The 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.