Lost Geography: A Novel

Lost Geography: A Novel

by Charlotte Bacon

Paperback(First Edition)

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In her triumphant debut novel, Charlotte Bacon explores the transitions that sixty years visit upon the members of an unforgettable family—a Saskatchewan woman and her Scottish husband; their independent daughter who moves to Toronto; and her daughter, who lives in France with her Turkish-English husband. In settings both rural and urban, these stalwart, resilient people respond not only to new environments and experiences but to the eruption of sudden loss. Taking the complexity of migration as its central subject, Lost Geography invites us to witness how habits of survival translate from one generation to another.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312420529
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 01/05/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

Charlotte Bacon is the award-winning author of Split Estate, There is Room for You, and Lost Geography. She lives in Bali with her husband and two children.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Saskatchewan, 1933-53

One August morning, Margaret Evans opened the door of her clinic to find a tall, slight, sandy-haired boy ranting about forest fires and cod. "Haul the nets in, man," he shouted in a dense Scottish accent when he saw her. "Haul them in!" Margaret, alone because the doctor was sick with flu, asked the boy's name. Martinson, the farmer who'd brought the fellow by, just shrugged; the Scot wouldn't answer. Too busy rambling about running from barns and horses in flames. As they spoke, the sick man slumped to the floor, worn to sleep or unconsciousness, Margaret did not know.

    His fever was 104 degrees, high but not unmanageable, yet she was anxious. Just twenty, skills still bookish, she realized she not only was responsible for the young man's care but was, for the first time, going to strip a male to nakedness. As she sponged his chest with witch hazel, she noticed he was both thin and clean. Thin she expected; that was often so with workers on their way to British Columbia, where Margaret guessed he was headed. Few stayed in Saskatchewan, unless the mines up north lured them. But he didn't look like someone interested in tunnels and dynamite, secret ribbons of minerals. Too delicate in the wrists.

    Clean, however, was a pleasant discovery. Filth often sat as thick as fur on the itinerants she and the doctor tended, men who smelled of liquor, sap, and old food. Her father encouraged her to become a nurse, saying, "You're good with the shoats, aren't you." How were people different from pigs? The answer was that pigs werecleaner. But this boy had recently bathed and smelled as sharp as willows. She turned then to his pants, easing them from his lower body; listening to the brief song of small change in a pocket. His legs were sinewed, veiled in tawny hair. When it came to his underwear, however, her confidence faltered. The squeamishness annoyed her. She'd grown up with animals. She had brothers.

    She'd even felt the bulky outlines of a boy's crotch against her own, a night dizzy with fireflies last June, at a party to celebrate the end of her training. She'd drunk beer, her stockings were ruined on a bramble, and her mother was thin-lipped and silently appalled the week after. But Margaret had never pressed her hand to a man's bare hip, never even seen that swerve of bone, or watched, without a cluster of nurses and a clinical purpose, the mysterious creature sprouting between the legs. I am a nurse, she told herself, and smoothed down the skirt of her uniform. It was quite tender to see his equipment coiled in a soft, wrinkled C on its side in a nest of dark-red hair. There was nothing frightening about it—the hair was wilder, more disturbing—and she couldn't, as she swabbed him down, and inched on the bottom half of the pajamas, imagine why she'd been so silly.

    He'd been quiet, breathing with the shallow intensity of high fever as she washed him, but now he began to mumble words she couldn't quite make out. She did hear quite clearly the rounded angles of his accent. Scottish farmers were as terse as the Finns, and even more committed drinkers than the Germans. Margaret's parents were English, a much milder race, it seemed to her, but she was born in Canada and had a rather tenuous sense of belonging to the island that had given her Christmas and a king. Her patient, then, radiated a kind of wan foreignness. The clinic wouldn't open until twelve, and for a few hours before other patients intruded, she daubed his forehead, leafed through her diagnostic texts, and listened.

    She'd never heard a man, much less a Scot, talk so much. He began to speak more coherently, and she listened to threads of stories unwind from him. Streams of them, even, spilling in the same generous, rippled way that water did in a pond that had crested its limit. In the narrow bed, he spoke not only of fish and fire but of scones and knives, brothers and porridge, shipwrecks and anchors. "Don't be stupid, lad, the boom, the boom," he shouted at one point. Another time he sat straight up and said, "Pour them all another, I'll pay." That had made her laugh, even though he thrashed with fever. She sponged him down again and pulled up his sheets, waiting.

    It was like a strange film, illicit and personal. Margaret loved the cinema, though she couldn't afford to go that often, and she wished she could sit in the darkened hall alone, instead of listening to Mavis Allen suck her caramels and to all the other irritations a crowd brought with it. She was sitting there, enjoying the sick man's strange theater, when he said, "Go on, now, fuck me." A ghastly thrill ran through her body. She went to tidy herself then and splash water on her face. He'd been with women. He looked young for that, but what did she know. "Men's drives," her mother had cagily called them the night Margaret went to a dance with one of Ole Anderson's broad, scrubbed sons. "Be careful of men's drives," her mother said, taking a kettle from the stove. Through the cone of steam, Mrs. Evans had given her a look that warned her daughter not to ask more.

    Margaret had known what her mother meant. It was clear what was on Ronny Gilcreast's mind when he watched Coral Paddington cross the school yard, running not so much because she was late but because it gave her an excuse to bounce. The phrase had spread among the student nurses. "Men's drives," they'd say, slamming lockers as Mr. Pierce, a spindly anatomy professor, crabbed past, tugging his bow tie. But before the sick man loudly said, "Go on, now, fuck me," Margaret had not quite grasped the rough directness of men's drives and the feeling they awoke in her own body. It was after this she knew he would recover.

    Early the next evening, Dr. Cross returned. He was a man with the red-netted cheeks of a drinker, and Margaret knew his bouts of flu were masks for hangovers. Polishing his spectacles, he listened attentively to Margaret's report. She'd taken thorough notes, knowing that despite or perhaps because of his attachment to gin, the doctor was cautious. It had been quiet at the clinic, the boy by far the most interesting case, partly since it wasn't clear what he suffered from.

    Dr. Cross asked, "What's wrong with him, Miss Evans?"

    "It doesn't seem to be meningitis or measles or scarlet fever," she said slowly. "He's not wheezing, so I'd rule out pneumonia." Dr. Cross listened, waiting, looking at her through his newly unsmudged glasses. He had told her when he took her on that he wanted a nurse who could think for herself, and though Margaret did not quite know if this quality was true of her, she'd said, "I'll look forward to that."

    "I think," she said, gathering courage, "that it's a kind of influenza brought on by overwork." Despite the neatly documented maladies her medical texts described, most of what ailed the sick was unnamed, untraceable. She did not like this blurry aspect of nursing, but the doctor seemed satisfied, and they went in to inspect the young man.

    He was fully awake, sitting up in bed. He had a cowlick, Margaret saw, and his collarbones pushed tight against his pale skin. What she noticed most, however, was that he looked a bit stunned. As if, Margaret later told him, he'd just realized he'd stepped into the wrong house.

What had given Davis Campbell this look of surprise was wondering how he had earned the luck to have such a pretty woman as his nurse. The brown sway of her hair, the smooth curve of her skin, the ringlessness of her marriage hand. It seemed miraculous to him. He was also aware that he was not wearing underwear and wondered if she had been responsible for its removal. How had his body had the good sense to get sick in the only town where he could have fallen into her care?

    "Good evening. I am Dr. Cross. This is Nurse Evans. You were brought here with a high fever. Do you know your name?" the man asked. Davis looked at the pair, in the trim whites of their work, waiting for his answer. He did know his name, which was something of a relief, because since waking, he'd been conscious that the fever had burned him empty. He'd lain in bed, listening to the voices in the room next door, looking at the play of twilight on the creamy walls. His fever, though much lower, still made his mind float a bit. He felt he might be some artifact they'd unearthed and were testing for its validity. He wanted to tell them, I'm not worth the effort. He was a curled leaf, a shriveled peg of corn, a pebble of nothing to be scuffed along in the dust. He had no idea how long he'd been in this room with its unvarnished nightstand. His gear wasn't visible and had probably been divided up by now among the other men he'd camped with. In short, it was clear that the two at the foot of the bed had no idea who he was.

    So, for a variety of reasons, he did not answer at first. Davis knew he had a chance to become something larger than a wandering Scot, something that would make Nurse Evans widen her eyes with interest. But it was looking at her more closely that made him say, "Davis Campbell," the second time the doctor asked, rather impatiently. The lightest smile twitched at her mouth as she stood there, and it came to him that she had seen him, all of him, and the knowledge that her long pink fingers had touched his skin made it impossible to lie. It was something of a relief to be called back into the world.

    During his week and a half of recovery, Margaret gave him books she thought he might enjoy. The history of the Anglican Church in Canada. A geological treatise on the Rockies. At least he slept well, but he asked her after these two, "What if you brought something we could read out loud together?" The next day she shyly handed him Dickens.

    "Have you read it?" she asked, and he knew how much he liked her when he lied and said no, he'd never had the pleasure of reading Bleak House. He'd loved it as a boy recovering from his first bad illness. At the age of thirteen, he fell in the ocean off his father's boat and was snagged from the water with the gaff, his body the color of plum jam. Like most fishermen his family knew, he and his brothers not only could not swim but did not believe in it. The sea wasn't recreation, it was a roof, a winch, a kettle, a resource. Swimming would have been like fraternizing with someone of the wrong religion, which they never had a chance to do, as everyone was Church of Scotland.

    During Davis's convalescence, his mother slipped him books she'd ordered from the lending library. Kipling. A volume of Shelley. Wrapped in brown paper and with a sheet of parchment glued to the inside covers, stamped with dates and dotted with the feathery signatures of the women who'd read them before. They'd sprinkled their tea and scones on the pages, too, but after the first chapter of Kim, Davis barely noticed.

    He grew stronger slowly and his mother kept bringing books. He read until his head ached. Stevenson, Scott, Shakespeare. Pirates, knights, castles, revenge. He'd had no idea. There was no describing how their pictures swam in front of his eyes. So when his brother said, "What do you want those for?" and kicked the bed steadily as he glared at the pile of books stacked on the blankets, Davis said nothing.

    "Leave him be, John, and stop kicking the bed," their mother said. When his brother left, Davis lay there. She said, lips pulled in as they always were when she was serious, "He's right, Davis, it's time to get out." And though she'd been the one to slip him the books, she also decided when his recovery was done. The power of mothers. Allowed to change their minds just like that. Her quick, chapped hands stripped the quilt from his thin legs and tossed him his clothes, yanking open the curtains as she left the room.

    It really had been time to go back outside. He saw the buttery gold skin of the cows again and the crescent of the strand glittering in the high-summer sun. But something had changed. He would imagine now great East Indiamen anchored in the cove. He would see towering factories on the burn by the kirk. His mind shifted the landscape to suit itself, as if the weeks of stories he'd drunk in had leaked back out and dyed the village new colors.

    His mother was the one who noticed. One morning she saw his mouth working as he stumbled to the house with the milk and she asked, "Saying your prayers?" Would it have been good to say yes? Davis was never entirely sure how his mother felt about God, though churchgoing was as much a part of her as the abrupt way she broke the thread when she finished sewing a button. A gesture worn into an indisputable fact of who she was.

    "No, ma'am," he said, watching the froth of the hot milk give up a curl of steam in the cool morning.

    "Then what?" she said, stopping in the doorframe to look at her youngest more closely. It was the type of light you couldn't lie in. Fog about to be burned clear. Light that ringed everything in a smudged halo.


Table of Contents

Part 1Crossings3
Saskatchewan, 1933-53
Part 2Angles and Edges53
Saskatchewan and Toronto, 1953-61
Part 3Mapping Home109
Toronto, 1962-73
Paris, 1973-75
London, 1953-73
Paris, 1973-90
Part 4Light Travels187
Paris, 1975-90
New York, 1991

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Lost Geography 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
writestuff on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I attended the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference in June of 2002 and had the pleasure of meeting Charlotte Bacon who was a presenter at the conference. Since she is a professor at the University of New Hampshire, we had geography in common - and I quickly bought her book which she autographed for me. Why I have waited more than five years to actually read this wonderful novel, I cannot tell you.Lost Geography is Bacon's debut novel (she has since published two other novels). The book spans nearly sixty years and follows four generations of a multicultural family. Bacon takes the reader around the world from the rural farmlands of Saskatchewan to the urban bustle of Toronto to the glamorous, brightly lit streets of Paris to the fog laden shops of London to the dusty roadways of Istanbul and finally to the glitter of New York City.Bacon's fine sense of place and lyrical descriptions make the novel a delight to read. But it is her gift at creating honest and convincing characters that keeps the reader turning the pages. Bacon uses the characters' memories and experiences to bind them together through the years, showing us that family stories can connect one generation to the other. The idea of loss and survival, and making one's unique way in the world while staying connected to those we love are strong themes in Lost Geography. Reading this novel was like sinking into a tub and letting the warm water wash over me. Bacon's prose is genuine and gorgeously constructed; her characters will make you laugh and cry; and her pitch perfect descriptions of place will set you firmly in the story.Recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is in someways a series of short stories - linked by three strong characters -but the novel becomes a story of all families who have drifted into a place, drifted out of place or have had to move home because of hardship or heartbreak. I found so much of my own family in this beautifully scoped novel -immigrants to New Zealand from Scotland and England in the nineteenth century and ancestors who struggled to make a home in a new country and find a way to belong. And all the decisions that it takes to stay or go. Unputdownable - I bought my copy while on a visit to Dunedin, a city overlooking the southern ocean where my Scottish forebearers first arrived - so it was a wonderful coincidence to find such a thoughtful and emotional story. Definitely a novel to dwell on.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a book that captures so many experiences in life. Written in a voice that is wise, warm, humorous, nostalgic and poetic at once, it captures you with its insights. You won't be able to put it down.