“A graceful debut novel”
Brenda Jefferies, Flamborough Review
August, 27, 2013
If, as the adage suggests, the best approach to penning a novel is to write what you know, Carlisle author and retired nurse Bonnie Lendrum started in the right place.
Then she took it a step further, by writing about the things that keep her up at night.
Lendrum’s debut, Autumn’s Grace, is a labour of love, with each November, March and April for the past 10 years dedicated to the process – even while she juggled the responsibilities of a career, family (she and her husband, Kenn, have two sons, Luc and Mathew) and volunteer work handling PR for the anti-quarry group FORCE. The result is an engaging, unflinching story of family relationships in the midst of dealing with illness, death and the amount of time and attention we devote to end-of-life care.
The inspiration for the book was born out of Lendrum’s personal experience. “I had a cluster of deaths…there is a time in your life when there are more deaths than births; more funerals than weddings,” she explained. The process, which is unique to each person but one shared by every family, left her questioning the level of resources and education our health care system devotes to supporting families losing a loved one.
“We don’t spend enough time talking about how to die well,” she observed in a recent interview with the Review, noting that the addition of residential hospice facilities in recent years has been welcome, but the health care system needs to go a step further. “We would welcome an equivalent to midwives to palliative care,” she said, drawing the comparison to resources surrounding childbirth. “We need more support available for dying at home. It requires time, and it requires effort.”
The novel’s story centres on the Campbell family as they deal with the diagnosis of the patriarch, Max, a 74-year-old veterinarian who is faced with a painful form of cancer. The reader follows along as he, his wife Marj and his three daughters, Jane, Jessie and Gillian – two of whom work in the health care field – maneuver the tests, diagnosis and end-of-life care for their husband and father.
The characters – and what they are going through – are highly relatable. Creating them was a “curious process” for Lendrum, who as a nurse had plenty of time in her 40 years as a nurse to observe the behavior of patients and their families. “I made note of the conversations I had with people,” she explained, adding that she gained impressions of the “social graces” of managing difficult situations. She also drew on her own experiences navigating the final stage of life for family members, notably that of her mother-in-law, who wished to live her final days at home. “It was strenuous in the extreme,” she recalled, noting that while they received the resources available through the health care system, they weren’t enough. Instructed to make an application for a nursing home, Lendrum instead found herself bridging the gap as caregiver – sometimes making the trip to her mother-in-law’s Guelph condo two or more times a day. She felt compromised and vulnerable at having to leave a frail 85-year-old alone in her home; eventually, the family arranged for a private service to provide care – a costly option not available to everyone.
The question came to Lendrum: “How do people go about dying at home? It’s not for everyone, but we should have the choice. “I had a sense of being overwhelmed – and I have a medical background.” That’s when the seeds for the book were planted. “I thought it would make a good paper at first, but then realized it didn’t make sense for a professional journal,” she said.
She contemplated framing the storyline as a series of linked short stories. “But it just kept going and going to 700-plus pages and I thought, ‘I have a lot to say.’”
Lendrum signed up for the Humber College School for Writers correspondence program. Her mentor was novelist and short story writer Sandra Birdsell; Alistair MacLeod, author of No Great Mischief, ran the week-long seminar portion of the course. “I’m a science major. I thought, ‘I’m so out of my league,’” she said, describing her feelings of intimidation. “I wish I could take the class again so I could appreciate it more.”
Lendrum cites idols such as MacLeod, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Timothy Findlay, along with John Irving, as influences in her own writing. “I keep returning to them, to see how they do things,” she said.
While difficult, the initial writing portion of the project turned out to be the easy part, noted Lendrum. Tougher was the process of whittling it down to a manageable length. “At 700 pages, I had to start slashing and burning,” she said, calling the 13 different edits “painful.” But, she added, “I could see it getting better.”
The final version of Autumn’s Grace came in at 399 pages. Feedback has been positive – most notably, a friend whose father had passed away a decade earlier contacted Lendrum. “She said the book made her appreciate and understand the events of that time better,” she said.