By Cecilia Nasmith
It used to be called substance or gumption, Port Hope author Kurt Palka says.
The point is that taking personal responsibility and accountability is the highest response to crisis – and one that is central to his new book The Hour of the Fox.
An Aug. 14 book launch is planned at the Port Hope Public Library for this latest of Palka's novels. And like many of his previous books (including his last one, The Piano Maker), The Hour of the Fox is written from a woman's point of view.
Just to add another layer, it's set in the 1970s – so it's written from the point of view of a woman from another time.
In fact, protagonist Margaret Bradley is one of few women of her time to have risen to the rank of senior associate at a prestigious law firm. Along with a career she loves, she is blessed with a happy marriage.
It all falls apart with the sudden death of her son, a military pilot. The heartache is so pervasive that it tosses her world and everything she knows into chaos.
She flees to her family's summer home on the North Atlantic and the comfort of her childhood friend Aileen, who is still there.
The crisis Aileen experiences with her own son calls upon all Margaret has to offer, and also brings her the opportunity to find her way forward.
The challenge of writing from Margaret's point of view draws upon Palka's life-long vocation (and avocation) as a writer.
Born in Europe, he began his career in Africa (with the African Mirror) and, for a time, wrote for an American antique-collectors' magazine while living in France.
He moved to Canada in the late 1960s. He has worked for the Globe and Mail, was a CBC producer in Edmonton and spent time in Viet Nam as a war correspondent.
While his working life was entirely journalism, Palka turned to fiction in 1984, with the publication of his first novel (The Rose Garden).
Fiction has been a good outlet for the lessons life has brought, Palka said in a recent interview, and that includes the ability to write from a woman's point of view.
“If you live long enough and pay attention to certain things that you feel close to and that interest you, you learn to do that,” he said.
The very different expectations society has for women come into play, he added, though that seems to be changing at this point in history.
The books whose plots unfold from a woman's perspective show the inner resources they bring to their own lives, he said. And at the same time, being women, they have additional barriers to surmount.
Palka researched the specific challenges Margaret faced through talks with women who had lived through them – how to deal with the death of a son, how such a tragedy affects one's marriage, career and inner life. What he learned from such conversations informed his character.
Though she does find a way to move on, he said, the pain of the loss never goes away.
“If you live with it a long time, it becomes something like a friend – a warm spot within your soul. You tend to appreciate what you have and what you had, and you hold on to those important things,” he said.
The chance to help Aileen's son turns out to be a blessing for Margaret, he added, “mostly because she does find those inner resources which have a lot to do with where you were raised, the kind of people you were in touch with really young, what you knew in your early life - reference points like that where you learn to be accountable to yourself and responsible for yourself, and you accept that responsibility.
“That is kind of slipping away in this culture now – to be accountable, to say, 'I did that. Let me see how I can prevent that next time.'
“This is part of that inner stuff that interests me, and that I like to deal with. I create my characters with that, and contrast them with characters who don't have that.
“They used to call this substance or gumption. It's something that keeps you going. It sometimes goes away for a while but, if you are lucky, it comes back in later years.”
Palka is pleased to announce that The Hour of the Fox is his first book that is coming out as an audio novel.
He has loved his nine years in Port Hope. Toronto is close enough for easy access, but he does appreciate such simple small-town benefits as the parking lot attached to so many buildings.
For example, the Port Hope library at 31 Queen St., where he will welcome readers at 7 p.m. Aug. 14 to share the story of Margaret's journey.