1998 short list:
by Helen Humphreys
published by HarperCollins
Leaving Earth is a fascinating account of a publicity stunt, the sort of thing that was common during the Depression when people would do just about anything to make a little money and escape from their otherwise dreary lives. It is also a tender look at the characters involved and a glimpse of a part of Toronto that has changed immeasurably since that era. Humphreys describes people, places and an interesting period in Toronto's history with a fine deliberate hand in this first-rate first novel.
About the author
Helen Humphreys is the author of three books of poetry, The Perils of Geography (1995), Nuns Looking Anxious, Listening to Radios (1990) and Gods and Other Mortals (1986). Her novella Ethel on Fire was published by Black Moss press in 1991. Her poetry, short stories and articles have appeared in numerous magazines, including The Malahat Review, Quarry, Event, Poetry Canada Review, The Fiddlehead Review, Grain, Arc and The New Quarterly. She has read her poetry across Canada.
Excerpt from Leaving Earth
Published with permission from the author. This excerpt is copyright protected.
Maddy bicycles under the Moth. It's flying low today and she can see the white of the pilots' shirts, their hair gnarled with wind. She rides along the boardwalk on the northern shore of the islands, the wood mumbling under her wheels. All the way to the edge of the eastern channel and then all the way back again to the base of Hanlan's. Once when she's pedalling east and once when she's pedalling west the plane passes above her. She puts her head back to watch it, spreads her arms out from the bicycle, palms down.
It's early Sunday morning and the boardwalk is deserted. Most of the islands residents are either still in bed or getting ready for church. Her father, she thinks, just this moment is probably changing into his one good suit, polishing his old black shoes. Maddy is glad that she doesn't have to go to church. That is the one good thing about being her mother's daughter, being Jewish. She has been spared any religious training. Del observes some of the Jewish rituals and holidays, mainly for her parents' sake, but she is by no means guided by any kind of faith or doctrine. Even so she refuses to let Fram take her daughter into the Presbyterian church and raise her as a Christian. This is completely suitable to Maddy, who has no interest in any god except for the almighty Grace O'Gorman.
Maddy reaches the eastern channel and rests for a moment, straddling the bar on her black bicycle, feet down flat on the wooden boardwalk. Across the narrow belt of water there are the light towers, steady red. Beyond that the bumpy black hills of coal. She checks the position of the Moth. It's just banking past the city, a bruise in the pale morning sky.
Sometimes, early, when everything on the islands is quiet, Maddy can hear the dim, distant noises of the city, like something heard underwater. The muffed clang of a church bell. The far-away slide of a train whistle. Now, as she stares out over the eastern gap at the port lands, she hears only the faint buzzing of the plane.
Maddy cycles back toward Hanlans's, the lake on her left side, the main bulk of the islands on her right. The wood says a slow prayer beneath her rubber tires. Just as she's passing Sunfish Island she sees the Moth flying towards her, a dark double line above the trees. The plane comes nearer and she sees something small arch up out of the cockpit and come spinning through the air, landing on the boardwalk about a hundred feet in front of her. Maddy races forward. The Moth skips over her head and drones its way to the east.
Apple core. Shiny white on the brown planks. Mostly eaten but still some flesh around the ends. Maddy squats down beside it. The stems's still attached. One of the seeds pokes its brown snout out of the core. There's a small pink stain near the bottom. Lipstick. Maddy picks up the apple carefully, turns it over in her hand. She lifts it to her mouth, kisses it and then drops it into the right front pocket of her trousers.