Review: Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson


Review: Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson

My Quick Take: There were so many wonderful quiet moments in this short novel, and characters that resonated with me.


Our #CanuckReads group has just finished our latest novel, Swamp Angel by Ethel Wilson.

Published in 1954, Swamp Angel had been entirely unknown to me. I had an idea it was about feminism in the 50s, and that there would be some sort of tumultuous, tragic climax. Main character Maggie Lloyd is separating from her husband and leaves Vancouver to work in a remote fishing lodge. The Swamp Angel is a revolver, and the book jacket tells us that the Swamp Angel, “becomes Maggie’s ambiguous talisman and the novel’s symbolic core,” and that one character is plagued by “irrational jealousy.” A gun and an irrationally jealous character, with everyone trapped at a remote wilderness lodge? I could see where this was going.

But it surprised me. Like Three Loon Lake, on which the fishing lodge nestles, this was a placid, quiet novel on its surface, but that held wonderful depth of character and a sophisticated sense of relationship dynamics.

I liked it very much. The pages flew by and I was invested in the characters even if they were on the page more briefly. It is as if everyone matters in this small symphony that Wilson is conducting. The writing style struck me as a bit old fashioned, at times simplistic and not always highly polished or highly edited to today’s standards. Perhaps that is some of its charm. On closer examination, there is a mix of longer, sophisticated sentences and shorter, clipped ones. Repetition is used to good advantage.

For example, as Wilson describes Three Loon Lake, I found myself slowing down to read and reread this section:

“When the naked lake is placid beneath the sky, the Kamloops–or rainbow–trout leap and leap. That does not mean they will take the fly. It may mean that they are lousy, or perhaps they leap for joy. It must be great fun, leaping straight up from water into air, propelled by those small strong smooth muscles–two, three feet or more above the lake–and falling again. In the evening, when the sky and the water are shot with tender colors which grow more violent in lake and sky, this leaping is beautiful to see, here, there, there, near at hand, and diminished across the water. You hear the delayed plop of the leaping fish. Little fountains are everywhere on the lake. One at a time–no–two, three, four. It exasperates, at last, because the leaping fish has no intention of taking the fly.”
This paragraph is engrossing, and the repetition of the words “leap” and “leaping” fall over themselves in this passage. The words trip off the tongue simply, poetically and joyfully. It begs to be read aloud.

Wilson’s descriptions of British Columbia’s natural world and small towns is captivating, and I wonder if part of the attraction is that I know some of those places. She describes the town of Lytton, and the confluence of two powerful rivers–the Thompson and the Fraser. I have been past Lytton many times, and have seen the rivers meet. Poignantly, Lytton burned to the ground in 2021 when a forest fire roared through. I feel as if Wilson must have travelled these roads, sat at the edge of a river fly fishing, ridden the Greyhound bus to Kamloops, sat by Three Loon Lake. Perhaps she had pen and paper in hand, and wrote down some of these sentences, then returned to her typewriter to write. It's a bit like a time capsule where I have opened history and seen 1950s British Columbia.

There were character studies that I loved, particularly when Wilson turned her pen to family and relationship dynamics. Her brief character study of lodge owners Vera and Halder is excellent, but I particularly liked the scenes between Mrs. Severance and her adult daughter Hilda. They live together, and make do with that, but their relationship is prickly much of the time. Mrs. Severance has had adventures in her life–she is the owner of Swamp Angel and had made a career of being a travelling juggler (of guns!) with her now deceased husband, often abandoning Hilda to other caregivers as a child. Now, they live in uneasy equilibrium, but the tension underlying their coexistence often rises to the surface.
“‘I shall not have a child,’ said Hilda.

‘Don’t say that. How do you know? You will marry someone, or this Cousins…’

‘There,’ said Hilda, very angry, standing up. ‘That’s what you do. You say that kind of thing. You say a little thing like ‘this Cousins,’ and all the time perhaps I shall marry Albert Cousins…Mother, you are so used to playing God and playing so cleverly that you make gross mistakes…and it’s gone to your head.’

Her mother gazing fixedly at the ashtray, flipped off the ash of her cigarette and flipped again. Then she looked up and in her tender voice she said ‘Forgive me…my darling…for a woman who thinks she is so wise I can be very stupid,’ and she got up and went into the kitchen and shut the door. Even now, see! Thought Hilda, she frustrates me; she just goes away.”
The parrying, the mother’s disingenuous self-criticism and subsequent disengagement, leaving Hilda impotently frustrated. It feels familiar to me, a not uncommon dance between mother and daughter.

Coming back to the Swamp Angel, that gun that takes on so much symbolism here…but what is its meaning? Perhaps it is a symbol of what we hold on to from our past: Mrs. Severance clings to the freedom of her youth, when she could be passionate and unconventional. Hilda sees the Swamp Angel as a cruel taunt, a reminder of shame and embarrassment as a child, with a mother who was so unbearably odd. Maggie? She has the freedom to toss it away to rest in the depths of Three Loon Lake, and move on to her future.

What objects do we cling to, and how do we let them go? How do we move on and when do we decide to stay in a place and in relationships with the people we are connected to? In Swamp Angel, Ethel Wilson offers much to contemplate, even as she offers no easy answers.