Living Memory (Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart)

“What are the four ways that a person can enter a book?” my uncle would often ask… . “Emotionally, aesthetically, intellectually, and philosophically… .”

Jane Urquhart opens all these doors for readers to enter Sanctuary Line, a layered story told through the memories of Liz Crane of the transplanted Butler clan. A woman now, Liz probes a childhood peopled with relatives – some, the “Great-greats” live through her uncle’s stories – while cousins and Teo (the son of a Mexican farm worker) play in the orchards and woods and grow up along Lake Erie’s shores.

The Butler clan’s roots were first transported from Ireland to Ohio. During the War of 1812, a branch of the family journeyed across Lake Erie to take up lighthouse keeping and farming – the clan’s traditional occupations – on Canada’s shores. Liz tells us that the Butlers are a “bifurcated” family. We come to learn they are split in other ways, as the story moves back and forth across time, place, and the complex world of memory. It is also a story of love and loss, of isolation and intimacy. It is a small, not uncommon story, a story magnificently told, a story of contradictions and surprises whose characters are full of the flaws that make them real.

In the novel, Sanctuary Line of the title is the name of the road that runs between Kingsville and Point Pelee. This alone intrigued me when I began to read. These are familiar places of my childhood and, reading, I could smell the ripening fruit and see the rivulets that run across wooded areas down to the Great Lake. And I, too, witnessed the life cycle of monarchs and saw a tree shimmer in late afternoon light with the beating wings of hundreds of butterflies as they prepared for the long journey across the water that would continue to Mexico, migrants not unlike the Mexican farm workers who arrive in the spring and depart in the fall.

Urquhart’s writing inspires: she quietly builds the tension toward her turning point and then weaves loose threads toward the conclusion. On the surface, Liz (mostly) maintains calm, but beneath run currents as threatening as those of the Great Lakes. Woven into the drama is the science of the monarchs and the changes being wrought to the landscape. Her skillfully integrated literary references are integral to the story – from the uncle’s old (and embroidered) tales to cousin Mandy’s passion for A Child’s Garden of Verses and later for the poetry of Emily Dickinson and others.

It has been years since I’ve read The Whirlpool (1986), Away (1993), The Underpainter (1997), and The Stone Carvers (2001). Now Sanctuary Line has been added to the list to make five of Urquhart’s eight novels, not to mention her poetry and non-fiction.With each book, her skills grow and she makes the handling of her complex themes seem simple, “seem” being the operative word. Readers who enjoy learning while they’re reading, who like stories that flow, who enjoy the continuity of history and the disjunction thrown in by life’s curves, and who take pleasure in a well-written story will love Sanctuary Line, and I bet will seek out other of Jane Urquhart’s books.

29 Sanctuary Line

Available through your local bookstore or online: Sanctuary Line

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