Review: Shelter: A Novel by Frances Greenslade
In a beautiful, untamed wilderness in a small town in British Columbia, at the break of the spirited 1970s, Maggie and Jenny Dillon call an unfinished cabin home. Their quiet, kind-hearted father Patrick and their adventurous mother Irene manage a life at once unconventional, but full of love and contentment. Maggie, a child in the grip of constant worry, is at her father’s side with every possible moment. The pair’s greatest happiness is found in nature as Patrick teaches Maggie how to build shelters and survive off the land. But their world is shaken when tragedy strikes and Patrick is killed in an accident, leaving a ten year-old Maggie, her mother and sister to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
When Maggie and Jenny, two sisters only a year apart in age but worlds apart in spirit, finally start to make sense of the turn their lives have taken they find their worlds rocked again when their mother leaves them with a childless couple the girls have never met before. Irene intends to find work and come back for her girls, but what felt to Maggie as an abrupt departure soon takes the shape of abandonment. Years go by without word from their mother, and life’s struggles soon strike their new, uncharted home as the girls grow into adolescence. When Jenny finds herself facing a situation that will change her life forever, Maggie takes it upon herself to go after their mother and bring her back. At fifteen, Maggie has only the skills her father left her with and the help of a few friends she can count on to survive – Vern, an Indian boy her age, and his kindly uncle Leslie. She calls on the women who had befriended her mother, and from them she begins to unravel the fabric of Irene's life, discovering mysteries she had never expected.
In Shelter Frances Greenslade offers a complex, achingly poignant creation that delves into the relationship of mothers and daughters, sisters, and womankind alike with a subtle grace and an honesty that fluctuates between the sentimental and unsentimental. There were three elements of Shelter that struck me the greatest: Greenslade's characters, story and scenes. Her characters, from Maggie and Jenny to the scattering of women throughout the novel, stand boldly off the page and reach into the heart of the reader without fear. They represent both strength and weakness, and the journey of women learning through life’s trials how to govern each trait. The story, too, seemingly leaps out of the book, and reaches out to pull us deeper in with it. It’s a tale as determined and untouched by limitation as the resourceful, passionate Maggie who narrates it. And, lastly, the countless scenes of a melancholic, wild Canadian world consumes the reader in a sense of finality so strong that you know, from the first, that you’ll be taken away by this book – and maybe even changed. Greenslade's appreciation for nature shines through in her depictions of unchecked waters, towering mountains, the flora, fauna and the sheer emotion to be found within it. The backdrop amplifies the other strong elements of the book and sets the scene for an unforgettable debut novel from a clear and deserving talent in the world of writing.
Shelter is a haunting tale of love, loss, hope and courage. It's an exquisitely crafted book, and a must-read. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to discover a new world, new characters and new concepts through truly moving literature. It's rare that a book engages me in the way Shelter did; this is a book that warms your heart, shocks you and moves you into a distance that allows for a unique glimpse at the human connection born of a mother and daughter.
Shelter has been previously published in Canada, but it will be releases in the United States for the first time on May 15th by Free Press. You can pre-order it at the links below.