I’ve been lucky–if one could call it luck–with the demise of my loved ones. My late partner had a mercifully short four month battle with lung cancer before he succumbed, and my mother’s struggle with breast cancer and lymphoma only took a year and a half, but watching their declines was heartbreaking. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to watch the years of deterioriation Wayne Hoffman experienced with the death of his mother, Susan. Being a writer, however, he has forged that pain into art and shared it with us all. That’s just what we do. And the end product is a truly moving story accompanied by an engaging mystery.
In many ways, Susan reminds me of my own mother–a larger-than-life storyteller who drew all the attention and focus whenever she walked into a room. Weight problem? Check (inherited by me–also check). Strong sense of fair play and social justice? Check. Never afraid to speak her mind? Check and double check. The difference is that my mother’s mind was pretty much intact right up until the end, with the addition of a gallows humor she’d never shown before. I didn’t have to watch her lose parts of herself or become unsure and anxious for no good reason. She always remembered who I was, and she was able to pass on the family stories to me in excruciating detail.
Before Susan began to experience her losses, she was also the repository of family lore and legends, one of which being that her grandmother–Hoffman’s great-grandmother–was shot and killed one winter on the front porch of her home by a sniper while she was nursing a newborn. After some years of hearing this story, Hoffman has some serious questions–like why was she nursing a newborn on the front porch in the winter? The story began to fall apart after some thought, so Hoffman decided to track down the truth.
While this truth isn’t stranger than Susan’s fiction, it’s certainly different. In fact, it made headlines in newspapers all over Canada in 1913. Hoffman’s great-grandmother was indeed shot and killed, but not on the front porch. Rather, it was at point blank range in her bedroom as she slept, one of her children sleeping with her (her husband was on a business trip). What follows is an interesting whodunit that takes Hoffman from one end of Canada to the other in his search to discover his great-grandmother’s killer.
Hoffman’s mother’s decline and his investigation of the shooting are two of three threads which form Hoffman’s narrative. The last is an examination of the Jewish diaspora in Canada during the early part of the twentieth century, including migration patterns. Far from being a dry, numbers-ridden history, Hoffman brings it to life as he travels from place to place, finding extended family in almost every city. He deftly balances all three of these elements, never losing his momentum. The result is a fascinating mix.
But no matter what stage his investigation is at or where his digressions about migration take him, he’s never far from his mother’s decline. As you’d expect, it pervades his life and that of his local and extended family. It’s not a story for the faint of heart, but it’s certainly relatable to anyone who’s gone through it. And even if you haven’t, you’ll understand how he feels.
© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler