Based on her life story, Donna Miller’s Ladder Valley reads more like a psychological thriller than a memoir. Her first-person narrative smashes through raw emotions like a chainsaw shredding flesh.
This is Miller’s fourth book in a series called Help Me; I’m Naked. Examining mother-daughter relationships, her hard-hitting look at domestic violence shows how abuse affects three generations of women as it trickles down from mother to daughter to granddaughter.
To protect their privacy, Miller changes her name and those of her children. She becomes Korel, and her children are Angie, Sonya, Sapphire, and Kennalyn. They’re living near Big River, an isolated area on the edge of Saskatchewan’s boreal forest, in 1979-1980.
Due to a curse by her great-grandmother, all of Korel’s relationships, and those of her mother, turn out badly. Listening to her mother describe being raped at age six, Korel finds herself “slipping into a pit, an ugly black abyss of compassion juxtaposed with anger” and contempt, creating a ghetto in her soul.
An only child whose father molested her, Korel fled an unhappy marriage with her four daughters, then found herself drawn into a fleeting relationship that left her pregnant. Six months into her pregnancy, she lost the stillborn baby, a male.
Males do not fare well in Miller’s story. When Korel’s dog has a litter of puppies, all but the females die. Even the tomcat disappears. She concludes that “most of those belonging to the male gender were as hopeless as thoroughbred racehorses on a dirt farm; only the females, the weaker sex, were tough enough, mule enough, to stick it out in bush country.”
Korel rolls her own cigarettes, which she savours with a cup of hot coffee, and despises romance novels because they make her dissatisfied with her own life. She detests wearing dresses, and when she’s required to wear one, chooses an oversize brown one that her daughter says looks ugly.
Korel’s issues with low self-esteem show through when she writes a test for her driver’s licence. “I’m not intelligent,” she tells herself. “I have to fake it.” But fascinated with astrology, she studies by correspondence and prides herself in her developing confidence.
A fierce feminist, Korel distrusts men, yet secretly imagines finding a soulmate. Travelling by train to Michigan for an astrology conference, she’s enchanted by an entertainer and wonders if he’ll try to visit her bunk that night. When she finally meets her astrology mentor, he senses Korel’s interest in him. Her face flushes red as he points out her tendency to confuse friendship with love.
Despite being cursed, Korel proves remarkably resilient as she strives to establish a happy family. “That’s all I want from life,” she says. “Is that really too much to ask for?”
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