Blood Ties by David Adams Richards
Richards’ second novel, Blood Ties, came out in 1976 and is also set in Miramichi Valley, which was introduced in his debut novel, The Coming of Winter. This time the MacDurmot family gives the reader a glimpse at life in small-town New Brunswick, though characters from the previous novel make an appearance as well. Blood Ties takes place during the period from July 1967 to October 1969 (so just before the beginning of The Coming of Winter; see my discussion of that novel here).
The most frequent viewpoint is that of Cathy, a young woman finishing high school, but the story is also told through her family members’ experiences, including her mother and father, Irene and Maufat; her half-sister, Leah; and her brother, Orville, and through some of the other men in and around the MacDurmots’ lives.
The voices of the characters are very strong, and the cadence of the area runs through all their conversations and thoughts. This pattern of speech does more than localize the speakers. It reflects where they are and where they are expected to go in their lives.
There is a lot of repetition in this novel; the characters repeat the same phrase in a single conversation and they have the same conversation over and over. This repetition leaves the impression that the characters are stuck – verbally and developmentally. They think and speak more than they act, as if the forming of words could take the place of action.
Near the beginning of the novel, Leah complains about her husband, Cecil. He is a drunk and abusive, and she has come to her parents’ home after Cecil has thrown their young son against the stove. It is clear that Leah has been there before for the same reason. After venting to her family, Leah makes to return home but her family prevents her, not because of what Cecil did, but because of the hour. Leah claims that if Ronnie wasn’t around she would have left Cecil already, but her words are empty and no one responds “because everything was said and they couldn’t say anymore.” Talking is Leah’s only action and no real change is expected to occur.
The next day, Maufat returns with Leah and Ronnie to their home with plans to set Cecil straight, but after Maufat asks why he roughed up Ronnie, he leaves without confronting Cecil directly:
He hadn’t said it, not said it at all. He turned and started out the door….He went out from the stale heat of the house into the bright of the day, the burning of it. “Shit,” he kept thinking. “Shit.” He went out the gate and began walking up the highway, the grasshoppers stiff and silent and deadened in the heat. He kept thumbing cars that passed him as he walked. “Shit,” he kept thinking. “Shit.”
So Leah and Ronnie stay with Cecil, and Maufat goes to work like any other day, which, for them, of course, it is. The fighting, even the violence, between Leah and Cecil is accepted as just being part of their relationship and, more generally, anticipated from men in their town.
Cathy, experiencing her first real relationship with John, the same character from The Coming of Winter, follows the pattern set by her half-sister. She ignores or explains away John’s negative behaviour. He calls Cathy names, makes fun of her in front of other people, refuses to come into her home, doesn’t call when he says he will, talks about his ex, and, on their first date, pressures her in to jumping a fence rather than paying to enter a fair. Yet, Cathy keeps dating him despite knowing she wants better:
She felt desperate and angry with herself, and yet she clung to his arm. When she clung to his arm he moved to open the door and she said: ‘No, don’t go,’ and he turned back to her rubbed his dark hand across his black hair and straightened.
John’s behaviour isn’t unexpected. If Cathy stays in this town, it goes without saying that men like John and Cecil will be part of her romantic future. But Richards provides hope alongside the struggle. Cathy, after a shocking revelation from John, decides to head west with a friend, and Leah, after her own particularly painful encounter with Cecil, works up the courage to leave as well. But more than that, Richards provides an example of a dependable man who remains in the town.
Near the end of the novel, Richards includes a beautiful flashback to the early days of Irene and Maufat’s relationship as they go on a walk together. It is almost dreamlike in its telling, hazy with summer heat; the thickness of the memory makes his behaviour seem like a mirage, but the real love Maufat offers Irene is clear. He, among so many poor romantic examples, is trustworthy and supportive and Irene bares herself to him literally and figuratively.
Richards then proves this mirage to be reality using a bit more repetition. Throughout the book the MacDurmot family hitches rides in cars and even school buses to get around town. Maufat keeps saying he will have to get a car, but by the end of the novel the reader is conditioned to expect that he will do nothing more than talk getting a car. Except, then he does.
He stood and went to the fridge again and she looked out the window. Then he brought the beer over and went to open it, but she [Irene] threw her arms around his neck and at first she was laughing and then she was crying, feeling herself sink against him. He put his arms around her. She was shaking and crying.
“Told ya I’d get a fuckin car, didn’t I – told ya I’d get a car, didn’t I?”
The verbal repetition continues but this time it is accompanied by action, the buying of the car. Furthermore, Maufat promises to help Cathy and her friend leave town by upgrading their train tickets. After Maufat follows through about the car, the reader is left feeling hopeful for the MacDurmots and, more generally, for the characters in the town.
All quoted passages from Richards, David Adams. Blood Ties. 1992 McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto