Jann Arden's debut novel a darkish however humorous rural story about friendship, loss and kidnapping

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Within the 20 years since Calgary singer-songwriter Jann Arden started writing her debut novel, The Bittlemores, she got here up with varied fates for the titular characters who make up the darkish coronary heart of the story.

That may be Harp Bittlemore and Mrs. Bittlemore, or Mrs. B. Arden didn’t suppose the latter was worthy of a primary identify. They’re simply two of essentially the most loathsome characters put to paper in current reminiscence. They’re hate-filled, delusional, violent and egocentric. Harp is especially imply when hopped up on do-it-yourself booze, which is sort of at all times. Their actions early within the novel destroy a household and smash a minimum of two childhoods. They’re significantly merciless to the animals that endure on their farm, which is presumably someplace in rural Alberta though that’s by no means made clear.

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However Arden is obvious, she desires readers to “hate” these individuals.

So we’d take enjoyment of fascinated with the type of violent ends their creator had deliberate for them in earlier drafts: Burned alive in a barn fireplace, as an illustration, or being decapitated by a shotgun blast. With out gifting away an excessive amount of, the Bittlemores’ destiny isn’t fairly so dramatic.

“It was a a lot darker e book than it truly turned out to be,” says Arden, in an interview from Random Home Canada headquarters in Toronto.

Make no mistake about it, The Bittlemores continues to be darkish. Arden’s tackle poverty, alcoholism and the long-term influence of neglect, isolation and abuse sometimes remembers the work of Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor or New Brunswick’s David Adams Richards. However, it’s also comical. It has an endearing coming-of-age story at its centre, advised in snappy first-person narration by a wise-beyond-her-years 14-year-old woman named Willa. As a result of Arden is a bit fuzzy on time and place, it additionally typically has a fable-like really feel. That is strengthened by the introduction of the Bittlemores’ long-suffering dairy cows, virtuous and heroic beings who speak amongst themselves and plot their escape.

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All of which makes it arduous to pigeonhole The Bittlemores right into a style. Random Home Canada gamely describes it as a hybrid of coming-of-age, cozy thriller and humour.

However when Arden began engaged on the e book years in the past, apparently on a sojourn to Nashville, she was pondering a selected concept.

“What would occur if rural individuals – earlier than CCTV cameras, cellphones or DNA – kidnapped a child?” says Arden, who joined Rick Mercer for a sold-out Wordfest occasion at Calgary’s Grand on Nov. 17. “I simply sort of mulled that round. However the factor actually took off in all probability a couple of weeks later, once I thought: What if the newborn that they kidnapped, upon turning right into a younger teenager, had a child of her personal? Then the entire thing simply took off from there.”

So the e book will not be a thriller within the conventional sense. We all know who the villains are. Readers are advised early on about Harp’s journey to the hospital, the place he pulls a fireplace alarm and kidnaps a child woman from a loving household who by no means will get over the loss. He does this after Mrs. B. suffers a sequence of miscarriages and calls for a child woman of her personal. The woman, whom they identify Margaret, is unaware of her precise roots and grows up in such a loveless family that she grows to hate her “dad and mom” and decides to punish them by getting pregnant on the age of 14. She then abandons her child, named Willa, to The Bittlemores and disappears into the evening.

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On the age of 14, Willa begins to doubt the tales she has been advised about her sister, who she ultimately learns is definitely her mom. Margaret, in the meantime, tries to assuage her overwhelming guilt by sending her daughter letters and postcards, that are hoarded by Mrs. B. and by no means revealed to Willa. Finally, an enterprising younger police officer new to the small-town power decides to reopen the chilly case of the kidnapped baby. The whole lot begins to unravel.

These are the broad strokes of the story. However there are different parts. Berle, Crilla and Dally, the courageous and plotting dairy cows, are dedicated to the kind-hearted however tenacious Willa and united of their hatred of The Bittlemores. Whereas speaking cows would possibly add a way of the fantastical to the story, however Arden says she didn’t need readers to see this side of the story as a cute novelty.

“I knew they had been going to be speaking,” Arden says. “At one level, I had thought of making them comprehensible to human beings, however that lasted about 5 seconds. No, that is very inner, amongst themselves. It appeared to work very effectively, the world that they created. I attempted to make it as believable as potential with out being too far out. I needed individuals to overlook after some time that they had been cows, to consider them as characters within the e book and plotting their very own concepts.”

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A number of the most uncomfortable passages contain cruelty to animals and our indifference to their struggling, one thing Arden admits overlaps together with her personal animal rights activism over time. In a single scene, one of many cows has her tail hacked off.

“It’s horrible, it’s terrible,” she says. “However I hope individuals perceive the on a regular basis violence, the randomness. By no means thoughts chopping the tail off a cow, there are 5,000 cows slaughtered day-after-day in Alberta. You consider what they put them by means of, these sentient beings, day-after-day for any individual’s hamburger. Within the e book, it was very purposeful so individuals may, for a second, whether or not it lasts for them or not, consider these animals having conversations with one another, having friendships with one another, lamenting the lack of their calves with one another, dreaming of higher instances, being frightened. I needed (readers), for the ten hours that it’d take to learn the e book, to only take into account one thing completely different: The individuals are positively the unhealthy guys.”

Fiction writing is simply the newest endeavour for Arden, who might be nonetheless finest often called a chart-topping singer-songwriter. She was inducted into the Canadian Music Corridor of Fame in 2021 and has launched 15 albums. She has additionally borrowed from her personal life with different pursuits. She has written the memoirs Falling Backwards, Feeding My Mom and If I Knew Then previous to ending The Bittlemores. Her CTV comedy, Jann, was additionally surprisingly autobiographical, holding a funhouse mirror to Arden’s profession and life with a protagonist named Jann Arden who’s a diva who has fallen on arduous instances.

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Whereas The Bittlemores will not be autobiographical, Arden says the coming-of-age parts of the e book did draw from her childhood rising up in rural Alberta.

“I’ve such fond recollections of Springbank Junior Excessive College,” Arden says. “As a lot as we had been younger youngsters, we had been additionally born in these rural settings. In a approach, any youngsters who grew up within the nation, you sort of raised your self. Your dad and mom had been working. You’d come dwelling from college, you had to determine what snack was going to be, you had chores to do. It wasn’t like being a metropolis child. It wasn’t like we may hand around in the 7-11 or the fuel station. My nearest buddy was three miles from me.”

Wordfest Offered Jann Arden and Rick Mercer on Nov. 17 on the Grand at 7 p.m. This occasion was bought out. Jann Arden may also carry out Christmas live shows on the Jack Singer Live performance Corridor on Dec. 19 and 20 at 7:30 p.m.

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