Published: November 2011
Trade Paperback, 279 pages
Both Sandra and I received an invitation to review this book, which we enjoyed immensely. You will find Sandra's review first, then mine, followed by the giveaway.
I LOVED this book! Of course, that it is written by a Canadian and tells a Canadian story is an added attraction.
This historical fiction is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Forty-something widower, Joseph Gaston and his 4 children, one of whom is a six-month-old baby girl, are on the move across the prairies toward a job. These are the “Dirty 30’s” and jobs are scarce, but he has one waiting for him. The family arrives in Philibuster, Alberta where Joseph’s half-brother and wife welcome them. Joseph and his children move into a rooming house and he learns that his promised job has been given to another. How will he support his children?
It seems as if life is conspiring against him as he runs up against barriers everywhere he turns. A secure job seems elusive. His growing despair and fear that he may be forced to give up his children eat away at him. There is a very poignant scene where he pawns his wedding band for a paltry $9.50. And, he is on the wrong side of some of the influential townspeople. Just as he is about to commit an unthinkable act, he learns about Lisa.
The author made me feel the despair of the times - from the hobos riding the trains to the scorching heat, to the grasshoppers and Black Blizzards that destroyed crops to the animals so desperate for food that they ate gate hinges, pieces of iron, and doorknobs! A family taking turns eating meals, parents doing without food for the sake of their children; ten- and eleven-year-old children foregoing school to sell newspapers and shine shoes; and the mounting frustration and anger as increasing numbers of people are unable to make ends meet.
The characters in the story are very well developed. We really dislike the Mayor and have doubts about the Police Chief. We are charmed by Mrs. Nye and interested by quirky Beth who “smokes and wears slacks like a man.” And where did those names come from – City Engineer, Raven Mullens, Police Chief, Montgomery Quentin, and Mayor Winfield Westmoreland – names straight out of 1930’s Hollywood! My favorite character is Joseph himself, a likeable, decent human being with plenty of fellow feeling and deep love for his family.
I like a book that teaches me something and Dinner with Lisa does that. Who knew that there was such prejudice and discrimination against Chinese people in Canada? Who knew that “some two million men and thousands of women illegally rode the trains that crisscrossed the North American continent” because they could no longer afford the basics of staying alive where they were?
Mr. Prendergast is also very descriptive in his writing. For example, “the train shuddered as if a chill had run down its spine” or “his tiny moustache, as thin as if it had been penciled in above his lip, was almost inappropriately delicate on a person of such immense stature” (my Dad had a moustache like that). The one negative aspect of the writing is the use of many religious expletives and swear words throughout the story.
Dinner With Lisa has all the elements of a good story – humor, good guys, bad guys, trickery, deceit, murder, hope, and the enduring human spirit that overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Joseph Gaston is a widower with four children living during the hard years of the Great Depression. He leaves Ontario to travel westward toward the prairies to join his brother and in search of a better life for his family. One thing after another goes wrong for Joseph who struggles to feed and keep his family together. The local mayor is a selfish, greedy man and he dislikes Joseph who is a moral man standing up for what is right.
Prendergast evokes this desperate era well through not only Joseph's life but that of the townsfolk. However, although it was a time of poverty, racism and despair, this book was not depressing. Joseph lives on hope and hard work and we live it with him. His four children are a big part of the story and, as a mother, I liked reading about their antics at a time when kids found innovative ways to entertain themselves and also help the family survive. We also get a feel for the times when the townsfolk got together at Hoogaboom's, the local convenient store, to listen to the the news and episodes of The Shadow on the radio.
I enjoyed how Prendergast infused small scenes of humour in the story, showing that despite hard times, humour helps to makes life bearable. Joseph was a great character, a father who loved his family and used everything he had, generosity and ingenuity to help his family survive. I was rooting for him throughout the whole story. Beth was a compelling character and I wish her character had been more fleshed out and some of the backstory throughout the novel limited. The plot held twists and turns, and I never knew how it was all going to end for Joseph and his family. The ending held promise.
This was a great Canadian novel, and I learned more about the history of my country. It is a hopeful but sobering story that will stay with me long after I've read it.
Note: This book is rated P (mild) = some profanity.
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