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Book Reviews

A Promise of Salt

by Lorie Miseck

Eloise: Letters to a Lost Child

by Loise Lavallee

There’s something about the experience of grieving that memoirs capture particularly well. Perhaps because grief is so little understood, so socially difficult, and because it can take such a surprisingly long time to overcome, the best way to understand it is by reading an unrefined account of the process and drawing your own conclusions.

Two new memoirs, A Promise of Salt and Éloïse, both tackle death and loss in a somewhat unusual format. The writing is directly addressed to the deceased – a fact that obviously speaks to the human need to personally resolve matters with the dead – and both frequently contain only a few paragraphs on each page, with frequent shifts back and forth in time.

The memoirs chart the authors’ surrender to their anguish, after almost superhuman efforts to overcome it, while more abstract passages reflect the confusion and strange memories that arise when grief is at its worst. These techniques don’t always make for ideal reading, but they do mirror some of the most fundamental symptoms of dealing with death.

Quebec writer Loïse Lavallée’s Éloïse was first published in French in 1995. The book is an account of her relationship with her seriously injured daughter Éloïse, who was hit by a car when she was seven months old. A subsequent operation cut off oxygen to the girl’s brain, leaving her with severe spastic quadriplegia, blindness, and uncontrollable epileptic seizures. She couldn’t speak or walk, and was left totally dependent upon her family until her death at the age of 13.

The book contains plenty of beautiful language, which has obviously been well preserved by the translator, Christopher Stone (who was also Éloïse’s father). The writing is infused with grace, dignity, and economy. Lavallée includes poetry among her letters to Éloïse, sometimes writing only one line per page, a technique that occasionally feels precious. This mixing of genres also makes it occasionally hard to tell what has actually just happened. Thankfully there are many lovely scenes taken straight from the family’s life to anchor the story.

The second half of the memoir is consumed with Lavallée’s rather abstract musings about trying to accept her daughter’s death. She’ll swear on one page that she’s given up her guilt and is ready to move on with her life; in the next breath she’s writing frantically about Ëloïse and sleeping on her grave. She describes watching her daughter being nailed into her coffin and seeing her glowing bones at the crematorium, eventually becoming almost obsessed with the details.

But when Lavallée ends her story by writing a letter to Tracy Latimer, the severely disabled girl who was murdered by her father in Saskatchewan, readers see that far from being unwanted or unloved, a child who is so damaged and reliant on others is really the centre of family life. Lavallée lived in such complete symbiosis with her daughter that, after Éloïse’s death, the mother is not sure where she ended and the daughter began.

A Promise of Salt shows another side of grief few of us are unlucky enough to experience. The book concerns the 1995 abduction and murder of Sheila Salter, who was taken from the parking garage of her Edmonton workplace. It is written by her sister, Edmonton poet Lorie Miseck. In Miseck’s case, her grief was horribly compounded because she had to endure Sheila’s disappearance, the knowledge that something brutal had happened to her sister, and the accidental discovery of a frozen naked body. The subsequent media onslaught, the court proceedings, and the difficulty of dealing with ignorant friends and acquaintances made the experience an even worse nightmare.

Miseck’s training as a poet serves her well here. She has a solid ear for choosing language appropriate to the painful, emotionally turbulent story, which allows readers an easier entry into the material than Lavallée’s more abstract musings. Miseck’s account is also less centred on the subject of her grief – readers never actually learn much about the murdered sister.

Perhaps this is one of the points Miseck is making, that grief is ultimately about the person experiencing it. Miseck is always aware of what’s happening to her. She knows the ordeal has changed her personality, her marriage, and even her day-to-day habits, and this process of self-examination often makes for fascinating reading.


Reviewer: Jennifer Prittie

Publisher: Coteau Books


Price: $16.95

Page Count: 178 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-55050-199-2

Released: May

Issue Date: 2002-6

Categories: Memoir & Biography

Reviewer: Jennifer Prittie

Publisher: Insomniac Press


Price: $19.95

Page Count: 184 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-894663-23-3

Released: May

Issue Date: June 1, 2002

Categories: Memoir & Biography