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Song Over Quiet Lake by Sarah Felix Burns

abstract: Song Over Quiet Lake is the second novel by Canadian author, Sarah Felix Burns. Her first novel Jackfish the Vanishing Village, 2007 (reviewed here) won the 2009 Northern Lit Award. This built anticipation for her next book. What shines through in her writing again is Burns' understanding of the human condition and the degree of empathy she evokes in readers for her characters. It is not surprising that she holds a degree in Women’s Studies and History from the University of British Columbia, with a masters degree in Social Work from the University of Toronto.


July 27, 2010
Song Over Quiet Lake Taking place in Vancouver’s wet springtime, Burns seamlessly glides from chapter to chapter; giving the reader a glimpse of each character's individual voice as we can see the events unfold from different angles and viewpoints. The story of Lydie Jim, an eighty-two-year-old Tlingit elder from the Yukon, is intertwined with that of Sylvia, a young woman studying at the University of British Columbia. You can understand why Sylvia is drawn to this irresistibly charming Yukon elder who wields fascinating stories in her broken English. Under her happy demeanour she houses a lifetime of sadness, from the time when she was taken away from her ailing parents on the reserve, to loosing her husband to the war and her first child to a drowning accident. Sylvia finds this older woman’s understanding refreshing as she battles with her own demons. She holds guilt inside her that has separated her from her mother for years, which causes Sylvia to rile against her boyfriend's protectiveness.

“There was something about her, something about our relationship that made me feel like I could leave my official self behind at the door. Like I could let go of those cultivated things that I tried so hard to be and not just even think about being at all.”

What are engaging are the little snippets of information we get from Lydie’s character, and how her stories are still relevant to today. Her character was actually inspired by Burns meeting a Tlingit elder when she was at UBC herself. Lydie recounts endless tales to help Sylvia deal with her problems, seeing her as the daughter she lost. It helps highlight how stories are a way of passing on information, whether they’re designed to entertain, teach or to heal. They are used as a tool, passing down information through generations. In recent book discussions, it has been reiterated again and again just how important the role of fictional stories are in teaching us about life in general. Fables, myths and fairy tales are all forms of story telling which hold sway in the 'real' world, using them to express moral tales in accessible and memorable ways.

“They give me pretty good marks and tell me to keep telling my stories because they say I am a treasure chest of information. Funny thing is, how come if I’m treasure chest, they don’t pay me for my stories?”

Song Over Quiet Lake Other characters, that of a tortured priest and Lydie’s two trouble sons, mix in with the two women’s central plot, making this a well rounded and full story with lots of characters and some great twists.

Lydie’s unbound optimism is inspirational, she carries with her knowledge of her forbearers and with patience and love she helps the other people in her life in their times of weakness. She carries with her a song her mother sang to her on the shores of Quiet Lake, and from this she draws her strength, which she does her best to pass on.

“As the clapping dies down, the song bubbles up to my mouth and out over the audience, silencing them and calming them, just at the waters over Quiet Lake did. The song I give to them.”

Song Over Quiet Lake centres on human traits that most readers will find some level of connection with, those of sadness, loss; grief and guilt are cunningly balanced out with love, hope and joy. This is not a sad story but one of understanding and balance.

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