Frank MacDonald,
A Forest for Calum
(Cape Breton University Press, 2005)

Frank MacDonald writes from and about a small mining town on the island of Cape Breton and, I avow, the first novel by this long-time journalist takes a back seat to no other fictional tales of this island. This story book sits "right smart," as my grandmother would say, on my shelf of favorite local books; and, like the stalwart messenger of Cape Breton life it is, it sits in the company of other wonderful local short story writers and novelists: Alistair MacLeod, Beatrice MacNeil, Lesley Crewe, Neil MacNeil, Tessie Gillis, Clive Doucet and the D'Amours.

This story is a window to Cape Breton life in the 1960s. MacDonald pries open the shutters and wipes the window clean to show us life in a way that hasn't been expressed by any other writer I've read yet. At many times during the story, you step through the window into the street or into the community hall watching the dancers, standing shoulder to shoulder with the other people in the hall.

Descriptions are almost painted onto the pages. Regional sayings and witticisms had me laughing out loud, and a couple of times I had to lay the book down to finish enjoying the chuckle. The best thing about Frank's book was that it made my Christmas shopping last year very easy. All the family members who were living away from home received a copy of the book.

In the story, young Roddie grows up under the wing of his widowed grandfather, Calum. The grandfather's first language is Gaelic and, though he speaks English, he thinks in Gaelic, his logic is in Gaelic and his beliefs are based on Gaelic. Scots Gaelic.

Roddie watches as influences of radio and TV clash with traditional fiddle and storytelling. Without a father, Roddie knows he inherits some of his grandfather's values, but because of the times, knows there are strong differences, too. He and his best friend, Duncan grow up together and their friendship is one of the best features of the story.

You'll find this a regional story, but it's full of experiences that anyone can connect with.

Frank MacDonald reveals "the knowing" that is a vital part of a Cape Bretoner's existence: the knowing of each other, and the knowing of each other's history, and the resulting types of justice and tolerance that exist in a small town because of knowing thy neighbour. Frank artfully reveals this without stalling the storyline, and because this is a facet of life that is gradually disappearing, it makes the book all the more relevant to proponents of the lifestyle of small communities.

The part I liked least was the ending. I wanted more for Roddie. On that last day, I wanted to hear him talk about his fears, his loneliness, his hopes and perhaps even his anger. And I wanted him to holler to the world. ... Hmmm, never mind, perhaps there'll be a Book 2.

by Virginia MacIsaac
23 December 2006

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