by Riel Nason
Goose Lane Editions
There are so many incidents that can stand out small and don’t seem like anything at the time but end up meaning so much. There are so many tiny twists in a life that you can never know the ultimate significance of. (pg. 80)As teen Violet Davis looks back through her copious memories of incidents with her older brother Bliss and their parents, she now seems to see the significance of them with respect to his disappearance from their lives after graduation from high school. There were all the signs of a wanderlust for moving beyond their small town of Riverbend and Hawkshaw, New Brunswick, for travel, for adventure. There was also the darkness in Bliss that may have been triggered when the two first discovered the Department of Transportation’s gruesome boneyard of deer and moose road kills, perhaps Bliss’s “first proof of unhappy endings” (pg. 116) but this melancholy could not be repressed.
It seemed that every bad memory, in fact only bad memories, bubbled up in his brain. His entire perspective changed and every thought he had was permeated and tainted, shifted and reinterpreted in a negative way. (pg. 116)Now it’s the summer of 1977 and Violet’s parents are ostensibly on vacation, but really in search of any evidence of Bliss’s travels. And Violet has been left in charge of the family business, officially known as Charles J. Davis & Son Antiques but known locally and by all travellers as The Purple Barn, a roadside attraction and store brimming with crafty twig furniture and quilts and antiques and collectibles.
For Violet, the summer is more than just working at The Purple Barn, and keeping the busybody employee Mrs. Quinn in check; it’s also a time of hanging with her boyfriend Dean and best friend Jill and her boyfriend Johnny. While her brother’s disappearance is always foremost in her mind, as she rethinks what she should have and could have done to keep him from leaving them behind, Violet is forced to struggle with two unrelated issues. First, she must negotiate the purchase of the contents of the renowned Vaughn cottage, a grand home deserted after the drowning of the owners' grandson. Secondly, Violet is haunted by a white buck that no one else seems to see. Is it Speckles, a piebald deer Bliss befriended years earlier, or an apparition that is part of the rumoured ghost herd of the boneyard?
Riel Nason’s first book, multi-award winning The Town That Drowned (Goose Lane Editions, 2011), was a deeply moving examination of a small town dealing with its impending demise by deliberate flooding. That community, Haventon, is now a memory in All the Things We Leave Behind, both as place and experience, but only one of many things left behind when people move, or die, or disappear. Those things can be like the goods that The Purple Barn sells from estates or deserted houses, or the mementoes set to be bequeathed to family upon a grandmother’s death. Or they can be people, like Violet, left behind when a brother goes exploring, or when someone dies. It can even be the bones of the dead or their ghosts remaining to haunt people’s thoughts and dreams and nightmares. The concept of things, including people, being left behind is a monumental one but one that Riel Nason addresses with sensitivity and completeness, understanding the nature of memories and mementoes as powerful beyond reason.
Having a reminder, a souvenir, to help you remember is great, but I think the best memories are through a special door in your mind that you can open without a key. (pg. 105)Riel Nason’s writing, both intricate and profound in addressing the nature of loss and memory, does not dwell on grief, though the boneyard and the tragic deaths of the animals and people in the book are disturbing. But, All the Things We Leave Behind is bigger and better than just that, instead becoming a souvenir in itself, one of weighty contemplation and yearning for a past remembered and a future unlocked. Even with the tragedies that unfold in All the Things We Leave Behind, there is a lightness and brightness in the darkness, and acknowledgement by Riel Nason that all the things we leave behind, tangible and intangible, become powerful tributes in their own ways.