Let Us Be True

4 November 2015

Let Us Be True
by Erna Buffie
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95 ISBN 9-781550-506358

The unceasing mystery of “family” is at the heart of many a novel, and in Let Us Be True, Manitoba-based Erna Buffie employs a variety of characters to explore this complex subject across generations. When one considers how we often hurt those closest to us-including our kin-it’s easy to question whether blood is indeed thicker than water.

Buffie kicks this novel off on a WW2 battlefield. Henry’s a young soldier who doesn’t regret the death of his hometown comrade, as it frees up that soldier’s girl. He knows that Pearl “won’t be an easy woman to love, but he can’t think of anything else he would rather do.” In the chapters that follow-and through the voices of her two adult daughters and others-we learn that Henry pegged it: foul-mouthed, sour, and seemingly heartless, Pearl’s a difficult woman to like, let alone love.

In chapter two we meet the force that is Pearl Calder. Now seventy-four, she’s clearing out anything extraneous after Henry’s death, including items others might keep for sentimental reasons. Good details here help us understand these characters, ie: Henry kept a Tony the Tiger glass collection. “He’d collected with every refill at the Esso station, the one where he’d worked for more than thirty-five years.” And how about this for Pearl’s telephone answering machine message: “Is this thing working, Henry? Henry! Oh, hell, just leave us a message and I’ll try to figure it out.” Hilarious.

Early on, Pearl’s discarding her dresses: “They didn’t fit any more. Size twelve. When was the last time she’d seen a size twelve? The last time one of the girls got married, and it had taken her twelve months of dieting to get there. And for what? Two divorces, one right after the other, and two mother-of-the-bride dresses she’d never wear again.” I love the realism in this.

Clearly, Pearl’s not close to her girls, and they’re not close to each other. Darlene’s a university professor in a relationship with Athena. Pearl believes this “silly ass” elder daughter “could use a bit of lightening up”. (Pearl’s especially fond of describing people and things as “silly”). The crotchety protagonist attacks her other daughter, Carol, for her pride in her fancy house, where she lives “with her two spoiled sons and that bland, blond-haired milquetoast she’d married.”

Pearl mostly communicates via rant, whereas Henry, the daughters’ favourite, was much softer. She admits that she had “spent quite a bit of their married life shouting nasty things at Henry ….” Her place was for “bitching and scolding,” while Henry was for “fun and play.”

There are several twists and turns, shadows and secrets in Buffie’s debut book. Does Pearl’s dark history justify her coldness? Does she have any redeeming qualities? And how much do our parents’ experiences impact upon the adults we become?

In life there are always more questions than answers. Let Us Be True is a book that lays it all out, and leaves it up to readers to make their own judgements.


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