Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Nettle Spinner by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer (a review)

The Nettle Spinner by Kathryn KuitenbrouwerThe Nettle Spinner by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the story of Alma, a treeplanter who has found refuge in a ghost town in northern Ontario with a man who claims he was a stowaway on the Titanic. Interwoven with this present tale are flashbacks to Alma’s last summer of treeplanting as well as a Flemish folktale about a nettle spinner.

My sister spent years treeplanting and Mr. B, my partner, planted for one summer, so I’m familiar—from a distance—with this world. However, Kuitenbrouwer’s descriptions of life in a treeplanting camp transported me there—these segments of the book were my favourite by far. Kuitenbrouwer draws the transplanting crew with a sure hand: her cast of quirky characters could easily have become caricatures but instead their eccentricities are what make them feel real. And Alma’s scathing critique of so-called forest management practices makes for compelling reading.

My favourite scene is Alma’s encounter with a bear—part rant about the craziness of what she’s doing, part comedy of errors, part philosophical musing about the nature of right and wrong, this is possibly the best woman-meets-beast scene I’ve ever read—complete with a Janis Joplin soundtrack no less.

However, my enjoyment of this segment of the book didn’t carry over to the rest of it. The nettle spinner’s tale is a grim story of a peasant girl who catches the fancy of the local landowner, a cruel man who is used to taking what he wants. The story in the present is disturbing and almost hallucinatory in parts—on more than one occasion I wondered if Alma was imagining what was going on. I was also dismayed by how the women in this book are portrayed as acquiescing/participating in the violence perpetrated against them. And after all the build-up, the end of the book feels anticlimactic: as Alma says herself, “the great anticlimax.”

The blurb on the front cover of The Nettle Spinner calls Kuitenbrouwer “a brawny and gifted writer” (this is according to Jonathan Bennett). I wouldn’t disagree. I just didn’t care for where this story went.

Thank you to Mini Book Expo and Goose Lane for sending me this book to review.


  1. Good review. I think I would enjoy this story. I love reading about trees in fiction, and I live in Ontario so it interests me. I review for Mini Book Expo too but can't get the site to come in for a while now or I'd check if they've got another.
    I read a good book with tree-planting in it recently. An Unexpected Forest by Eleanor Morse. It's set in Washington state.

  2. Thanks, Sandra! That's weird that you're having trouble with the Mini Book Expo site -- that hasn't happened to me. An Unexpected Forest sounds good!

  3. A very good review. Still makes me interested in reading the book, but at least I go in knowing what the faults are.

  4. Thanks, Lisa! I almost feel like I should have added a disclaimer about the sex in this book. The blurb on the cover says Kuitenbrouwer "portrays sex with startling clarity." I'm not sure I would put it that way, but she does discuss it frankly and some of it is a bit strange/disturbing...

  5. Great review, Avis.

    Your review left me still interested in the book despite the fact that it had some downside for you.

    Surely that's the sign of a good review, and why authors say they would rather have any review than no review at all!

  6. Thanks, Shana. That's exactly what I thought when I read Sandra and Lisa's comments. There's no such thing as bad publicity, right?