Family, mental health and faith are explored in fiction shortlisted for the 2021 Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award (Fiction)
Image Credit: Atlantic Book Awards
Shortlisted titles for the 2021 Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award (Fiction) explore family relationships, mental health, and faith through the familiar lens of fiction.
Good Mothers Don’t by Laura Best, The Spoon Stealer by Lesley Crewe, and The Silence of the Vessel by Brenda MacLennan Dunphy have been shortlisted for the 2021 Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award (Fiction).
Motherhood in sickness and in health
Good Mothers Don’t by Laura Best explores Elizabeth’s challenges with mental illness, electric shock therapy and memory loss, and her journey to reconnect with her children.
“I totally relate with what she was going through in wanting to do whatever she could to get reunited with her kids,” Best says, “even though she wasn’t quite sure that her children actually existed, but she knows inside that they did.”
The book started as a short story about a young girl and abandonment issues, Best says, then became a collection of short stories. Best says the theme of mental illness in Good Mothers Don’t developed through the character Elizabeth.
“When I started writing the mother’s story, that’s when I realized she had mental health issues,” Best says.
Elizabeth’s mental health issues are examined through the people around her and their interpretation of her illness.
“For me she represents someone who is totally misunderstand, which I think happens quite often, even today, especially people who are having mental health issues and stuff,” Best says.
Good Mothers Don’t is written in a first-person perspective and became a novel after discussions with her publisher. It is set in the Forties Settlement, close to where Best lives in East Dalhousie, Nova Scotia.
“Somebody once said all their writing comes from their head,” Best says, “But I say mine comes from my head, but also from inside my heart.”
Family in fiction
The Spoon Stealer by Lesley Crewe explores a story close to home: family grief after the First World War and Emmaline’s return to her rural Nova Scotian farm.
Emmaline had a “little bit of magic,” Crewe says, and she thought of her as a fairy godmother character. Emmaline lives alone and her best friend, Vera, is a talking dog – Crewe says they are a “twosome,” and she can’t think of one without the other.
However, Emmaline isn’t perfect: she steals spoons.
“Well that’s not very nice, but it’s not going to kill anybody, is it,” Crewe says.
The book takes place on a small farm in Marshy Hope, Nova Scotia, and in England, following Emmaline’s journey across the Atlantic and back home.
“Spoon Stealer, I love because it’s based on some true family experiences and my grandfather’s siblings,” Crewe says. “There’s a little aspect of truth in the story.”
Crewe discovered that Margaret, her great-aunt, travelled to England in March 1919 during the Influenza Pandemic to try and see one of her brothers.
“This young girl went overseas at a time when young women didn’t usually cross the Atlantic alone, but especially not during a pandemic,” Crewe says.
She started writing the book in November 2019 and finished in January 2020, before COVID-19 had become a pandemic.
“Why this story came to me when it did, just gives me chills when I think about it,” Crewe says. “It was almost like they’ve come back to tell me, ‘well okay, we’ve all lived through this before.’”
Family, friends, and faith
Silence of the Vessel by Brenda MacLennan-Dunphy follows Cecelia’s quest for faith, mother-daughter relationships and friendships between women.
The book is set in Mabou, Cape Breton, and Cecelia takes an interest in becoming a nun nearing high-school graduation. MacLennan-Dunphy wanted to write about nuns because they are a bit of a dying breed, she says, and two of her aunts are nuns.
“You see these nuns that are now in their late 70s, 80s and 90s,” MacLennan-Dunphy says, “and they all have a story, but we don’t take the time to listen to it.”
Cecelia befriends Madonna, an elderly nun facing aging, mental illness and reflection about her faith.
“I knew I wanted Cecelia and Madonna to have a relationship,” MacLennan-Dunphy says, “but I was a bit surprised at how deep Elspeth became involved.”
Elspeth became a mother later in life, nearing menopause, and is very deep into the Celtic culture, MacLennan-Dunphy says. Silence of the Vessel explores Elspeth and Cecelia’s unique differences.
“For Cecelia, it [the church] means a lot more than it does to Elspeth, who doesn’t have much faith in it all,” MacLennan-Dunphy says.
In Mabou, Cape Breton, Sisters of The Congregation of Notre Dame established the Holy Angels Convent in 1885. In 2011 New Dawn purchased the building as an arts centre and began renovations in 2017.
Since writing the book, MacLennan-Dunphy says she has been surprised to hear the amount of women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who considered becoming a nun in their lifetime, but chose another path.
“They saw the good parts of the Sisterhood and living a life of service; I think there’s something within us that wants to be helpful,” MacLennan-Dunphy says, “and that’s what I wanted Cecelia to have, that idea that she would like to do something helpful.”