They’re everywhere. A certain kind of young mother, single, unemployed, pushing prams, kids in tow as they walk and walk… yet something suggests there’s no real destination—that hours, days, years, are merely something to get through… until… what? More kids maybe, another guy, another unfortunate choice. Because for some people life is a series of unfortunate choices or, worse, unfortunate events. Whatever the reason, they keep moving, these mothers, as if in the hope it’ll all somehow ‘become’ right. They’re recognizable—not by any expression of hope—but by their sadness, sometimes by the look of fear in their eyes. We worry about them for a moment but mostly do nothing. We wring our hands for the children: what chance do they stand?
and then we drive on by…
This is the impression we take. We of the narrow minds.
Fran Kimmel either doesn’t have a narrow mind or is just a lot brighter than many of us. Or more aware. Her book The Shore Girl, the story of Rebee Shore, shows the world of single motherhood and their kids from the inside out, through a child’s eyes and [in dedicated chapters] through the eyes of everyone who is—by blood or choice—connected to her.
But there’s a difference: Rebee’s mother [Elizabeth, who prefers to go by Harmony] isn’t a pram pushing sort of mum. She’s on the run, rejecting her past and doing her best to dodge the present, which happens to include her daughter. From infancy into her teens, Rebee’s life alternates between moving constantly from van to motel to trailer to relative’s couch. “… Harmony gets restless. For her, a new place has a three-month expiry date, same as fruit bars.”
And if she’s not moving with her mother, she’s being temporarily abandoned by her.
In other words, the kid has every reason to be angry, to follow suit, to make a mess of her life. She has the excuses. But that’s not what happens. Rebee is one of those miracles who, instead of becoming resentful, learns through the very debris of her childhood that she has to be strong because her mother is preoccupied just keeping them alive.
“I thought how rage must hurt in the beginning,
but a person gets so used to it, she thinks it’s
a heat a body’s supposed to feel.”
She gets it.
It’s why she keeps a box of fingernail clippings, mostly Harmony’s, the various shades of nail polish reminding her of places they’ve stayed; it’s the only constant in her life, the only thing that reminds her of where she’s been and the only part of her mother that she can protect from disappearing.
“We rumble along the highway under a watery sky, past wheat rolled into giant soup cans, cows frozen in muck. I think about where we just came from. I can’t remember the colour of the walls or feel of the curtains or shape of the bathroom sink. Blank as water, like on a test day in a new school and I end up at the fountain, gulping, drowning… I slip off my runners and slide my toe across my bag until it touches my nail box. We’ll get to wherever we’re going tonight… I’ll wait awhile. Sprinkle the brittle bits on my blanket. Sift them like seashells.”
While often told from Rebee’s perspective, it’s very much Harmony’s story too, one that has her cemented in shame and anger.
All that and yet… The Shore Girl is ultimately hopeful. It’s about connection, the small and unfathomable ways we touch each other and thereby save each other. About reclaiming what’s ours and how family comes in various forms. It’s about getting beyond what’s ‘normal’. About using the scraps you’ve been tossed.
Above all, it reminds us that our story is never obvious to others, nor is it entirely ours alone.
As is customary with the (at) Eleven series, a meal of my choosing—appropriate to the book—follows the Q&A, because… “Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.” ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book
And now, without further ado, may I introduce Fran Kimmel… who I thank so very much for her time, her insight and her kind heart.
1. What literary character did you most identify with as a child?
FK—As a young kid, I devoured Trixie Beldon books. I loved all her insecurities and her grumbling about chores and homework and brothers.
2. Can you recall one of your earliest pieces? (Crayola poem, a finger-painting storyboard…?)
FK—Okay, here goes:
Across the shadow of the moon and ever so slowly gliding
Through the leafy-figured trees, a starlit shape was sliding
Up and down with swirling streaks, across the snowy hills
With patterns of rejoicing grace, and lacy moving frills
It’s so bad, it’s memorable. This poem won a contest in Grade 4 and I had to read it in front of the whole school on assembly day. I cried a lot beforehand, trying to get out of going on stage, but neither my teacher nor my mother would give in. I made it to the end without collapsing, but this marked the end of my poetry career. (Likely a good thing)
3. What were you reading at fifteen?
FK—Girl gets boy stories, killer gets caught stories, town goes berserk stories, world on verge of collapse stories. Lots of junk sprinkled with a hearty dose of the Bronte sisters, which I could not get enough of back then.
4. Can you describe what was on the bookshelves, or on one specific shelf, in your childhood home?
FK—While my sisters and I usually had stacks of library books beside our beds, our family bookshelves were pretty sparse. I remember a shiny set of A-Z Encyclopaedias with more pictures than words, as well as a few volumes of Girl’s Own Annuals, leftovers from Grandma’s house. These were huge tomes from the 1930s, 800 plus pages, packed with illustrated stories and ridiculous amounts of sage advice about how to sit still, take care of your stockings, or knit the perfect skating outfit. Hah!
5. A favourite passage from any book and why.
FK—This is such a hard question. Every week I read a new passage that blows me away. But here is a long-time favourite taken from Girls by Frederick Busch.
“The dog and I live where it doesn’t snow. I can’t look at snow and stay calm. Sometimes it gets so warm, I wear navy blue uniform shorts with a reinforced long pocket down the left hip for the radio. I patrol on foot and sometimes on a white motor scooter, and it’s hard for me to believe, a cop on a scooter in shorts. But someone who enforces the law, laws, somebody’s laws, fall down like that. Whether it’s because he drinks or takes money or swallows amphetamines or has to be powerful, or he’s one of those people who is always scared or because he’s me, that’s how he goes—state or federal agency or a big-city police force, down to working large towns or the dead little cities underneath the Great Lakes, say, then down to smaller towns, then maybe a campus, maybe a mall, or a hotel that used to be fine.”
This quiet, understated passage comes early on, page two. With these words alone, the reader is given everything needed to fall hard for Jack, the book’s main character. Such tension and bitter regret here, the unravelling of a life. You know Jack will get only halfway near the harsh truth, but you’re rooting for him already. My favourite passages and phrases are almost always deceptively simple. The eight-word sentence, “I can’t look at snow and stay calm,” gives me shivers.
6. Do you ever find recurring themes in your work, things that surprise you?
FK—I seem to want to write about life’s damages. (My husband grumbles, Can’t you try to be a bit funny?) And it does surprise me that loss keeps coming back again and again. I’m not sure why exactly, except that I’ve been forever interested in the fragile connections that hold us together and what happens when these connections are broken. I think I’m drawn to what I don’t want to know about myself.
7. The Shore Girl opens with the heartbreaking scene of Rebee as a toddler, alone in a motel room, thirsty for a glass of water and yet reluctant to disobey the parent who isn’t there. How do children like Rebee manage to find such resilience?
FK—I’m left speechless by what children are able to endure. I think that kids like Rebee are always on the outside looking in, which gives them a lot of time to observe and to reflect on what they’re observing. They learn to somehow distance themselves emotionally (and physically) from the source of their heartache. Some of these kids – the lucky ones – are able to become stronger in the process. I’ve met some amazing women at book clubs who endured childhoods much like Rebee’s and they’ve gone on to lead brilliant lives.
8. Rebee’s mother, ‘Harmony’, is a wonderfully drawn character, and the only one [of the central cast] that we don’t hear from directly. She’s alluded to, pined for, despised, misunderstood, tolerated, fallen in love with; she makes us want to give her a shake one minute and then breaks our heart the next. No matter what, she’s the ‘always elephant in the room’ There’s an expectation, a desire to hear Harmony tell her side of things, yet if she did, the book would be less. It’s the very absence of Harmony’s voice that creates the character; she emerges as both the problem and the appeal and the lack of her own platform is a kind of metaphor for her life, also her choices. The ‘silence’ fits her confusion and her abdication of so many things and, most importantly, it reflects for the reader some of the mystery, frustration and longing that Rebee feels. My question is this: how did you ever find the courage [read: wisdom] to NOT give her a platform? It surely must have been tempting to do otherwise. [and I’m guessing she probably kicked up quite a fuss!]
FK—Harmony did kick up a huge fuss. She was a powerful presence underneath everything else that went on in this book, and I was inside her head and heart all the way through. I feel a huge swell of tenderness towards Harmony, but if I had given her a voice, she would have taken over the book and the story would be hers and hers alone. I wanted more for Rebee than that. It took me a ridiculously long time to figure this out.
9. Was there any unexpected outcome in writing the book that you might share? (I’m thinking of characters that resisted where you wanted them to go or who walked on or off the stage spontaneously; something you discovered in research, elements that you cut/added because of info gleaned ‘en route’…)
FK—The book itself was its own unexpected outcome. I’d been writing short stories for some time and this, too, began as just that – a short story about Rebee and her fingernail clippings. After I sold the fingernail story, I thought well that’s that, but then I’d wake up night thinking about her. I wanted to know what it would feel like to run across a girl like Rebee, a girl who stumbles out of a run-down van, bedraggled, and then just disappears again. Who would reach out to her? Who would turn away? I wrote and wrote, character after character, story after story. It wasn’t until a long way in that I started to see these pieces melding into a book.
In earlier drafts, I had a large section told from the town’s point of view after Rebee moved to Chesterfield. And a section by a crusty old neighbour named Gunther who I absolutely adored. But in the end, I cut huge swaths and whittled the writing down to this small band of characters who I felt told Rebee’s story best. On a side note, I didn’t intend for Joey to keep puking. No matter how many times I wrote that out, I’d turn around, and he’d puked again.
10. In your opinion, what are some positives in the ‘new publishing industry’?
FK—Since the self-publishing industry has blown wide open, there is an infinitely large space for writers who want to go it alone. New spaces for writers is a positive. Some excellent books are coming online that might not have made it past the gatekeepers in the old publishing world. This brings a crazy surplus of junk, too, but that’s a whole other issue.
And despite doom and gloom forecasts, small independent publishers are still alive and well in Canada. If I want to be assured of a good reading pick, I check out my favourite inde publishers’ new line up and am seldom disappointed.
Pen or Keyboard? Keyboard definitely. In a coffee shop, I’m one of those high-maintenance laptop users who pulls out the wireless mouse and huge portable keyboard and cushy wrist rest.
Tent or Trailer? Tent trailer. I love the smell of canvas and all the zipping before bed, a solid floor beneath my feet and the half-aluminum door between me and the bears.
Poetry or Song? Leonard Cohen.
Theatre or Film? Film if I want to kick back and absorb. Theatre if I want to lean in and participate. I love both (but nothing coming out of Hollywood these days).
Prairie or Lake? Yellow fields and the big, open sky. Although prairie lakes are pretty cool too.
eReading or Paper? Paper. I keep promising to buy myself an e-reader, but really, how serious can I be.
Salad or Cheese? I’ve become a bit more flexible since my tuna-salad decade, but lunch without lettuce doesn’t work for me. I throw in everything I can find, including lots of cheese.
Matilda’s Menu for The Shore Girl:
Peanut Butter on Graham Crackers
Choice of grape juice or bottomless pitcher of cool, fresh water
Wintergreen Lifesavers for dessert
(to be eaten in the dark)
Born and raised in Calgary, Fran Kimmel has worked all kinds of jobs including youth worker, career counselor, proposal writer, communications coordinator, and VP for a career consulting firm. Fran’s short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies, including twice in The Journey Prize Stories, and her first novel, The Shore Girl, was a 2013 Canada Reads Top Forty selection and winner of the 2013 Alberta Readers’ Choice Award. Fran now writes and teaches in the small prairie town of Lacombe, Alberta, where she lives with her husband and overly enthusiastic Labrador retriever. www.frankimmel.com
The Shore Girl is published by NeWest Press.