Charlotte Gill’s seventeen back-breaking years as a tree-planter have paid off in spades. Her newest book, Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe, has won her the prestigious and lucrative 2012 British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize. It was also short-listed for both the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize, and the Charles Taylor Prize; and was a Globe and Mail Best Books of 2011 choice. And now it has been chosen as the inaugural Queen’s University Common Reader.
Eating Dirt is a remarkably thoughtful, sensitive, and beautifully written ode to the life of a tree-planter and the importance of the forest itself. A priceless addition to Canadian non-fiction, it is listed amongst Quill & Quire’s Best Books of 2011, who describe Eating Dirt as, “not out of place alongside other classic memoirs of the bush by Susanna Moodie or Farley Mowat.”
Charlotte took her first tree-planting job when she was a nineteen-year-old student at the University of Toronto. She kept at it for seventeen seasons, despite the gruelling physical nature of the work and sometimes insanely harsh conditions. Asked why she stuck with it for so long, she told the CBC, “I can’t simply answer that question. But I’ll try. Planting trees taught me how to be miserable on the outside and happy on the inside, instead of the other way around.”
Charlotte lives on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, along with her husband Kevin, a physiotherapist and former tree planter. She was born in London, England, to parents who were both doctors, and was raised in both Canada and the United States.
Charlotte’s previous book, Ladykiller, won the BC Book Prize for fiction, and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines including Best Canadian Stories and The Journey Prize Stories.
Charlotte Gill’s Ladykiller is serialized!
Read a story from Charlotte Gill’s first book of fiction.
Charlotte Gill Ladykiller Serial Part 1
(cStories eBook Single …continued from win.cstories.ca )
… They embark in Roz’s car, a practical sedan of foreign make from a design phase when cars were built to look like cigarette packaging, streamlined and boxy at the same time. It’s raining, yet even more wintry inside the car. Gary drives. They don’t talk. They don’t even listen to music. They sit in their silence as psychic snow drifts up against the windows. Roz looks straight ahead, cracking her ankle every few minutes, then slapping her glove like a leather tongue against her lap. The highway passes underneath them, slick and black. Water shushes in the tire wells.
Three days before Christmas, the next-to-shortest day of the year. Holiday traffic is backed up a million miles from the ferry terminal. Roz insisted they leave at this hour. Gary had wanted to sleep late. Now she looks straight ahead with her legs crossed and her hands intermeshed. A satisfied frown at the corners of her mouth like, who was he to doubt her? Workers with flashlights and high-viz vests direct traffic onto the shoulder of the highway. They permit a strip of this millipede to crawl off the boats. The sky goes a fecund shade of eggplant. Clouds, the possible sun.
Roz wants to go up to the top decks. She gives him a sort of kiss-off with her middle and index fingers.
Gary stays behind in the car with a newspaper spread over the wheel. Roz has left him alone and a thin film of worry coats all of his thoughts. In his chest, the press of amorphous dread. He runs his eyes over chunks of text, his mind absorbing nothing. They are on their way to his mother’s, Gary’s boyhood home. The visit looms. A boredom verging on anxiety. It drives him out from seclusion onto the vehicle deck in search of some visual distraction.
The ferry’s hold is like the gut of a giant mechanical behemoth. The walls and the floor are grimed over with grey-brown soot. Cars and trucks packed bumper to bumper, lit by caged fluorescent tubes. He prowls the rows. Underneath him the boat engines rumble.
Few passengers remain down below. Poodles left behind, yapping at inched-down windows. His eye is drawn to the interior of a sedan where a girl dozes on a reclined seat with her back to the door. Headphones, a rectangle of exposed skin, low-riding pants, coloured thong floss peeping over the waistband. Gary collects the visuals, then veers towards the ferry’s outer edges where a stiff sea wind pours in.
There he catches sight of a sheet of billowing hair, a woman leaning out over the railing. Blonde, from a bottle, he can tell from its flat lustre. She wears a cropped silver parka of the variety worn by cheerleaders – an amenable sign. He surveys the curves and contours of her lower half, and finding himself pleased, tucks into the narrow strip between the cars and the railing to further his investigations. She has her elbow propped on the railing and her chin in her hand, and she looks out at the sea, he thinks, wistfully. She ignores his approach. It only serves to encourage him. His stride grows energetic, his shoulders lift – with each step closer he’s starting something. A motion, like a sneeze, that can’t be stopped once triggered.
Gary swoops and dives. He takes his hands out of his pockets, and as he squeezes past her, grazes his knuckles across her sacrum. He skims his nose through her hair, which smells of vanilla and showered wetness. Sensations penetrate like X-rays, his bones lit up with strange touch. Then the contact breaks and the world flattens out again. He sweeps and passes through.
Charlotte Gill Ladykiller Serial Part 2
…Gary continues on, waiting until he’s put the lengths of a dozen cars between them before giving her an over-the-shoulder glance. She’s looking straight at him with an expression he’s seen many times before – halfway between amusement and outrage. He quickens his pace and disappears around the bulkhead before he invites more trouble than can be refused.
The stock rooms, the service elevators, the fire stairs, the airport bathrooms, the least frequented wings of public places, the unvisited hallways of the mind. On some occasions there’s more, sometimes just this – an unknown female, whiffs of hope and relief, a feeling of continuous arrival.
Gary travels back to the car, enjoying the soft pause in his thoughts. Across the water is their island destination, cloaked in rain shadow. He looks out at the horizon where the sky turns pink, and he remembers what it’s like to be free.
The ferry nudges up against land and disgorges their car. Gary relinquishes the driving to Roz. The traffic around the terminal is heinous and claustrophobic, the streets rampant with roadside convenience. Wal-Mart, Canadian Tire, Over-waitea Foods. Everyone shopping, eating fast food, driving, parking, making mountains of garbage. Home – he could rip off his shirt, run screaming into the ocean and begin the swim back to the mainland.
As soon as the tires hit the highway, Gary says, “Let me out.”
“I can’t go,” he says. “Let me out. On the corner will be fine.” He points at the curb where a guy battles the weather in a clown suit, between the planks of a sandwich board advertising roses.
Roz swerves over onto the shoulder and squeaks to a halt. Gary reaches for the door. But before he can make his escape Roz has her finger on the button. All four door locks ratchet down. They sit there for a time with the engine idling, the muffler puffing smoke. He can feel her gaze burning into the side of his face.
Gary undoes his seat belt. He elbows into the space between the steering wheel and her chest and hits the autolock on her armrest. He opens the door and sets his foot down on the pavement.
“What will you do? Call up one of your old girlfriends and see if she’ll give you a ride?” Roz has her sunglasses on though the day is grey and sloppy.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Gary asks.
“Don’t be stupid,” she says.
Ah, he thinks. And there it is again. Lurking in their conversations like a butcher knife at the bottom of the dishwater. His extra life, snug and seamless, has caught on the keen edge of Roz’s attention. Roz knows – though she can’t prove a thing. She smells guilt on his breath, on all his clothes. Other women. Sidelines and diversions. They roll around in his thoughts like foreign words, like the crimes of other people.
Roz says, “If you get out now I’ll circle around the corner. I’ll hunt you down with my bumper.”
Charlotte Gill Ladykiller Serial Part 3
…Gary looks down at his shoe, shaped like a sock to the contours of his foot, the soles full of rubberized bubbles. Roz looks forward to meeting his mother – perhaps a little too eagerly. Until right now he hadn’t understood. She intends this trip as a form of punishment, a domestic squeeze play. He returns his foot to the inside of the vehicle and slams the door with a careful crash. He’ll have to maintain. He’s going to need Roz for the moral support, for the holidays that lay ahead.
Roz gives him some cut-eye, then swings her gaze back to the road. She shifts from park back to drive, and they’re moving once again. The lampposts have been decorated with giant silver bows. Kids walk around with their hoodies up as if they’d never be caught dead carrying umbrellas.
They drive over the mountains, the divide between east and west, then and now. On the downslope they whiz through cool pockets of ancient, shaggy trees. The land flattens. Grassy ditches and trailer homes with smoke chugging out of hatted pipes.
They enter the town of Gary’s childhood abruptly, travelling from forest to civilization in a single red light. The town is a discreet, unimaginative grid of split- levels with a commercial vein running down the main street. A community constructed with utility in mind, without cul-de-sacs or municipal gardens. They make their lefts and their rights. They crunch up the gravel driveway and park behind his mother’s vehicle, a Lincoln Town Car with a deflated tire and lapsed licence plates. The house, a yellow cube with four front windows, stands before them like a giant block of butter. It has a tidy quaintness to it. A quality that never aligns itself with Gary’s memories.
Roz strides to the door with certainty of purpose. She doesn’t even ring the doorbell. She steps inside, and the house swallows her up. Gary waits for a minute sniffing the wind, which blows around smells of the town both new and familiar. He goes in through the side door that leads through the garage. The front door was only for visitors.
Gary knows the textures of the house as unconsciously as he knows the pores on his own arm. The lumps in the wallpaper. The particular steps to the basement whose risers are higher than the rest. Every inch has been travelled by his fingers and trammelled by his feet. It’s a jungle of knick-knacks. Move one thing, and the entire house becomes strange, as if clutter is the cement that holds it all together.
Together and apart, Gary and Roz go in search of his mother. They follow the roar of an electrical appliance straight to the kitchen. Their routes conjoin where the carpet meets the linoleum. They see Gary’s mother kneeling on the floor, deep in the lazy Susan with the vacuum cleaner hose. She wears a housecoat and a pair of mock-athletic slip-ons. The two of them puzzle silently over how to approach without scaring her to pieces, without eliciting a heart attack.
“You,” Gary mouths. “You go.”
From the original collection Ladykiller
Published by Thomas Allen Publishers
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