Review by Jannett Dunnett author of The Dwindling
Midway through this romp through time, from the 60’s to the edge of the book’s publication in 2019, the author’s sister states what I think this book is about. “It isn’t all about Maggie and Maggie’s world.”
But her sister is wrong. It is about Maggie’s world. And this is what makes the book such a compelling read. Its structure is stream of consciousness. We first encounter Maggie as a five year old, luring suckers to her carnie father’s fixed game of chance. The book ends with her reflections on being a grandmother and her way ahead on the brink of being 70. References to history season the story. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War, the Beatles, the summer of love, and BC’s missing women reality are waypoints to orient the reader in time.
In this book, the reader can’t help but cheer for this preschooler, teenager, young mom, middle aged wife, and finally a senior, fighting for her right to make her own mistakes. Growing up in a hardscrabble BC family with two drunken parents, so poor that one Christmas the only food in the house was a can of spaghetti, Maggie evolves as she matures, always trying to do better than what was done to her.
Though the title, Unlocking the Tin Box, refers to artifacts from her father’s life, this story line is just one of many in this 400 page deeply detailed narrative. All the vignettes are strongly rooted in place. Whether in Vancouver, Kamloops, Hope, Terrace, Prince George, Los Angeles and ultimately on Vancouver Island. We feel the discomfort of these “dumps” on the other side of the tracks in vivid descriptions, like how one home was heated with burning tires.
I would have liked more reflection on this technicolor life. When it comes though, it is juicy. “I think dad was running away from his failures” , she says as she contemplates her nomadic childhood. Her child self sees her mother’s drinking through a lens of comfort, “mother’s best friend was a guy named Johnnie Walker”. She’s obsessed with the excitement of hitchhiking, and accepts her sexual exploitation and close calls with rape with the offhand comment “I never expected a good outcome when I was alone with a man”. Was her blasé attitude to sex, “it that all there is?” a result of her experiences, or did it make her vulnerable to abuse? The reader must decide. But the thread of her approach to life that makes this book come alive, comes from her father’s mantra, “If you’re ever getting run out of town…get out in front and pretend it’s a parade”.
I loved this book. It feels true. It deeply engages. It’s Canada’s answer to the best selling American memoir, The Glass Castle. And it deserves the same acclaim.