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Autumn, One Spring a delightfully madcap tale

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M. McKinnon

What do you say about a woman like Autumn?

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Trouble-maker. Wedding crasher. Walking family secret. Chaos creator. A woman with a special talent for saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time.

But don’t get the wrong idea. She is also a loving mother, daughter, and sister, a hard worker, and a person entirely committed to doing what’s right. Above all, Autumn is a determined optimist, always willing to hang in there hoping for the best.

Her efforts just seem to backfire, leading to absurd, and often slap your knees funny, situations.

Author Patti Grayson has made Autumn Greene the centerpiece of her first novel, Autumn, One Spring. It recounts the explosive results of Autumn’s decision to come home to Hematite, six years after fleeing in disgrace, for her sister Christine’s wedding… to which she has not been invited.

Grayson first developed Autumn in her short story work. Core Samples, her collection published in 2005, earned plaudits, and led to Grayson being short-listed for the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer.

Grayson envisioned Core Samples as a collection of connected stories, but the power of the Autumn character led her to pull most of the stories involving her, and aim for the novel. “Autumn’s voice came to me right off, and she took on a life of her own. If it hadn’t been so strong, I wouldn’t have been able to stick through this whole process [of writing a novel],” she says.

The character is definitely a fictional creation, she adds. “People sometimes think the I character in a book is the writer.” Not so! “Autumn is way bolder than I have ever been in my life and the way she looks at the world is very different.”

And while Hematite is pretty clearly based on Atikokan – references to the iron mine and rust-red stains abound – it’s also pretty clearly not a depiction of the actual town. For one thing, the story is set in 1986, and the mine (there is just one) continues to run.

Grayson’s mentor, Winnipeg-writer Wayne Tefs, strived to capture the sense of living in an isolated mining town in the early 1960s in his novel, Dickie. He’d lived here at that time (he was a boy then), and made the emotional reality of the tough, boom and bust mentality central to his novel.

Grayson doesn’t aim for that in Autumn, One Spring. The town of Hematite is more of a backdrop; it’s the antics that take centre stage here.

Madcap

The story is told entirely from Autumn’s perspective, and covers the four days leading up to the wedding. Her arrival breaks the seal on a flock of secrets, contributes to a host of life-changing decisions, and presages the return of a pair of other characters important in the Greene family saga.

With her is her 5-year-old daughter, the reason she fled Hematite in the first place. You see, Sara’s father was her sister Christine’s fiancée, conceived in an explosive one-time encounter. Pregnant at 18, Autumn owned up to who the father was. In the resulting fallout, she was blamed for the end of her sister’s engagement, accepted money (to ‘solve’ the pregnancy problem) and an old truck from the father, and left Hematite.

Autumn’s letters home ever since have gone unanswered – until a clipping from the Hematite Prospect announcing Christine’s forthcoming marriage is mailed to her anonymously.

She returns with a strange brew of feelings – dread, nostalgia, and hope. And quickly sets off a chain of events that threaten to derail her sister’s second attempt to marry.

Autumn does not achieve all this alone, however.

It turns out that the best man at the wedding, the groom’s best friend, is a high school teacher for whom Autumn had a carried a secret torch (or at least she thought it was secret). And Autumn’s boss from Winnipeg, who has been the one pillar of support in her life as a young mother, also shows up in Hematite. She behaves inappropriately, brings lots of bad news, and generally ups the chaos ante.

The story is rich in interpersonal plot – Autumn’s secrets are hardly the only ones in her world. Everyone in the novel has a secret of one sort of another, and the interplay of these secrets adds steam to the ever more madcap story. It all culminates in one of the most chaotic wedding scenes imaginable: hospitals, jail cells, fights, a suspected kidnapping, legal agreements, and more, highlight the big day.

Standing firm

For this reader, Autumn, One Spring brought to mind Shakespeare’s comedies: all these secrets, misunderstandings, and personal foibles, and the resulting machinations as the characters behave ever more erratically to protect them, make the unlikely plotting believable.

Grayson does a wonderful job of telling the story in only Autumn’s voice. When things don’t add up – Why is her mother reacting with such shock to Sara? What does Gabriel’s kiss mean? Why has Christine disappeared? – the reader is just as much in the dark as Autumn.

Autumn, of course, fears all these things are her fault, that they are the direct consequence of her personal failings. Or at least her fearful nature would have her so believe. As she sorts through an issue, she learns to recognize when this fearful nature threatens to overrun her better self. Her short, often humourous, self-deprecatory summaries (“Too much self-pity, Amber.”, “Too much dithering, Amber.”) return regularly to cap her ruminations.

How does Autumn get through it all? The same way she raises Sara – recognizing that there are bigger issues here than her own sense of inadequacy.

In her first meeting with her sister and mother, she immediately puts her foot in her mouth, and the urge to turn and flee (again!) is overwhelming. But motherhood – seeing to Sara’s needs – leads her to stand her ground.

“I can be as angry as ever standing in the house I grew up in, but I am no longer just the bad daughter, rotten sister anymore: I have my own child, and I can be effective when her well-being is at stake. It’s a relief to discover that, whether they can see it or not, I am a mother (maybe even a good one, or at least not a major screw-up one), standing in my own mother’s living room.” (From Autumn, One Spring)

About the Author

Patti Grayson (nee Yurkiw) grew up in Atikokan, and still has strong ties to the community, both through her own family and husband David Grayson’s family. (She and David were Head Boy and Head Girl at Atikokan High School.)

She attended the University of Western Ontario and the University of Winnipeg, where she earned her B.A. in English and Drama. She has worked as a copywriter for television, radio and print and has had numerous minor acting roles on stage, in television (Most recently in the Men With Brooms series) and film. She also works as a librarian in a junior high school and writes fiction and poetry.

She started writing when her children were young (and going on the road with a theatre production was almost impossible), and published her first book, Core Samples, in 2005. That collection of short stories included several based in Hematite, her fictional stand-in for Atikokan, and introduced Autumn Greene to the reading world.

The Graysons children are both in university now, and Patti has a little more time to devote to her craft. She has been intensely focused on Autumn, One Spring for the past three years.

“I sit down to write because the imaginary place in my head is much more appealing than the laundry room in my house. I force myself to remain seated long after the work in the laundry room beckons like an oasis in comparison to the grinding toil of putting words to page.” (From her Manitoba Writer profile at www.mbwrite.mb.ca)

The book was published in late September, and has gotten a great reception. It quickly reached number one on the Winnipeg Free Press’s Winnipeg best-seller list, and has been picked for the Breakfast Television book club on Winnipeg’s CITY-TV (www.btwinnipeg.ca).

Patti Grayson will be in Atikokan later this week for a pair of readings and a book signing. The readings will be at noon on Friday at the Bistro in the Voyageur Mall, and Saturday at 1 pm at the Atikokan Public Library. She will sign books on Friday, 1-3 pm, at Voyageur Books and Gifts.

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