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June 15, 2011

Second Rising by Catherine M.A. Wiebe

Second Rising by Catherine M.A. Wiebe appealed to me as the perfect intersection between two books I’ve enjoyed in the past: Alayna Munce’s novel When I Was Young and in My Prime (about a young woman contemplating her grandparents’ decline), and Diane Tye’s food studies book Baking as Biography (which I love, love, loved). Though Second Rising wasn’t immediately resonant with me: the poetic language was hard for me to decipher, and though I worked hard to permeate the metaphors to get to the meaning underneath, I couldn’t find it, and this frustrated me. I persisted, however, mostly because of the evocative way that Wiebe writes about food. I had to shake off the urge to go and bake a loaf of bread, to fill my house with the fresh smell Wiebe recreates with her prose, and partake in the ritual of margarine-slathered heels. She writes about squash soup, and pickles, and ham sandwiches, and it was made me hungry, but also perfectly illustrated the connection between her narrator and her grandmother who are particularly close when the former is small (when therefore, according to the grandmother, the two are particularly close in age).

With the second half of the novel, however, the method of the first became clear to me. I began to understand that the language and metaphors of the first half had been so difficult to understand because they were spoken by the grandmother as she suffered from dementia. These wonderful ideas, this language with so much magic at its root, seemingly, is nonsensical, and yet in preserving it, Wiebe makes it otherwise. She writes about decline not as decline, but as a mode of still-living, with connections and singular moments just like in any life. Her grandmother’s’decline actually reawakens the narrator to the closeness she’d experienced with her grandmother when she herself had just been young, except that it is the narrator, now-grown, who is chief cook in the kitchen while her grandmother sits on the stool and watches. The relationship, however, is complicated by the narrator’s own ambivalence about her relationship with her grandmother, about her own absences while her grandmother was in the final throes of her illness.

This is a different kind of book than others about Alzheimers I’ve encountered– Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles or Michael Ignatieff’s Scar Tissue, both about the early-onset of the disease, would refuse to so give dementia its place, but at the end of a long life, there is poetry to the process of shutting down, the loss is not far removed from a natural process. And yet, Wiebe still addresses the practical matters of the disease– the notes the grandmother leaves, and how she preserves these notes and reuses them so that nobody notices her handwriting’s decline. About what it means when a woman who bakes is not permitted to bake any more, and there is a particularly poignant scene in which the granddaughter contemplates how the disease has altered the dynamic of her grandparents’ relationship.

Second Rising is a book about memories,about memories of memories and what distance does to our stories. And it’s about the role food plays in nurturing our family connections, linking generations as it feeds our bellies and souls.

One thought on “Second Rising by Catherine M.A. Wiebe”

  1. Melwyk says:

    I loved this book. The way food was so important; the way her grandmother’s perceptions colour the narrative; the whole focus on memory and impending death… I found it really beautiful! I enjoyed how you drew out so many aspects of it in this review.

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