When Ottawa-based writer Stacey D. Atkinson first met Dr. Patricia Davis, a retired psychologist who once worked in Northern Labrador as a midwife, Atkinson had the option of writing Letters from Labrador as a conventional memoir recounting Patsy’s adventures in the north in a straightforward manner. However, Atkinson has taken an interesting approach, using Patsy’s life experiences as a jumping off point to confront us with the role that memory plays in our lives.
Letters from Labrador does not simply publish a young Patsy’s letters to her family in England in a linear fashion. Instead, Atkinson weaves in her own fictionalized flashbacks of Patsy’s northern life and juxtaposes them with scenes from Patsy’s life now.
In sense then, the book is about two parallel stories. One is the tale of a young woman who moves from England to northern Labrador for an adventure. She is supposed to be a midwife, but as is often the case in the Canadian North, she plays many roles, from a public health nurse shampooing schoolchildren’s hair, to a child-minding medical escort rocking a child in her arms while he is transported from his community to the hospital by helicopter, to even a firefighter at one point. The other story is of the same woman, now in her sixties living in Kingston, coming to terms with being diagnosed with Lewy body dementia.
The book goes deeper than merely mourning the tragedy of memory loss for a woman who has made so many impressive memories over her lifetime. Instead, it showcases Patsy’s resilient spirit, determined to live as independently and to the fullest as she can, to organize her life’s memories as she begins to forget the names of her neighbours, and to care for her own ailing and aging dog. Although she once escaped a sinking snowmobile stuck in thin ice, she now struggles to retrieve her newspaper from her walkway. But it is the same determined strength that she needed to thrive in the Canadian North which it helps her survive now.
It is fascinating to read the accounts of Patsy’s adventures, snowmobiling under the northern lights, waiting for the blizzard to blow over so the mail plane can come in, trying to work during power outage, wanting to see wildlife before someone hunt it. These are stories that allow other Canadians who have lived in the north to re-live their own memories while reviving a sense of wanderlust for Canadians who haven’t. Reading about Patsy coping with her early onset dementia also provokes the reader to consider all of the incredible stories the elders in our society must have, stories that will die with them if they are not passed on.
I appreciate that the writing seems to avoid the moralist trap of characterizing the local cultural context and people of Labrador (comprised of Innu, Inuit, and settler families) as exotic others, as travelers to the North often make the mistake of doing. Although the perspective is indeed that of a British nurse, Patsy does not spend pages deploring how foreign these conditions are from her home, or passing judgment on some of the more difficult situations she encounters. Instead, she takes the refreshingly healthy attitude of wonder, excitement, and an open mind.
However, there are points where I wish the book did probe more under the surface of Patsy’s surroundings. While I admire the dual storytelling format that Atkinson has employed, this made me want more details for both stories. In particular, I was left wanting to know more about the historical political/social context of northern Labrador that Patsy was experiencing. What were the reasons for the conditions of these remote communities? Patsy was living in the north in the 1970s during a fascinating time when local lifestyles were transitioning from traditional societies living off the land to something new. The Labrador Inuit Association had just formed to assert land claims with the Government of Canada. Patsy would have had the chance to witness firsthand these social changes at the local level. Instead, although the book generally mentions problems in the communities, the underlying social conditions of the regions are not really explored in detail.
Of course, one could point out that these memories come from her letters to her family. Letters to our moms don’t necessarily make great political theses. Most of us write to our family to assure them that we are doing fine, and to pass along some of the more interesting tidbits of daily life, rather than to analyze broad long-term social developments. What comes across strongly but implicitly in these letters is Patsy’s sense of isolation in a place with no television or radio. Patsy writes home to ask about her cat’s health and her brother’s search for a job. She asks her parents to mail her the weekly Guardian newspaper to find out what is happening in the rest of the world. Patsy was working as a nurse on the ground, not a researcher or a politician, and so she may have been too busy treating patients’ wounds from domestic fights to contemplate why these fights were happening in the first place.
In absence of this historical placement, the book’s focus is on Patsy as the woman with dementia, trying to look back at her life as she re-reads her letters. The slice-of-life snippets of Patsy’s life in Labrador seem short, and as a result the reader is never fully immersed the way we are with other biographies like Little House on the Prairie or Call the Midwife. But to the author’s credit, this is how memories work in reality, and conditions like dementia force us to confront it.
It also makes us ask ourselves what will become of our memories when we grow older. Patsy’s letters survived through the decades because she wrote them in an era before Instagram and blogs. What will we hold on to when our memories begin to fail us?
Letters from Labrador is available on Amazon in paperback and ebook (or ask for it at your local bookstore). There is also a book club kit available for it through Stacey D. Atkinson’s website. You can find Stacey D. Atkinson on Facebook and Twitter.