Monday, October 17, 2011

Scene: "The Wheel Keeper"

It isn't very often that we read a book, or watch a movie, or listen to a cd without knowing anything about it in advance. We come to almost everything with preconceptions that are already beginning to shape our response. Which is why, I suppose, that I picked up Robert Pepper-Smith's short novel, The Wheel Keeper. I'd never heard of it.

Robert Pepper-Smith cares about scene more than he does story. And so this story of Italian immigrants working in the orchards of British Columbia moves forward and backward in a way that I, at least, found rather confusing. But after a while I stopped worrying about it because the individual scenes were so wonderfully written--beautifully visual, emotionally tender, and poetic without being cloying.

There's one brief scene that I want to write about. It takes place in 1920:

"My grandfather is riding a bicycle from Dundee, Scotland through France to Italy. His father was a master slater in Dunee, his mother a weaver. I see him pedalling south to Italy on a bicycle with low-slung handlebars. In the bag strapped over the rear fender he carries a slater's hammer and a coil of copper wire."

A slater is a skilled workman who cuts stone into slate roof tiles. The man arrives in a small Italian village called Roca D'Avola during a rare snow fall. The men of the town are trying to put up a pole for a festival outside the village church, but a "moon-tugged" boulder has shifted up from the ground, making it impossible to dig a hole. The slater asks a young pregnant woman for a glass of water. He pours it on the rock, listening to the water run through the boulder's cracks, feeling the "exhaled air with his lips." He takes out his tools, makes a few quick taps here and there, and breaks the boulder up.

The scene last only a few lines but it is very rich--a scene of two cultures meeting, of the beginning of a love story (the slater falls for the pregnant woman, who is unwed), and also the start of a journey (he follows her to Canada). Perhaps it owes something to Michael Ondaatje, who is so good at similar scenes and who is also attracted to men with special skills, but the author's voice is his own. And there are many pages just as good in this little book.

I don't know anything about Robert Pepper-Smith, although a quick search just now finds that his second novel, House of Spells, has just been published. I found the first book by accident, but I'll look for this new one quite on purpose.

(Robert Pepper-Smith, The Wheel Keeper. Newest Press, 2002, $14.95.)

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