Set on an isolated Canadian farm in the midst of World War II, The Cure for Death by Lightning evokes a life at once harshly demanding and rich in sensory pleasures: the deafening chatter of starlings, the sight of thousands of painted turtles crossing a road, the smell of baking that fills the Weeks’s kitchen. The novel is sprinkled throughout with recipes and remedies from the scrapbook Beth’s mother keeps, a boon to Beth as she learns to face down her demons--and one of many elements that give The Cure for Death by Lightning its enchanting vitality.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||2 MB|
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Read an Excerpt
THE CURE for death by lightning was handwritten in thick, messy blue ink in my mother's scrapbook, under the recipe for my father's favorite oatcakes:
Dunk the dead by lightning in a cold water bath for two hours and if still dead, add vinegar and soak for an hour more.
Beside this, some time later, my mother had written Ha! Ha! in black ink. The same page contained a tortoiseshell butterfly, pressed flat beside the cure for death so the wings left smudges of burgundy and blue on the back of the previous page. The bottom of one wing was torn away. My mother said that she'd caught the butterfly and pressed it between the pages of her scrapbook because of this torn wing. "Wonderful," she told me. "That it could still fly. It's a reminder to keep going."
The scrapbook sat on my mother's rocking chair next to the black kitchen stove and was hers just as the rocking chair was hers. I didn't sit in her chair or touch her scrapbook, at least not whe she was in the room. My mother knew where to find a particular recipe or remedy by the page it was written on, because every page was different. She compiled the scrapbook during the Depression and into the Second World War when paper was at first expensive and then impossible to buy, so she copied her recipes on the backs of letters, scraps of wallpaper, bags, and brown wrapping, and on paper she made herself from the pulp of vegetables and flowers. The cover was red, one of the few bits of red that my father allowed in the house, cut from the carboard of a box of crackers. The book was swollen from years of entries. Pages were dusted with flour, stained with spots of tea, and warped from moisture. Each page had its own scent: almond extract or vanilla, butter or flour, the petals of the rose it was made from, or my mother's perfume, Lily of the Valley.My mother didn't keep the book as a diary. If she kept a diary at all, I never found it. But she wrote brief thoughts along the margins of at the bottom of a page, as footnotes to the recipes and remedies, the cartoons and clippings footnotes to the events of the day. She was always adding a new page, and it didn't matter how many times I stole the scrapbook from her chair and pilfered my few minutes with it, there was always some new entry or something I'd missed.
I still have my mother's scrapbook. It sits inside the trunk that was her hope chest. I sometimes take out the scrapbook and sit with it at my kitchen table, by the stove that is electric and white. Even now I find new entries in the scrapbook, things I've never seen before, as if my mother still sits each morning before I wake and copies a recipe, or adds a new page made from the pulp of scarlet flax.
My name is Beth Weeks. My story takes place in the midst of the Second World War, the year I turned fifteen, the year the world fell apart and began to come together again. Much of it will be hard to believe, I know. But the evidence for everything I'm about to tell you is there, in the pages of my mother's scrapbook, in the clippings describing bear attacks and the Swede's barn fire and the children gone missing on the reserve, in the recipe for pound cake I made the night they took my father away, and in the funeral notices of my classmate Sarah Kemp and the others. The scrapbook was my mother's way of setting down the days so they wouldn't be forgotten. This story is my way. No one can tell me these events didn't happen, or that it was all a girl's fantasy. The reminders are there, in that scrapbook, and I remember them all.
Excerpted from The Cure for Death By Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz.
Reading Group Guide
1. “Dunk the dead by lightning in a cold water bath for two hours and if still dead, add vinegar and soak for an hour more.” (p. 1) In this opening passage, how is Beth’s mother revealed through her scrapbook, through her gallows humour and her rather brutal method of remembering the fragile determination of a butterfly? What does it say about the circumstances of Beth’s childhood?
2. “The scrapbook was my mother’s way of setting down the days so they wouldn’t be forgotten. This story is my way.” (p. 2) How is Beth’s approach to memory-keeping different from her mother’s?
3. “When it came looking for me I was in the hollow stump by Turtle Creek . . .” (p. 3). What is this “it,” also variously referred to by Beth as “the thing,” or as Coyote? How does Beth’s attitude to “it”/Coyote change through the course of her story? Who ultimately wins, and how?
4. In this threatening landscape, women and livestock are closely guarded from dangers both real and perceived. Bells are tied around the necks of the livestock to keep track of them. Bells are given as love tokens. And Nora, too, wears bells. When Beth hears the bells tinkle, what does it often mean? What is their association for her?
5. Bertha describes Coyote as a complex devil figure, linked to the madness of world events. “Of course the old men here wouldn’t agree with that,” she says. (p. 170) Consider Bertha’s description of Coyote, of the mix of good and evil that he brings and of his sorrow and regret. What does this say about her worldview? Do you see this version of Coyote reflected in any of the characters in the novel?
6. Beth’s mother remains generally distant, only revealing herself through the pages of her scrapbook, which she guards from Beth, and in her mutterings to her own dead mother. She appears to have a wish to protect Beth, yet continually places her in jeopardy, and it’s unclear if she’s aware of the extremity of Beth’s trauma. What is Beth’s perspective on her mother? Do you think she will forgive her? Could you?
7. The colour red – the colour of berries, of beet wine, of lipstick and of blood – carries great significance in the novel. Do you see a pattern in its associations, for example with sexuality, with violence, with nature and with the lives of women?
8. When Bertha hears of Beth’s lightning arm, she tells Beth the story of Lightning and Mosquito who were both attracted to the sweet blood of a young girl. (p. 171) What do you think the lightning strike means to Beth in light of Bertha’s narrative?
9. Beth feels pulled by the desire coming from Dennis, from Nora and from Billy. How do the three differ in who they are and what they want from Beth? How are they similar? What is it about each of them that attracts Beth?
10. Men do not have the fear of Coyote that women, children and livestock share. The only exception is Billy. Why is he pursued by Coyote? What is their relationship?
11. Why doesn’t Beth leave? What is really keeping her on the farm?
12. Some characters have totem animals associated with them; for instance Coyote Jack and Bertha with the birds. Do you see any other totem animals in the novel? What do they mean to Beth?
13. There are many recipes and anecdotes from Mrs. Weeks’ scrapbook reproduced in Beth’s story. What do they lend to the narrative? Will you try any of the recipes? Are there any scrapbooks or recipes passed down through your family? What do they mean to you?