Sunday, May 13, 2007


By The Secret Ladder: A Mother's Initiation
By Frances Greenslade
Penguin Canada, 218 pages, $24

Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

THERE are many mothers. There are many writers who are also mothers. And so there are a growing number of non-fiction books on being a mother and a writer -- including this clear-eyed account by former Winnipegger Frances Greenslade.

Like the first year of a child's life, the genre - mammolit? maternaficton? - is brutally demanding.

American novelists Louise Erdrich and Anne Lamott showed that it was possible to move beyond the sentimental aftertaste that affixes itself to most writing on motherhood and had the courage to turn themselves inside out for their readers.

Greenslade, who now teaches English at Okanagan College in British Columbia, attempted the latter trick in her first book, A Pilgrim in Ireland: A Quest for Home (2002).

A species of travel literature, it focused on Greenslade's quest to reconcile the Irish Catholicism of her childhood with the complicated spirituality she'd cobbled together as an adult.

In By the Secret Ladder: A Mother's Initiation, however, Greenslade must recount how she was literally turned inside out by her experience of mothering, as both she and her son Khal require hospitalization - Greenslade for an emergency hysterectomy and Khal for severe jaundice.

As both mother and son return to good health, Greenslade comes to terms with the fact that she will not be able to have any more children.

But Greenslade is not just a woman and mother. She is also a writer and so must find room in her baby-blasted identity for her craft.

What makes Erdrich and Lamott's books interesting, at least to other writers, is their charting of how their vocation fared next to the all-absorbing responsibility of being the primary caregiver for a new baby.

How does the 'room of one's own' that Virginia Woolf so famously lectured on in 1928 accommodate a baby and all of its modern paraphernalia?

More interestingly, how does a new writer like Greenslade (who, at the time of her son's birth, hadn't yet sold her first book) negotiate between a feminism that states that men and women are equal and the lived reality that still gives fathers freedoms that most women, deep down, resent?

Greenslade tries to answer these questions. She describes how her husband David spends much of his free time in his basement office and at one point asks, "Why did my work fall to last place in the scheme of our domestic priorities?"

But besides noting how supportive and caring her husband is (a reflex, like the leg jerk when the doctor taps your knee, that Greenslade herself acknowledges elsewhere in the book), this conflict is never fully addressed.

An academic by training, Greenslade is in much more comfortable terrain when discussing the role of women and mothers in other cultures, in literature, and in myth.

Unlike her predecessors, she also borrows from scientific discourse as another way of getting at the immense changes that babies bring.

Thankfully, Greenslade doesn't shy away from the knotty emotions of other aspects of mothering and she has a particular knack for capturing every nuance of her emotional state throughout the first year of her son's life.

And while Greenslade's cool prose doesn't approach Lamott's profane yet tender style or Erdrich's lyrical meditations, this is a book she should be proud to show her son, years from now.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer and editor whose daughter's first birthday is in June.

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