Several months ago a magazine editor asked me to write a book review. I could choose Dora Dueck’s What You Get At Home or David Bergen’s The Age of Hope. I hadn’t read either at the time, and the editor knowing about my Steinbach roots, seemed surprised I opted for Dueck’s book, since Bergen’s is partially set in my hometown.
I didn’t choose The Age of Hope, because while David Bergen is an excellent writer, crafting unique protagonists and memorable scenes with his well-chosen prose, I tend to prefer books where I can connect with the characters and in the past I have rarely identified with the people who populate Bergen’s novels. His stories make me sad and often make life seem hopeless.
I have now read both books. Dueck’s collection of short stories was a delight. I enjoyed her strong female characters and evocative writing. But in contrast to the other David Bergen books I have read The Age of Hope drew me in completely. I came to really care about Hope Plett and I simply couldn’t put her story down. I’m trying to figure out why.
Maybe it is because I knew the woman on whom the main character is based. I went to school with her children and lived in Steinbach when she did. David Bergen says in a National Post interview that the heroine in The Age of Hope is based on his mother-in-law Doris Loewen. He does makes it clear his character Hope Koop who lives in a fictional place called Eden, took on a life of her own and in some ways she became quite different from his mother-in-law. However like Doris, Hope was born in 1930 and married a man who owned a car dealership in a rural community that he eventually lost in a financial crisis, thus precipitating a move to Winnipeg.
Perhaps the book engaged me so thoroughly because there were many things in it that reminded me of Steinbach, like Hope’s home on Reimer Avenue, the Holdeman Church where her parents’ funerals were held, and the fact she did her grocery shopping at Penner Foods. I was always looking for recognizable people, places, situations and events in the story.
Another thing that intrigued me was how Hope wanted to be an independent woman, someone with a role and interests other than that of housewife and mother. She tries to learn Russian, enter law school and read great novels, anything to give her an identity of her own. Hope made me appreciate how fortunate I was just a generation later to have the opportunity to not only be a wife and mother but have a full-time career and pursue personal interests, as well as serve on boards and committees in Steinbach. This was something few women of Hope’s generation were free to do in the community.
I was also pleased that in the last part of the book Hope is afforded a measure of contentment. During her life she has struggled with mental illness, experienced poverty and her children have lives that are unconventional and often hard for her to understand. She has been prevented from having a meaningful relationship with her grandchildren. Yet in the last years of her life she finally has some joy. She gains the courage to come to the defense of a co-worker and a cousin in an abusive relationship. She travels to France and revels in her freedom after her kind and faithful husband dies. She even has a brief romance. The Age Of Hope did not leave me feeling hopeless.
If you haven’t read The Age of Hope or What You Get At Home I can recommend them both. They have also both been nominated for Manitoba Book Awards .
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