Eerie realities permeate fictional coal town

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By Rosalie MacEachern

For The News

A small rural town fights for a future in A Possible Madness (Cape Breton University Press, $19.95) by Frank Macdonald.

It is an often-told story of much-needed employment opportunities versus environmental destruction so the strength of the story is not so much the plot, though it has some lively turns, as in its memorable characters and the momentous challenge they face.  A Possible Madness was nominated for last year’s prestigious IMPAC Dublin literary award.

Macdonald’s fictional Cape Breton town of Shean once drew coal miners from across the island and Europe but its most accessible seams have been played out and it has the slag heaps to prove it. There is still coal in the famed Beaton seam, Shean’s “lost economic lottery,” but there is no way to get at it so the people of Shean drift away to other opportunities or do the long commute to jobs in western Canada, leaving their families and hearts behind.

Those who stay relish the green spaces and proximity of the beach, for walking or late-night drinking or the occasional rendezvous, and wonder how to attract tourists to sustain the post-war, post-industrial economy.  

That may sound quaint if you live in Toronto but to a Pictou County reader the ghost of Westray lives in Shean. It exists side by side with the ambitious and accommodating politician, the shrewd business interests from away, the hungry players who are groomed for better opportunities, the alcoholics whose services are bought for a bottle and a few bucks, the patently paranoid, the disinterested and the conscientious objectors.

The tension in the novel manifests itself in the interactions of the characters. Ronald MacDonald, recovering stroke victim, is harnessing the resources of the Internet as he wages war on his fast food restaurant namesake, believing him to be a discredit to his clan. Mrs. Big Sandy is a lonely figure who holds off the entire town with her inextinguishable rages. Donald The Bastard is part self-serving mayor but also part business owner and part heroic firefighter.

Newspaper owner David Cameron, who divides his time between investigative reporting and photographing all the town events, propels the narrative along, chasing down one possibility after another, pitting himself against the mayor at every turn. There is something authentic in the responses they evoke from each other – these are combatants who know each other from their boyhood days and have a more than passing familiarity with each other’s weaknesses.

It becomes clear that while the people of Shean gnash their teeth over the merits of modernized coal-mining and tourism, global industrialists are far ahead of them, seeing the town only as a convenient staging ground to test dangerous but potentially lucrative new technology.  It is brutally clear the interests of Shean, whether pro-business or pro-environment, count for little outside its municipal boundaries.

The book has a strong sense of place, some vivid characters and revelatory moments but it also has a small flaw that grits like sand in a scallop. At one point Cameron, whose home and everything in it has been destroyed by fire, goes skulking about on a summer night, disguised in a heavy sweater he got last Christmas. Plucked from the ashes, presumably.

Macdonald does a great job of conveying the intricacies of life in a small rural community where privacy is in short supply and history is everywhere. When a set of house keys is handed over in precisely the same manner as a cup of tea, hard-boiled or otherwise, you know you are in a special place. 

Organizations: Cape Breton University Press

Geographic location: Shean, Cape Breton, Europe Canada Toronto Pictou County

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