Published July 2010
Hardcover, 320 pages
Reviewed by Sandra
The title of this book intrigued me – is Hardscrabble Bay the name of a place? As I began the novel I learned that the story takes place in Bay Chaleur, New Brunswick in 1916. Hardscrabble is a state of being. Webster’s Dictionary disclosed that the word “hardscrabble” was first used in 1804 to mean getting a meager living from poor soil. As “Wild Bill” Hillock, one of the main characters says in reference to his surroundings, “it was a hardscrabble land and a hardscrabble bay – not easy to get a living out of.”
The story is about two sisters, Idella and Avis Hillock whose childhood is filled with adventures on their “hardscrabble” farm. However, life changes for them suddenly one day when their mother dies at home in childbirth. The first chapter of the novel movingly describes the events of that day. Their father never fully recovers from the death of his wife. He has no idea how to raise two girls. I felt sad for them as they were moving into adolescence for they had no one to clue them into the proverbial “facts of life”. In the words of Avis “we none of us got too good an introduction to things of that nature. No one told us a damned thing. We had no mother. We used to lie there in the bed, me and Idella, and try to put the pieces together.” The novel is a tale of their lives from then on into old age—for Idella, a fairly normal life, despite a philandering husband; for Avis, a series of unsuitable men, who fail to dampen her zest for life. The story spans about 70 years.
The book is full of wonderful descriptions. For example, Avis and Idella as children throw their shoes on a tree branch. When the shoes are retrieved, “they found their cast-off shoes, dangling like drunken crows from their laces…” The author’s description of the clothes their mother wore, her hair, her feelings, her scent, is very convincing. There is good character development of the main players. Bill, the father, also known as “Wild Bill”, is a hard-drinking, tough-talking man, filled with anger following his wife’s death. The reader feels that anger reflected in his daily life. This has a very direct influence on Avis and Idella. They can’t wait to leave the farm and their Dad. However, drinking and swearing become part of their lives.
There is swearing and irreverent language on practically every page, as well as a sexual scene between Idella’s philandering husband and his mistress that potential readers should be aware of.
This is a novel that is poignant, funny, wry, moving. It is a story of survival despite humble beginnings. It is also the story of the close ties that bind families.