Anne DeGrace, author of 2005’s Treading Water, sets her new novel during a single day in 1977 in a remote diner in a B.C. mountain pass. The story is primarily about Jo, a troubled teen waitress still recovering from an unexpected pregnancy, and Cass, the owner of the diner. But the staff at Cass’s Roadside Café are only a launching point for an expansive novel that encompasses each and every person who enters the diner during the day. The full cast totals more than a dozen, with twice as many characters in supporting roles.
DeGrace’s narration begins in the third person, but switches frequently to first, and from character to character. One soon becomes accustomed to the sudden changes. The narrative is anchored to the diner, so when characters leave, something inevitably pulls the story back inside. Much of the time the anchor is a hitchhiker named Pink, who has chosen to travel solely in the direction in which the wind blows. The result is narration that ping-pongs as the wind shifts, constantly catching characters coming from both directions. The cast is varied and interesting, and includes hippies, an adulterous trucker, a dowser, and an old woman who ought to have died but didn’t.
In one way or another we learn their histories, the perspective shifts driving the action along. The interaction between the characters and Jo creates a layered effect in the story. By the end, the novel is much bigger than its “day in a diner” frame. Each individual’s experience sheds light on another’s, and all are bound by a sense of remorse over the irrevocable effects of decisions made (or of the refusal to make any decisions at all).
The combination of these wind tales makes for a riveting read, concluding as Jo finally makes her own decision, one that may save her from sinking into the sense of regret that has shackled so many of the others she’s seen that day.