Charlotte Stein is a long-time bookseller. Her first bookstore job, while a highschool student, was in the NAAFI Bookshop on the NATO military base in Rheindahlen, West Germany. In 1988 Charlotte and her husband, artist Alan Stein, established Parry Sound Books, serving the Georgian Bay population year round, and international visitors and seasonal residents during the summer months. Drawn to the work of Audrey Thomas because it is often set in Ghana, she applies her empirical knowledge to her reading of Audrey Thomas’s latest novel, Local Customs (Dundurn: Toronto; distributed by Gazelle Book Services in UK, 2014, 202 pages).
Novelist and short-story writer Audrey Thomas (b. 1935) is a contemporary of Alice Munro; for her lifetime work she received the Marian Engel Award in 1987. Like Local Customs, which takes place in Ghana, several of her novels are set in Africa: Mrs. Blood (1970), Blown Figures (1974) and Coming Down from Wa (1996). So, too, are some of the stories in the collections: Ten Green Bottles (1967), Real Mothers (1981) and Wild Blue Yonder (1991). Here is Stein’s review.
I lived in Ghana when I was a child, on the coast near Accra, from 1960-62, during the heady early days of the Republic of Ghana, and its newly elected “President for life” Kwame Nkrumah. My father was a very young soldier in World War Two, and stayed in the military for a long career that included postings across Canada, Europe and Africa. Although I was there for only a few years, Ghana is a place that has stayed with me. During the time I was there, it seemed idyllic, in spite of the poverty and the lepers on the side of the roads. For a child it was a place of beauty and freedom. The beaches were exquisite and with school only in the mornings, we were free to run like wild things all afternoon. The heat may have bothered the adults but we children seemed immune.
As Audrey Thomas explains in her Afterword, she lived in Ghana from 1964-1966, when her husband worked at the then named Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, in central Ghana. Many Canadians taught there when we lived in Ghana. We sometimes went there on weekends so that my parents could visit other Canadians – the children, ignored, played days-long Monopoly games.
Local Customs by Audrey Thomas was released this spring – almost 50 years after she lived in Ghana. This historical novel is set in 1838, on the Gold Coast, and chronicles the story of Letitia Landon, who as L.E.L. was a British novelist and poet of some repute in her day. Landon marries the British Governor of the Gold Coast, George Maclean. She moves into his home in Cape Coast Castle, where much of this novel takes place. The castle was used during the slave trade; after housing the Governor, it became a museum. Two months after her arrival at Cape Coast Castle as a bride, Letitia dies.
Letitia Landon’s death may or may not have been suspicious. I am not giving anything away by telling you of her death – Letitia herself tells of her “unexpected death” in the prologue to the novel. Although we know that Letitia will die in Africa, we do not know the circumstances of her death until they are gradually revealed. It is as Letitia reflects on her short time in Africa, and her earlier life, that the narrative moves forward, alternating with other voices, drawing us into a world with strict behavioral expectations.
Letitia’s voice is joined first by the man who becomes her husband, George Maclean, and later by Thomas Freeman. Mr. Freeman was born in London, his mother white, his father a former slave. Trained as a gardener, after finding religion Freeman becomes a missionary in Africa – where he crosses paths with our heroine. Brodie Cruickshank, a childhood friend of George Maclean, joins the story when he meets the charming Letitia – and it is Brodie who introduces Letitia to the “local customs.” Mrs. Bailey, maid to Letitia, knows something about the local customs, the ju-ju, the love and hate potions, scornfully dismissing them. Through all of these voices, Audrey Thomas moves the story forward as she provides us with an insight into some of the beliefs and practices of the Ashanti people.
These practices were still very much in evidence when we were there in the 1960s, including a very strong belief in witchcraft, and potions for both poisoning and healing. When my mother became very ill in Ghana, no cause could be found. Many, including some of the medical staff, were convinced her illness was the result of witchcraft. We left Ghana as soon as she could travel – no diagnosis was ever made and she recovered completely. I am sure she had some sort of tropical disease – or an ulcer from the incredible amount of drinking that went on among the expats. As Audrey Thomas writes, it is “a most insalubrious climate.”
Perhaps my memories of Ghana are so clear because it was a place extremely different from, say, Sussex, New Brunswick. The insects were larger and greater in number – everywhere. There were lizards and snakes – everywhere. The bougainvillea and flame trees and calla lilies were extravagant in size and colour. The paw-paw from the trees just outside our back door had a taste you never forget and will never find in an imported papaya. The soil is red laterite, with anthills taller than most men, home to huge ants. Like Letty, we always shook out our shoes in case of scorpions.
It is intriguing that the story of the real person, Letitia Landon, stayed with Audrey Thomas for so long before finding life in fiction. Thomas wrote earlier about a similar character, Mrs. MacLeod, whose marriage took her to Africa and whose reaction to local customs led to her own tragedy, who stands in a greenhouse and inhales: “rich, moist, sweet, excessive, the smell of West Africa.” I never forgot those words and the pivotal scene in this Audrey Thomas short story that I read many years ago and have searched for year after year, picking up early short story collections by Margaret Laurence and Audrey Thomas and re-reading, searching without success. I was beginning to wonder, as the years passed, if I’d imagined it – but was sure I had not. Then, looking for information about Audrey Thomas when Local Customs was published, Eureka! I came across a website — Canadian Writers Abroad — and a review by Debra Martens mentioning The Wild Blue Yonder, a short story collection by Audrey Thomas and the story “The Slow of Despond” with enough description for me to know this must be the story – not exactly as I remembered it but close enough.
Unfortunately most of the story collections and novels by Audrey Thomas are now out of print, such is the state of Canadian publishing in the 21st Century. Fortunately we have small publishing houses such as Dundurn still committed to publishing fine work by Canadian authors, and bringing us Local Customs, a very fine novel by Audrey Thomas.
The Slow of Despond on CWA (canadianwritersabroad.com)
Author bio on Dundurn site (dundurn.com)
Another review of Local Customs (nationalpost.com)
From Scotland to Africa review on WordPress (thebooktrail.wordpress.com)