Thursday, September 29, 2016

Suzette Mayr's Widows

The Widows / Suzette Mayr
Edmonton: NeWest Press, c1998.
248 p.

I picked this book up secondhand this summer, after looking for it fruitlessly through interlibrary loan for a few years now! Luck was with me. So of course I had to read it right away.

It was a good read, one that I'm glad I was finally able to get my hands on. As the extremely succinct plot summary says on Goodreads:

Daring to defy a world that believes old women should not be seen or heard three women steal a barrel from a travelling show and plan to go over Niagara Falls.

But it's so much more than this. 

Hannelore and Clotilde are sisters in Germany; they've lived through a lot together. But now Hannelore's son has moved permanently to Canada, and they don't see Cleopatra Maria, her granddaughter, very often. They send lots of parcels and packages:

"Cleopatra Maria Schmitt," she wrote on the front, the name so long it went from edge to edge. "KANADA," she wrote and underlined the word twice. Once, Hannelore shortened the name to "Cleopatra." The last time "Maria," a less exotic, more appropriate name. Babies could smother under the wrong name, long names like a cat sitting too long on a face.

But they're not there to live alongside her son and his family. So Hannelore decides it's time for an adventure, and they pick up and move to Canada. 

Unfortunately, due to a lack of geographic awareness, they end up  in Edmonton, far away from Hannelore's beloved Niagara Falls. And living there, they realize nobody is really all that interested in older women or their daily lives.

Hannelore finds work as an usher at a local theatre, where the other ushers are also mainly older women. She catches the attention of Hamish, a randy theatre tech, though she's mostly using him for access to his Niagara Ball, not his body. He has created what he says is the perfect padded sphere that would allow someone to go over the Falls safely. Hannelore wants it, and so a crime caper is born.

While all this is going on, they meet Frau Schnadelhuber via their visits to a local German deli, and she and Clotilde quickly form a romantic relationship. The three women, with the help of 26 year old Cleopatra Maria, launch their plan to steal the Niagara Ball and head cross-country to make history as 3 old women going over the Falls.

What I love about this book is the narrative voice; it's fun and snappy and shows us three women who are in their 70s but are still clever, busy, engaged in life, having sex, and making plans for madcap escapades. The author's voice feels fresh; the older women seem more interesting than the younger characters, which seems rather the point. Hannelore and Clotilde don't care anymore what people think -- they'll have a cigarette, talk about sex in front of Cleopatra Maria, eat what they want, dress like they want, and do what they want. It's very earthy, and very much about women finding a place to be women together. And even with the rapid-fire style, Mayr also folds in issues of racism, history, homophobia, ageism...all very naturally.

I also enjoyed how the sections of the book are interspersed with snippets from true stories about people going over Niagara Falls, especially Annie Edson Taylor, another no-longer-young women who made history in 1901 by surviving a trip over the Falls in a barrel (and who is a particular hero of Hannelore's). It's an engaging structure, with humour, pathos, great writing, and a very satisfying conclusion. I really enjoyed it. 


Further Reading:

If you are looking for other stories centred around Niagara Falls, of all genres and moods (both serious and more light-hearted) try any of the titles on this Niagara Falls booklist I put together a while back. 

You may also want to try other stories of older women taking control of their own lives in Western Canada -- meeting a farm woman with attitude in A Recipe for Bees by Gail Anderson-Dargatz, or following a sombre reconciliation between a sister and brother whose long estrangement has been caused by homophobia in Jane Rule's classic The Memory Board.


  1. Wonderful review - this has me eager to read this now.

    And thank you for your Further Reading list. I grew up in St. Thomas ON and lived in--are you read?--Ridgetown, Kingsville, Grimsby (2X), Niagara-on-the-Lake(2X), Jordan Station, Dunnville, St. Catharines, Thorold & Hamilton before moving to the east coast. Of course, NF was a frequent stop on summer holidays and when company came, and I even spent my first honeymoon there, much to my daughter's derision.

    1. That's a lot of moving around! Niagara Falls is kind of the centre of this story, though all the characters do a lot of moving around as well :)

  2. In this youth-obsessed culture, I like that the older women seem more interesting than the younger characters. This book sounds divine. Wonderful review, Melwyk!

    1. Yes, in this one she does show the very full and complex lives of the main, older characters -- the younger ones (Hannelore's son & wife, and even Cleopatra Maria) appear more selfish and dully focused on work etc.

  3. This book sounds like fun, but also explores aging in an interesting way. I might have to try and track it down myself.

    1. It's a great look at older women - told with lots of raunchy bits, laughter, and realism, but with a great literary style.

  4. I've been looking for a copy of this one for years now: lucky find for you! In the meantime, I enjoy thinking that it will be THE Niagara Falls read for me. And I've quite enjoyed some of her other books in the meantime!

    1. It was such a lucky find. Thrift store shopping comes through for me again :) I haven't read any of her other work yet, though I have it on the endless TBR...


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