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Hetty Dorval

by Ethel Wilson
afterword by Northrop Frye

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classics, small town & rural, non-classifiable
list price: $19.95
category: Fiction
published: 2008
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Seeking refuge from her mysterious past, the beautiful Mrs. Dorval arrives in a small British Columbia town at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers. As Frankie Burnaby, the young schoolgirl Mrs. Dorval befriends, pieces together Hetty’s story, she begins to realize that her enigmatic idol is also a treacherous opponent.

Hetty Dorval, Wilson’s first novel, is a wise and expertly crafted tale of innocence and experience.

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The day that Mrs. Dorval’s furniture arrived in Lytton, Ernestine and I had gone to the station to see the train come in. It was a hot day. The heat of the sun burned down from above, it beat up from the ground and was reflected from the hot hills. Mr. Miles, the station agent, was in his shirt-sleeves; the station dog lay and panted, got up, moved away, lay down and panted again; and the usual Indians stood leaning against the corners of the wooden station (we called it “the deepo”) in their usual curious incurious fashion, not looking as though they felt the heat or anything else. The Indians always looked as though they had nothing to do, and perhaps they had nothing to do. Ernestine and I had nothing much to do, but school was out and supper wasn’t ready and so we had drifted over to the station. Neither of our mothers liked us to do this every day; but we were not absolutely forbidden.

When the train clanked in, a number of the stifling passengers got out seeking coolness in the bright glaring heat of the station platform. Ernestine and I watched these passengers with experienced eyes and saw that there was no one interesting to us. We did not find grown-ups interesting, but were always on the look-out for other children or for dogs. And sure enough there at the end of the train was a large dog, perhaps a Newfoundland, hot in his hot coat. The train men had got him out of a freight car, and then they heaved and pushed and lifted out a huge crated object that might be a piano, and then they got out packing case after packing case.

Directly the great dog stood upon the platform, looking sadly and nobly about him, a woman moved up to him and said casually, “Well, Sailor,” and you might almost say the dog smiled. His thick bell-rope of a tail swung and he moved up to the woman who patted him lightly but gave her full attention to the crates and packing cases that the train hands and station hands deposited upon the platform. Ernestine and I had seen this woman before in the Lytton main street, but she was really the kind of woman that you don’t notice. You might see her in a village, or in a big city, or in a street-car, or on a train, and you would never notice. Nevertheless, we now saw that she had authority. She was dressed in dark grey. Her hair was dark grey too, and was taken straight back from her plain strong face. Suddenly she began to be interesting to Ernestine and to me, because she belonged to Sailor the dog and to all the new packing cases.

We did not need to ask, because, before you could count fifty, word had travelled along the platform, perhaps from the station agent or perhaps from the express company, to us and through us, and even to the leaning inscrutable Indians, that the dog Sailor and all these packing cases belonged to a Mrs. Dorval and that Mrs. Dorval had taken that square bungalow all alone above the river, just to the east of Lytton. So as Ernestine and I had nothing better to do, we trailed along the dusty road behind the waggon that took the first load out. The horses toiled up the winding trail, sending up clouds of fine clay dust, and we idled far enough behind to be out of the worst of it. Mrs. Dorval rode with the teamster. The trucks were out that day and one was broken down, so they had to use the team. The toiling waggon topped three or four little slopes before it reached the square bungalow above the river. Only the knowledge that we were to see something new in Lytton, and the niceness of having something to tell our families that would cause us to be important made Ernestine and me keep on walking in the dust and heat behind the waggon, because the declining sun, still just above the high near hills, was very hot indeed. You couldn’t walk on the side of the road very well because there was nothing but sage and tumbleweed, and that made walking difficult, although it was easy enough to ride horseback there.

The sun dipped behind the hills across the river and the windows of the bungalow ceased blazing with evening sunlight. At once you felt the cool air as if it were the earth’s cool breath. Anybody looking out of the front windows of Mrs. Dorval’s bungalow could look down on to the racing Thompson River. Perhaps the water was emerald, perhaps it was sapphire. It is both. It is neither. It is a brilliant river, bluegreen with lacings of white foam and spray as the water hurls itself violently along in rapids against hidden or projecting rocks, a rapid, racing, calling river. The hills rise high and lost on each side of the banks. These hills are traversed hardly at all. There is no reason to climb, to scale the top, to look down. In the sunlight the dun-coloured gorges of the blue-green river look yellow and ochreous, and in some places there are outcroppings of rock that are nearly rose red. Large dark and solitary pine trees give landmark and meaning. Here and there in a gully an army of these dark pointed pine trees marches up an ancient waterway of the hill-side, static. How do they grow on stone? A figure of man or of beast crawling distant across the great folds and crevasses of these sprawling hills would make you stop, look, point with surprise, and question. One is accustomed to their being empty of life. As evening comes on, the hills grow dove grey and purple; they take on a variety of surprising shapes and shades, and the oblique shafts of sunlight disclose new hills and valleys which in daylight merge into one and are not seen. It is the sage-brush that covers nearly everything, that helps to transform everything, and that in the mutations of sunlight and moonlight helps to change the known hills to the unfamiliar. Because the hills are so desolate, strange and still, without movement, the strong brilliant water in headlong motion at their base holds your eyes with its tumult. If the person in Mrs. Dorval’s bungalow feels any fear of this desolate scene, or if the person is subject in solitude to moods of depression or despair, then that person had better take her piano and her dog Sailor and her packing cases and go by train or by the Cariboo highway to some comfortable town full of people. No one can travel by the Thompson River at Lytton; it is too turbulent and too thickly sown with rapids.

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Contributor notes

Ethel Davis Wilson, born in South Africa, was taken to live with her maternal grandmother in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1898. In the 1930s Wilson published a few short stories and began a series of fictionalized family reminiscences which were later published as The Innocent Traveller in 1949. Her first published novel, Hetty Dorval, appeared in 1947, and was followed by Swamp Angel in 1954, generally thought of as her most accomplished work. Her final book was Mrs Golightly and Other Stories (1961). The Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize is named in her honour.

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About the Authors

Ethel Wilson

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Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye was one of our most distinguished and respected authorities on English literature. Prior to his death in 1991, he was principal and chancellor of Victoria College, University of Toronto, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
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