Toward a life of integrity

By Amy Reiswig, March 1, 2016

Set in a US community in conflict over civil rights and the Viet Nam war, Tricia Dower’s novel explores the essential fight for self-expression.

Tricia DowerIN SOME WAYS, being authentically oneself should be the easiest thing in the world. But as most of us know, it’s rarely that simple. Whether dealing with peer and parental pressure, cultural expectations, shifting social values or traumatic events that can strike hard at a sense of justice, safety and even self-worth, we all navigate our little ships through treacherous waters that threaten to swamp us. How can we keep our courses true, our captain’s hats on tight?

As Tricia Dower explores in her new novel Becoming Lin (Caitlin Press, March 2016), it’s a battle. This follow-up to the critically acclaimed Stony River picks up the life of a now 22-year-old Linda Wise—the character, Dower tells me, she’d left the least equipped to go forward. 

The backdrop for Linda’s growth into self-determined adulthood is, aptly, one of war. Set in religious, small-town New Jersey and Minnesota in the mid-1960s and early ’70s, communities are in conflict around civil rights and Vietnam. Linda becomes awakened to issues of social justice by a young Methodist minister, whom she marries, full of dreams about them sharing and standing up for activist beliefs. But Linda, reinvented as Lin Brunson, soon finds that the route she thought would help her escape controlling parents and painful memories of a past sexual assault just leads to another set of constraints around how she should think, behave and be. That her new husband had been a Freedom Rider is an irony the reader cannot miss. 

This is the second novel in what Dower hopes will be a trilogy, and Dower’s interest in this period stems partly from the fact that it was when she, herself, was young and most passionate about life and what was happening around her. Born in Rahway, New Jersey, Dower was married to a US Army officer during the novel’s timeframe, and pregnant when he voluntarily left for Vietnam. (Dower came to Canada in 1981 and now lives in Brentwood Bay.) 

The novel allows her to dig into a time defined by intense personal commitment, where people had to decide, sometimes very publicly, what they were for or against. The book’s external events provide a foil for the various personal wars so many of Dower’s characters are fighting. As a result, concepts of protest, resistance and conscientious objection apply to much more than just geopolitics. 

The theme of being wounded is also woven through the novel. With deftness, sensitivity and an obvious deep compassion, Dower explores the many ways we can feel unsafe, targeted and downright shattered in our own private battlefields. Lin’s mother, Betty, for instance, has a mysterious illness that separates her physically and emotionally from her family; she struggles with a lack of self-advocacy, eventually turning to an alternative healer—whom Lin initially dismisses but later comes to accept. This person at least acknowledges her mother’s lonely suffering, which Lin herself hasn’t done enough. “Lin’s mom is very much like mine,” Dower says with a hint of sadness. “I wanted to give my mother, through Betty, a better ending.” 

One of the foremost invisible wounds in the book comes from the assault that leaves Lin’s mind feeling like “occupied territory.” Attacked at knifepoint but not raped or stabbed, Lin recalls that “the jury didn’t find Eldon Jukes guilty of doing anything at all to her,” yet she fights to break out of the trauma of what did happen, what one of her friends refers to as “a prison of a tale.” I know exactly what she means, as just a few days before writing this I found myself unexpectedly sobbing in the bathroom at a self-defence course, having been blindsided by what I thought were banished memories of an assault I experienced years ago. What does it mean to be hurt in ways others don’t acknowledge, and how long does it last?

“Social issues, particularly feminist issues, are my passion,” Dower says, and in fact her first book, the short-story collection Silent Girl, was long-listed for the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. In that collection, as in this novel, Dower examines many facets of social isolation, oppression and the essential fight for self-expression. Both feisty and funny, Dower is determined to keep talking about important issues—and is also clearly frustrated. “Women are still doubted when they’re assaulted, and anti-rape messages are still geared towards women. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like we’ve moved forward at all.”

Dower, who left the corporate world in 2002 to devote herself to writing, is trying to help move us forward by, in many ways, calling us all out on the idea of a life of integrity: Are we doing the work, both individually and societally? When the members of Lin’s church wrestle with where they stand on the killing in Vietnam, for instance, Dower (a self-described agnostic) exposes issues of complacency versus commitment to principles of peace. The somewhat renegade minister Artie tells Lin that his position gives him “a platform to challenge people about what they mean when they say they’re Christians.” 

Dower’s novel gives her that same opportunity. In our own time of threats, be they climate change or civil war creating thousands of refugees, where will we stand? What will we say, and then what will we do?

One of the book’s major lessons is therefore about listening to your own voice and finding the way to your real beliefs, your integrity. What another might write off as reckless may be brave; the so-called selfish can be saving; the seemingly embarrassing, empowering. 

Lin ultimately manages to sail through the waves of both her inner trauma and her surrounding restrictive social conventions by charting her own course as a wife, mother, friend, daughter and, more importantly, as her own individual person. “It’s important for Lin to recognize that she hadn’t yet done the work and for her to find the self-awareness and courage to act,” Dower explains.

“In college,” she recalls, “I took a basic philosophy course that included philosophy of religion, and it started opening my mind. If you can question that,” she says with excitement, “you can question more.” While questioning the establishment—whether in terms of religion, feminism, civil and basic human rights—can be viewed as rebellious or even, in certain circumstances, immoral, Dower’s novel shows that seeking answers outside the norm and inside yourself is where we find personal power and freedom. It’s never a calm journey, but it’s the most important we can make.

Becoming Lin will be launched April 5 at Munro’s, 7:30 pm (doors open at 7:00)

At 43, writer and editor Amy Reiswig is still enjoying asking foundational questions as part of the long, slow handshake with herself.