Reviewed: October 1, 2004
By: Richard B. Wright
Publisher: Harper Perennial
415 pages, $21.95
Clara Callan is an epistolary novel, which is to say that it comes to us in the form of a journal and a lot of letters which pass between the title character and several other people, most notably her sister, Nora. Raised in small town Ontario in the early part of the 20th century, the two are as unalike as they could be, quite often the case with sisters.
Clara follows in the footsteps of her father and becomes a teacher in their little town, carrying out the same duties with which she had grown up. She would like to live a quiet life, but things don't work out that way.
Nora has thespian ambitions and escapes to New York, where she becomes a minor celebrity during the heady days of the radio boom, a regular in a soap opera, playing a character not unlike that of her spinster sister. Nora's life is seemingly more hectic and full than Clara's, but in a lot of ways it really isn't.
The story covers about four years in their lives, something which is easier to see when you have the dated entries in front of you. The audiobook seems to cover a longer span of time, not that it was at all boring, just that it's harder to keep track of dates when you merely hear them
Fairly early in the story Clara is raped by a pair of the masterless men who roamed about during the Depression. There were no sanctioned avenues for abortion in those days, yet the shame of being an unwed mother was something we can scarcely comprehend now. Through her contacts in the world of show biz, Nora assists Clara in obtaining an abortion, but Clara doesn't tells her exactly what happened.
One long term consequence of this event is that Clara is a bit of a sucker for the first guy who actually sweet talks and courts her, and he turns out, after an extended affair, to be a serial adulterer. Another is that when she finds herself pregnant once again, she is unable to end a second unborn life.
Small town nastiness is a feature of Clara's life. Even before her affair she is the target of a poison pen campaign, and certain people seem to be constantly spying on her. Once there is actually something for people to talk about, it gets much worse. The story, remember, takes place during the middle of the 1930s. Attitudes towards unwed mothers and illegitimate children (a term that hardly seems to make sense now) didn't change until the last quarter of the century.
Nora falls in with the show biz crowd and has a number of unsatisfactory liaisons over the four year period. Indeed, her life is not summed up until the book's afterword, supposedly provided by Elizabeth, the baby whose birth is the last entry in Clara's journal, some 30 years later.
The Between the Covers adaptation does not have those last six pages and, while I initially thought that its ending, with the conjugation of the elemental verb ôto beö, was a strong one, I like the printed page better.
The Dale sisters do a wonderful job bringing the Callans to life, and the other actors also do their parts well. The BTC abridgment cuts quite a bit of the story, but maintains the flow. I heard the book before I read it in this case, and felt I knew the best parts of the story. This version was produced to be aired on the nightly radio program of the same name. It's good to see a lot of this really great Canadian storytelling getting out to the public in a variety of formats.
Clara Callan won both the Giller Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award when it first appeared in 2001.