She was cold, she was alone, and she knew she was going to die.
In the middle of an epic ice storm, Kitty Stevenson, an eccentric old woman, self-exiled to rural Canada from New York society, realizes that she is having a heart attack. She had survived Nazi Germany – she can survive this too. Her neighbors mount a heroic effort to save her. She lives to tell her tale of self-reliance, incredible wealth, poverty, and escape on the eve of a World War. Kitty is ultimately confronted by what she perceives as a personal moral failure.
A strong character, Kitty Stevenson is molded by the Depression and toughened by an intense encounter with Nazi Germany. In the end, she has only one story left to tell: a tale of murder. But, “It was war, damn it, it was war.”
“For heaven’s sake Sweetie this is a book about an old lady dying in Canada”. I cannot say I was impressed by this choice of a birthday present from an old school friend. I don’t do old ladies or dying and I certainly don’t do Canada. (Such a virtuous country and so boring – it’s worse than Switzerland which at least has those shady bankers. What has Canada got? Leonard Cohen’s throaty angst?)
Actually though it’s a wonderful book. Kitty Stevenson isn’t Canadian at all she’s a New York society girl who lived in Germany just before and during World War II. As a heart attack builds during a long ice storm in remote rural Canada (where even this won’t summon an ambulance in bad weather) there are secrets she wants to tell. And what a story! As a sharp delicious counterpoint to the lives of her caring down-home neighbours who doubtless wear dungarees and eat whatever the Canadian version of hominy grits is Kitty slowly unpicks her memories of her life in Berlin as the war-clouds gathered. She’s not some right-on political activist who sees at once that what was happening is wrong and she has no wish to give up the sparkly life she’s living under the Third Reich but she’s feisty and independent and gradually the truth dawns and she has choices to make. Is she ashamed of her choice or is she proud?
The book has a hypnotic quality in the end – all of it a moment between life and death and dreaming and waking as two very different worlds collide with each other. For Kitty caught in the middle as time collapses at the end of her life both are equally real. Actually I admit they were for me too. In the end I even enjoyed the Canadians who turned out to be complicated and smart and funny as well as predictably generous. And Kitty is a character who takes you quietly like someone gently taking hold of your hair. You don’t feel at first but when you try to get away… She’s a tough cookie.