I met Leon Rooke briefly in 2001 at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, the same day I met Sheila Heti and George Elliott Clarke. I heard him read some stories, at least one of which hadn’t been published yet. He didn’t need a microphone; his voice wasn’t just loud, it was big. You could hear it through the entire festival grounds. You could feel it. I told him that I had never read any of his books, but that after that performance I would go and buy the next one I found. And I did, in fact I bought two (Shakespeare’s Dog, and Painting the Dog). Fat Woman is my third, and I didn’t realize until I was nearly finished it that it was his first novel.
My edition isn’t the one you see pictured here. Mine is a tacky blue mass-market paperback from a company called General Publishing, part of their New Press Canadian Classics line. On the cover is a not-very-good oil painting by a woman named Jane Martin. It’s the sort of painting that would have been popular in Canada in the 1970s, but has not held up, and now looks only like the sort of thing that would have been popular in Canada in the 1970s.
I can’t quite place the time in which the novel is supposed to be set, nor the location. The dialogue has an American south ring to it, but with the exception of some of the navy references, most of the cultural landmarks mentioned seem to be Canadian. The novel was first published in 1980, and though I’ve met people like those described in this novel, I still can’t fathom that such deep, such profound ignorance could still exist at such a time in a nation such as this. And yet still I believe it. Fat Woman is a good book, not just because of Rooke’s contagious prose style, hitting you like an old-school revivalist preacher, sucking you in and not ever letting go, but because there is a tremendous tension between an honest and sometimes harsh portrait of an uneducated rural woman and an overblown caricature of the same. There were times, reading this book, when my heart went out to Ella Mae Hopkins, for all that she had suffered growing up and at the hands of those around her who, despite their love (and here I’m thinking mostly of her dead mother and her husband) can’t help but be cruel. Ella Mae suffers from wild mood swings, anxiety, and an over-eating disorder of epic proportions. It’s easy to laugh at her, and sometimes I did. But I also pitied her, and despite her ignorance and her own portion of hate and bigotry, I felt myself sympathizing with her, and hoping that things would work out alright in the end. Rooke never really tells us for sure; it all comes down to whether or not we trust Edward Hopkins.
Fat Woman was my second contribution to The Canadian Book Challenge. Next: Where is the Voice Coming From?, by Rudy Wiebe. This will most likely be my last book of the year, depending on how much free time I find myself over the holiday season, so stay tuned for an end-of-year wrap-up and a preview of what books to expect in the new year. Happy holidays, everyone.