Based on loving my (limited) experiences of limited spaces, I have this idea that I would love a tiny house. Also I’m drawn to stories about living in small spaces or trailers so it was wonderful, a few years ago, to visit the site of the one room house Maud Lewis shared with her husband Everett in rural Nova Scotia (as well as seeing the actual house which is now permanently installed at the Art Gallery of Halifax after a citizen’s group fought to save it). To imagine her painting by the window, arthritic fingers, little money, a miserly and odd/rather cold husband… going nowhere, speaking to few people, zero luxuries or conveniences, and yet… all those happy cows and cats and sleds and flowers, not to mention the house itself, the stairs, the walls, door, stove, everything in sight essentially, painted… brightly.
I’m only sorry that at the time I visited the house I hadn’t yet read Carol Bruneau’s Brighten the Corner Where You Are.
A novel narrated by Maud herself, dead and in heaven and from which vantage point, in case you’re interested, one can still covet Salsibury steak and where one is no wiser as to understanding humans. “You can’t know the heart or mind of someone else, not even from here.”
In a voice that so drew me in I had to keep reminding myself it was fiction, Bruneau spins an utterly charming (and eye-opening) imagination of what Lewis’s life might have been like in that tiny space with that crotchety, mean, and downright weird husband, and what she herself might have been like, what she thought of her strangely isolated life.
It’s also based on a sizeable amount of research judging by the bibliography.
In Bruneau’s version, Maud doesn’t complain much, she accepts the choices she’s made, the safety of marriage being something she’s grateful for after being spurned by a man with whom she had a child (a child she never knew). There is a beautiful through line involving a ring that Everett gives her, which she sees as a symbol of belonging and legitimacy. Somehow, as a couple, they work. She can’t cook but she ends up being the one to bring home the bacon, $5 at a time through her paintings, which are sold at the side of the road or by word of mouth.
Paintings now worth tens of thousands.
But it was never money that inspired her.
“When the wind blowing in through the cracks finally lulled me to sleep, I dreamt of an orange. It was fresh from the hold of a sailing ship from the south seas, round and bright as the sun. As I sucked its juice its seeds stuck in my teeth. And in the dream Ev yelled at me for not saving him some. For he expected me to share it: what’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine. That orange was the colour I would’ve painted the entire house if I could have.”
Lewis is nobody’s ninny, nor is she a Polyanna. The fact that, despite her circumstances, she chooses to paint only joy, is what makes her so interesting and becomes the angle at which Bruneau excavates: what kind of a person can live like this and still see the world as she does?
“It’s colours that keep the world turning, that keep a person going.”
It would have been easy to sentimentalize the story or play on the reader’s empathy for Lewis but Bruneau does neither. There are scenes where I wanted to scream get out, or they’re only trying to help you, or you don’t need him. But I’m glad no one was listening. Bruneau finds a beautiful balance in Maud, showing us one possibility of Why She Stays, an account that could be entirely true for all we know, certainly an example of the times when women like Maud, especially, rural and poor, physically disabled, with ‘a child out of wedlock’, were happy to have any kind of place in society. A husband and a shack by the road would do nicely.
Even so, you can’t help believe Maud Lewis had something special, a quality that helped her almost thrive.
“What these folks don’t see is that these cages made me the bird I was and the bird I am, made me sing in the way I did, the way that brought me happiness and joy and a starry life I wouldn’t have known otherwise.”
What surprises me most is how joyful the story feels, despite the not so joyful reality. In whatever way Maud managed to turn difficulty into a tolerable happiness, so has Bruneau turned a difficult story into one of ultimate brightness, capturing the essence of Maud’s pragmatic outlook. Whenever I put the book down I could hardly wait to get back to it in that way where you hope the characters haven’t got up to anything while you’ve been having your lunch. The reading felt like hanging out with Maud, hearing a sometimes painful story told with heart and sprinkled throughout with laughter, wry observation, and Maud’s maybe unintentional sense of humour.
“…Mama had a strict arrangement with Mae, who did my hair in exchange for cards. Dis-for-dat: the barber system, Mae called it.”
All that and…. it has one of the most beautiful endings I’ve read in a long time.
Image courtesy WikiCommons.