel, in terms of length, it more closely resembles a novella or short story, as it can be read in one sitting. But in terms of the depth of emotional involvement it manages to draw out, it reads more like a novel.

My Name Is Lucy Barton begins with the narrator Lucy recalling the time she spent nine weeks in a hospital room in New York City facing the Chrysler building. She had had an appendectomy but developed a fever. Although she was subjected to all kinds of tests, the doctors were unable to figure out what was wrong with her, so her husband asked Lucy’s mother to visit, which she immediately does. She has not seen her daughter in years. The story hinges on their relationship, bringing us back to Lucy’s childhood in a small town in Illinois, where her family suffered extreme poverty.

Suffered is the right verb here. Strout briefly lets us know what it was like for a child to be tormented at school by her classmates and teachers for being so poor. The family, which includes three children, actually lived in a unheated garage. The deprivations the children experience reminded me of Tilly Olsen’s short story, “I Stand Here Ironing.” Like Elena Ferrante, Strout shows how poverty can be stultifying and scaring. Lucy is not even allowed to cry. What saves her is that she is able to escape into books. Lucy says,

the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point.

We also learn that Lucy’s father was essentially destroyed by the trauma of his experience in WWII. He cannot forget the atrocities her committed on German soldiers. What Strout seems to be getting at is how the humanity of both the torturer and the victim is violated, with lasting results. Following the war, many suffering from such trauma received little or no help. The situation has not improved all that much, as we continue to hear of the PTSD of those who went to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fortunately for Lucy, she is bright and eventually wins a college scholarship. She leaves home, graduates, and marries a man who is completing his postdoctoral studies at the university. Because he is of German origin, her father wants nothing to do with him, thus creating a serious breach between Lucy and her family.

After Lucy and her husband settle in New York and have two daughters, the emotion picks up again. Lucy has two stories published and meets the writer Sarah Payne, who has been faulted by a male critic for being “compassionate.” Lucy goes to hear Payne speak on a panel at the New York Public Library and notices the man “sitting alone in the back row.” I do like Strout’s sense of humour, her ironic use of understatement. Before long, Lucy becomes a student in Payne’s writing class. It is essentially through writing and following Payne’s advice — not to protect anyone as she writes –that Lucy is able to construct a viable and whole self.

It seems too that Lucy’s mysterious illness was caused by her need to have her mother’s love affirmed. Of course, readers understand that Lucy’s mother loves her. She has after all taken a plane on her own for the very first time in her life in order to visit her sick daughter. Since Lucy’s mother has no money for a hotel, she actually sleeps in a chair in Lucy’s hospital room. But because her mother has been so hardened by poverty and what must have been a brutal marriage, not to mention her own impoverished upbringing, she cannot bring herself to tell her daughter she loves her.

It may very well be that Lucy’s mysterious ailment was a manifestation of her need for parental love. We learn that her doctor has taken an interest in her and comes to check in on her even on the weekends, when he doesn’t work. We are told that members of his family died in the camps during the war, yet this man is still able to express love and kindness — in a word, compassion. In a sense, he becomes the positive father figure Lucy lacked.

By the end of the novel, Lucy reflects on the pain she has caused her own children and adds,

I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is  mine, this is mine, this is mine.

What is unique, is that Strout writes, “we children.” This is no ordinary heart to heart. Strout is speaking directly from her wounded child to the reader’s. This is a beautiful and touching ending, a novel narrated with the simplicity and honesty of a child.

Photo © Leonard-Cendamo.

 

 

I Prefer Mexico

As much as I enjoyed my sojourn in Cuenca, Ecuador, there was one serious drawback: the altitude. Cuenca is located in the Andes, some 8,300 feet above sea level, so it is not unusual for visitors to experience altitude sickness. While I did not pass out or throw up, I did experience shortness of breath, lack of appetite and fatigue as well as some dizziness and mental confusion. Altitude sickness can also result in strange dreams and I must say, I had my share, many about feeling constricted. It’s interesting how one’s consciousness can express a body sensation in narrative terms; for example, a dream of being confined in a physical space. It’s a bit frightening, but the fear may be a prompt to move out of that space.

However, there can be a few benefits to living at a high altitude if it doesn’t affect you too adversely. For one thing, it’s a good way to lose weight. Because digestion is slowed, you feel full before finishing your meal. Consequently, you will not find many obese people at this altitude.

After a few weeks, I felt the symptoms subside. Unfortunately that didn’t last. I recently read that it can takes months, even years to adjust. Overall, I felt like I was being held down by an invisible weight, so it was a relief to fly north to Mexico — to the southern Pacific coast — and be back at sea level.

During winter months, the weather is almost perfect: sunny and hot. This year there has been some rain during the dry season, and this is blamed on El Nino.

From my terrace I could see the mesmerizing Pacific Ocean. Image result for condos tortugas puerto escondido In between, there is lush tropical vegetation and beautiful flowers such as bougainvillea and hibiscus  as well as numerous cacti.  Even the birds are exceptionally pretty — a few tiny hummingbirds, yellow finches, swallows and turtledoves, not to mention the grackles. The occasional iguana can also be spotted.

Although it sounds like bliss, soon after my arrival, I came down with a dreadful chest cold that I first blamed on the AC but later came to believe was caused by an allergy as the irritation persisted. Once that cleared up, I decided to see the local dentist and have some ancient fillings replaced. One had already fractured. But the cost of dental work is less than one third what it is at home and the work is good quality. My dentist spent an hour cleaning my teeth to the tune of 50 CDN.

The food in Mexico is also excellent. There are many affordable restaurants in my neighbourhood, the cost of which hardly makes it worth cooking, but there is also a large covered outdoor market and a huge supermarket, both of which are relatively inexpensive. The fresh fruits available are a wonder to behold and delicious to consume.

So despite the inevitable intrusions of reality, I much prefer the enchantment of Mexico and plan to return next winter.

Enchantment may be a cliché, but Mexico does have its magic. This is a country of extreme contrasts and often chaotic. It might even be described as a land of dreams and illusions. The beauty of Mexico is undeniable, but so are the dangers. Thankfully there are still some safe havens.

 

 

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels

One would expect Penelope Fitzgerald to have enjoyed a privileged life. Her father was an editor at Punch and her mother was one of the first women to attend Oxford University. Penelope also attended Oxford and before graduating in 1938 she was named woman of the year in the student newspaper, Isis. She then went on to work at the BBC and soon married; however, her marriage turned out to be a difficult one. Her husband returned from the war a changed man: recognized as a war hero, he had also become an alcoholic. Life was not easy for Fitzgerald, yet she carried on.

Fitzgerald was 58 when she published her first book, a biography of the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Burney-Jones. Her first novel, The Golden Child, was written to amuse her sick husband, who died in 1976. Fitzgerald continued writing. Julian Barnes, in his tribute to Fitzgerald, who died in 2000, nicely sums up her writing career:

In the period 1975-84 she published two more biographies and four more novels. Those four novels are all short, and written close to her own experiences: of running a bookshop, living on a houseboat, working for the BBC in wartime, teaching at a stage school. They are adroit, odd, highly pleasurable, but modest in ambition. And with almost any other writer you might think that, having used up her own life, she would – being now in her late 60s – have called it a day. On the contrary: over the next decade, from 1986 to 1995, she published the four novels – Innocence, The Beginning of Spring, The Gate of Angels and The Blue Flower – by which she will be remembered. They are written far from her obvious life, being set, respectively, in 1950s Florence, pre-revolutionary Moscow, Cambridge in 1912, and late 18th-century Prussia. Many writers start by inventing away from their lives, and then, when their material runs out, turn back to more familiar sources. Fitzgerald did the opposite, and by writing away from her own life liberated herself into greatness.

In 1979 Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize for Offshore. Her 1990 novel The Gate of Angels was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Fitzgerald’s novels may be short, but they reward close reading; she eliminates all she believes unnecessary. “I always feel the reader is very insulted by being told too much,” she said. But, as Barnes notes, “it is more than just a taste for economy. It is the art of using fact and detail so that it becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

In an article in Departures, Jo Durden-Smith reports that she asked Penelope Fitzgerald what she needed to have before she could start writing. Fitzgerald answered succinctly: “A title, the first paragraph, and the last paragraph.”

The title The Gate of Angels relates to the novel in a number of ways. Besides referring to the actual gate of the fictitious Cambridge college of St Angelicus (we soon learn that the college was once a religious institution but is now one of science), it is crucial in terms of the religious significance of the ending. It also alludes to one of the main characters, Daisy, who is only introduced in Part 2, but who is clearly an angel of sorts. Not only does she train as a nurse and minister to the sick, her behaviour comes to suggest the 19th century domestic ideal of the “angel in the house.” Fitzgerald’s insights into the situation of women at the beginning of the 20th century are realistic. As critics have noted, she does her research.
In an article published in the journal of Literature and Religion in 2013, Christopher J. Knight adds a fascinating footnote in which he says that Fitzgerald originally wanted to use the title The Unobservables, a reference to both science and religion. (This title preceded the dreadful Mistakes Scientists Have Made — which was suggested by the publisher but dropped because it didn’t fit on the title page!) Knight argues that Fitzgerald believed that science and religion need not cancel each other out but can coexist sympathetically. As the original title more clearly suggests, Fitzgerald’s novel is not simply a romance but also a novel of ideas.
The opening paragraph is striking. I found it quite hilarious and was impressed that Fitzgerald could maintain that level of wit throughout the first part.

How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouses. On the open ground to the left the willow-tress had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs. The cows had gone mad, tossing up the silvery weeping leaves which were suddenly, quite contrary to all their experience, everywhere within reach. Their horns were festooned with willow boughs. Not being able to see properly, they tripped and fell. Two or three of them were wallowing on their backs, idiotically, exhibiting vast pale bellies intended by nature to be always hidden. They were still munching. A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason.

Considering the importance of the opening paragraph, one can see that the world is being turned upside down, signalling a time of major change. The wind represents invisible forces and brings to mind the winds of change. I thought about this in relation to the emphasis on what is observable. Of course, the effects of the wind are visible here with the cows on their backs and their legs in the air, somewhat sexually suggestive. Yet, traditionally the wind has an association with the holy spirit, so there is the possibility of a spiritual or religious dimension at work as well. While the larger debate the novel encompasses is between science and religion, Fitzgerald cleverly presents that debate as between the seen and the unseen, which complicates the scientific perspective since there is much in physics, in particular, that can’t be seen, at least not by the naked eye.
When I read the opening paragraph, I couldn’t help thinking of another novel that begins with a violent storm. In Leaf Storm, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the master of the magic realism, begins with a storm to herald change, in this case the destructive force of capitalist development in Columbia. On her part, Fitzgerald may also be alluding to the forces of destruction about to be unleashed by the Great War.
There is also a strong element of the absurd, or whimsical irony in Fitzgerald’s opening. The college, we learn, still disallows the fellows to marry (not to mention that women are not admitted here). This is what gives rise to the narrative conflict, as the main character, Fred Fairly, a fellow at the college, accidentally bumps into Daisy, which sparks their romance. Barnes likens the chance meeting between Fred and Daisy to particles in collision. There may be other forces at work as well.

In his review of Hermione Lee’s biography of Fitzgerald, Alan Hollinghurst writes:

“Must I explain this?” [Fitzgerald] asks herself of Daisy’s religious faith in The Gate of Angels. For the unexplained in Fitzgerald is sometimes the inexplicable, and anyone who reads all her novels will be struck by the recurrence of the uncanny, from the raucously restless poltergeist in The Bookshop to the nocturnal vision in the Russian birch woods in The Beginning of Spring, to the miracle at the close of The Gate of Angels, which is in fact the opening of a never-opened gate. How this happened she will not say, but there is no doubt that she believes it did.

The history of the fictitious college is also relevant in relation to the title and the ending. Fitzgerald mentions that the gate to the college only opened on two other occasions. Well, at the very end of the novel it opens for the third time — a miracle, and one that made it possible for Daisy to be on the road just as Fred was returning to the college. Must we be told what that means?