There is a consistent theme running through the story threads of Jamie Zeppa’s first novel and those two sentences effectively summarize it. So, in fact, does her opening paragraph (in a chapter appropriately titled The Beginning of the End):
Dawn should have known it was over the night the men showed up with the car. The jig was up, the goose was cooked, it was going to get worse before it got better. It was the beginning of the end, her grandparents would have said, only they would have seen it coming from Day One, if not sooner. This was not unusual: in Frank and Vera’s stories, things often ended before they began.
Every Time We Say Goodbye is a generational story, set in the Northern Ontario city of Sault Ste. Marie. The chonological action extends from the late part of World War II to the 1980s, but that is deceiving — Zeppa consciously moves her narrative focus back and forth between all three generations of the Turner family. That’s one of the reasons why those complementary themes of “this can’t be normal” and “the beginning of the end” come to be central to the book.
The event that starts all this action is the seduction of Frank’s sister, Grace, by a neighbor lad, days before he is headed off to the front in France. It results in a pregnancy — after giving birth, Grace parks her infant son, Daniel, with Frank and his new wife Vera and heads off to Toronto to start a new life. Here’s the opening of the chapter titled A Fresh Start:
Frank took her to the bus station in the dark. She didn’t wake Danny; it would have killed her to say goodbye. Not that it would matter. She was dead already. The walking dead.
“Grace, do you have the ticket?”
“Yes.” The talking dead.
“You look very nice, Gracie. That suit is very becoming on you.” The dead wore new clothes, a navy skirt and matching jacket cut and sewn by the liviing.
“We wait over there,” Frank said. The moving dead. The standing dead. The dead could swallow coffee from a paper cup, but they could not taste it.
“You have your wallet? Keep your purse in your lap at all times.”
The dead could nod.
The central character of the middle generation is represented by Dean, who may or may not be a grown up Daniel. He was raised by Frank and Vera and in his early teens discovers that he was adopted. That provokes his first “bolt” — he steals the family car and heads towards North Bay where, he hopes, the Children’s Aid Society records will establish just who exactly he is. This will become “normal” behavior for Dean — throughout the book he is more or less always on the way to “bolting” to some new set of circumstances which surely will be better than the current ones.
Even Dawn, the third generation character who is only eight when the book opens, is on a continuing search for a version of normal, although in her case it comes mainly in the form of hope that things will get better since she has no direct control over her own situation. The opening paragraph I quoted frames the story of Dawn’s first “hopeful” experience — while it foretells an unsuccessful end, the beginning aspect of that is her anticipation of the arrival of Dean and his new wife to pick up Dawn and her brother. They are moving from their grandparents to a new home where she will have “normal” real parents. A decade later as the novel draws to a close, Dawn is still hoping.
There have been a number of Canadian novels centred on those who were left at home during the War, particularly young women like Grace who came to maturity when most of the males in her cohort were away fighting — Jeanette Lynes’ The Factory Voice is another worthy example. There are recent examples as well in both UK fiction (Gerard Woodward’s Nourishment) and US fiction (Maile Meloy’s Liars and Saints). One of the more interesting aspects of the mini-genre is that it shows how different life on the home front was in each of these countries for the women left behind.
For this reader, the greatest challenge that author Zeppa faced and did not completely meet was that each of these three generations requires its own cast of characters. Particularly when she chose a structure that moves the narration from one generation to another, the reader has to keep a relatively lengthy list of non-overlapping characters in mind and the author simply does not have the time or space to adequately develop them. The central characters in each generation acquire depth but those around them simply don’t come to life.
Having said that, Zeppa does come much closer to success in her portrayal of the different approaches her characters take in their pursuit of some acceptable version of “normalcy”. Yes, it is futile but then that is a reflection of life — it is hard not to develop some sympathy for the effort, as ill-guided as it might be. Frank and Vera’s approach — grow a thick skin and adapt — may be the most viable option.
Every Time We Say Goodbye will not be to everyone’s taste, but it is an entirely worthy first novel. For those of us born to these times (I’d be close to the same age as Daniel and/or Dean) it is a valuable reminder of the circumstances that our parents faced. The female characters are better developed than the male ones are, so I suspect female readers would find even more in this book than I did.