Annabel by Kathleen Winter

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Annabel

Paperback, 465 pages

Published: January 4, 2011  by Grove Press/Black Cat

Setting: Labrador

Literary Awards:  Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction Shortlist (2011), Scotiabank Giller Prize Nominee (2010), Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award (2011), Governor General’s Literary Awards / Prix littéraires du Gouverneur général Nominee for Fiction, Indie Lit Award for GLBTQ

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Jacinta and Treadway Blake are making a life together in the harsh, starkly beautiful environment of a small Labrador town. Like most other local men, Treadway spends his winters away from home, hunting and trapping. Jacinta lives a simple life at home. In 1968, their baby is born — a child who is neither fully male nor fully female. Treadway makes the decision to raise him as a boy, Wayne. Yet Wayne grows up not fitting in, feeling like a disappointment to his father, and sensing that a part of him is missing.

This is a lovely novel with a lyrical style and rich descriptive detail. The author has a phenomenal eye for the cycles of nature and the rhythms of life in a small Canadian community .

The milieu Winter describes does not offer an easy life for a child without a clear gender identity. Male and female roles are sharply divided, and we see a wide breach between boys and girls and between husbands and wives. She portrays this compassionately and without judgment.

In his determination to help his son grow up “normal” and socially accepted, Treadway tries to keep Wayne within the narrow boundaries of what is considered “male.” Yet the child pays a price for denying his female side.

This opens a window to exploring issues of gender identity on a larger scale. We see clearly how children are shaped from birth to fit external standards of what is “male” or “female,” sometimes at the expense of who we truly are. Eastern philosophy and Jungian psychology offer an intuitive understanding of the cost of denying the shadow side each of us has, such as “feminine” traits in a male or “masculine” traits in a female. But for the most part, Western culture makes no room for this.

In Annabel, we walk in the footsteps of someone who is uncomfortable being constrained by either gender identity. This pulls aside a curtain, making us question everything we “know” about gender. Set aside biology for a moment. Under the external trappings of clothing and gender roles, what does it really mean to be “male” or “female”? Can this be a way of defining people by external standards? Can it diminish who we are?

This novel also raised difficult questions about parenting. Most of us want — more than anything — for our children to be truly themselves. Yet we want them to be “normal” and accepted. We don’t want them to suffer in a society which often doesn’t celebrate people for who they really are.

Watching Treadway’s struggle to repress Wayne’s feminine side was difficult for me. At the same time, even as this caused a widening rift between him and his wife, I understood his motives and empathized with him. Few things are more painful than seeing one’s child become an outcast. Treadway was fully aware of this possibility and of the very real danger of physical harm. Individuals who are transgendered are among the most common victims of unprovoked violence.

I loved this book for its beautiful prose, attention to detail, thought-provoking exploration of gender and family issues, and rich character development. I admired this author’s thoughtful, compassionate treatment of her characters. And I was absorbed by her deep appreciation of nature and of how people express their spirituality by being part of the natural world.

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