Sometimes the best books are the books that are actually more than one story. Fall On Your Knees is a difficult book to summarize, or review, in a way that could do it justice. It is one of those sweeping multi-generational pieces of historical fiction, but at the same time it’s really just a story about four sisters. Against the backdrop of Cape Breton Island and New York City from the turn of the 20th century all the way to the advent of World War II, Ann-Marie MacDonald shows us how the good and bad actions we take in life ripple outward to touch the lives of everyone around us.
MacDonald’s narrative is cyclical and self-referential. We don’t find out who the narrator is until the very end (though you can probably guess after a while). Though mostly linear, there are flashbacks throughout, and a detailled accounting of Kathleen’s time in New York is deferred to the penulimate section for dramatic effect. The story’s power comes from how the setting around the main characters changes, almost like a time-lapse video. When James and Materia marry, their corner of Cape Breton Island is unremarkable and undistinguished. We get to watch a town spring up, miners’ strike, the devastation of war, and the Great Depression. While the characters grow older, go to school, take or change vocations, the story that MacDonald tells never seems to change. It’s always about the tension between the good and evil parts of the soul, that desire to do right by each other and that temptation to be mischievous.
It’s the nature of a character-driven book such as this that it’s hard to identify protagonists and antagonists. Each character takes their turn at both; much as in real life, it’s largely a matter of perspective. Even in cases where the character seems more villainous than not, like James, or more saint than sinner, like Lily, their actions bely that simplified morality.
When James marries Materia over her parents’ disapproval, it seems for about two and a half pages that Fall On Your Knees will be a love story. Rugged Canadian of Irish descent makes good with daughter of Lebanese immigrants, settles down, and becomes a respected piano tuner. MacDonald lets us cling to this vision, as I said, for a few pages, spinning out the fantasy that James and Materia might be happy together. Having manipulated us by presenting it as a love-match between a precocious young woman and a headstrong young man, she pivots, pulls off the blinders, and shows us the other perspective:
But deep down he winced at the thought of showing Materia to anyone. He was grateful they lived in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t that he didn’t love her any more, he did. It was just that, recently, it had struck him taht other people might think there was something strange. They might think he’d married a child.
So, love story, denied, or rather, aborted. Passion fizzles out to be replaced only by a kind of bewildered regret, which soon kindles resentment. James has such ambition: he orders a crate of books—a crate!—from England with the intention of becoming an educated, well-read, learned man. He wants to move in higher circles than he was born into. And he is frustrated when it becomes clear that Materia will be more hindrance than help in this regard. It’s not her fault; she was raised in a sheltered way, and she is so very young. Yet MacDonald gives her ambition as well: she discovers her love for performing, for playing the piano for vaudeville acts. What might Materia have become if James had believed in and supported her instead of shunned her?
It’s interesting to note what doesn’t happen in Materia and James’ marriage. As far as we know, James never cheats on her (with the one exception, as we learn at the end, but that is … different). He does not beat her regularly—there are moments when he hits her, yes, and MacDonald rightly portrays these as the inexcusable acts they are. He doesn’t leave her (unless you count going to war). I mention these things, because in spite of the evident dissatisfaction on both sides, these two try to muddle through. On Materia’s part, it’s likely that she sees little other choice, especially after Mercedes and Frances are born. On James’ part, it’s that he wants to be seen as a good man. And good men don’t abandon their wives and families, right? I can’t help but feel like some of this subtext is grounded inexorably in the period: in a more contemporary setting, Fall On Your Knees would involve messy affairs, fast cars, divorce, and in the inevitable movie adaptation, a car chase and a running-through-the-airport scene.
Reading this book a second time, of course, means that I have the benefit of what little I remembered about it. I don’t know if I completely comprehended the foreshadowing of James’ demon when I first read this book; this time around, of course, it feels rather heavy-handed. But it seems like that is the point:
The next day, James outsmarts the demon for the second time. He enlists.…
… Materia arrives at Mount Carmel and hurries over to Mary’s grotto. There she prostrates herself as best she can, what with her unborn cargo, and gives thanks to Our Lady for sending The War.
MacDonald keeps the specifics of what happens vague until the end of the book, but she foreshadows early on that James cannot outsmart his demon forever. With this, she declares, “This is a tragedy.” For a book so steeped in Catholic symbolism, there is a strong whiff of Calvinist determinism to this: James is destined to survive the war; Kathleen is destined to seek her fortune in New York; all are destined for tragedy.
MacDonald continues in this tenor with the trio of Mercedes, Frances, and Lily. With the first two, Materia’s influence is more pronounced: Mercedes grows up staunchly Catholic, and she and Frances share with their mother a muddled, fairy-talesque use of Arabic words to communicate and commiserate. These two fill the void of motherhood for Lily, who never gets to know either Materia or Kathleen.
It’s particularly interesting how Mercedes’ life resembles that of her parents. Like James, she ends up making many sacrifices for her family. She takes on jobs she doesn’t necessarily want, puts off her own ambitions, studies by correspondence rather than going to university in person. Mercedes tries to dress these sacrifices in humility, like a good Catholic, and I appreciate the way MacDonald draws out the irony and pride that taints her actions:
Tears fill Mercedes’ eyes. It is not fair that Frances should bask in Daddy’s affection and the approval of sundry shopkeepers for something that ought to have her hiding her face in shame. It is not fair that Sister Saint Eustace managed to make Mercedes feel like the bad one—when everyone knows that she’s the good one. It is not fair that Frances will have a baby, while Mercedes was denied a husband. None of it is fair, but that is not why Mercedes is weeping freely against her pillow…. Everyone seems to think that motherhood is the best thing that could possibly happen to [Frances]. Everyone but Mercedes. For she knows that once Frances has a child, Frances will no longer need a mother.
Mercedes in her hubris is a recognizable stereotype of someone we all know. Her genuine desire to do good through her sacrifices is mixed with the yearning for recognition she feels her martyrdom must bring. And when it doesn’t—or when someone spurns it deliberately, as Lily does by rejecting the Lourdes plan—she can only recover by reframing what happens in light of faith and her own ego. Well, if Lily doesn’t want her leg healed, doesn’t want to be whole, she must be possessed! In this way Mercedes justifies her past sacrifice and reassures herself that neither she nor her interpretation of her faith could be wrong; the world simply hasn’t lived up to its promise.
In both Mercedes and Frances, even more so than in their father, we see how people grow up and change in the unlikeliest of ways. Mercedes is so full of dreams of marrying and settling down with a family, even if it is with the Jewish boy next door. And Frances—wild Frances, showgirl Frances, sex worker Frances … would she ever have thought she would be the mothering type? Though Frances probably undergoes the most dramatic of changes, it is just another manifestation of MacDonald’s theme that our lives—while seemingly driven by destiny—are unpredictable, malleable, and full of surprises.
Lily is interesting in that, for the majority of her time in the story, she is not really a protagonist or antagonist at all, but rather an object on which other characters enact their designs. Mercedes mothers Lily, raises Lily, pities Lily, loves Lily, and harbours the secret hope that Lily might be a saint. Lily being a saint is far more preferable to Mercedes being a saint, of course, because being a saint is a sucky job. You have to suffer—physically, in Lily’s case—and be ever so holy. Being the sister of a saint, the person who first recognized their sainthood, is a much better gig.
Lily is an excuse for Frances to embrace her wilder side. Don’t forget that, originally, the siblings went Kathleen, Mercedes, and then Frances in order of age. Frances was the youngest child, the baby. It’s only after the epoch that Mercedes suddenly becomes the eldest and Frances the middle child. So it’s interesting to see them take up the stereotypical mantles of those titles: Mercedes becomes the responsible one, and Frances can be the wild one, because James can pin his hopes and dreams on Lily once more.
I really can’t do justice to this book in a review of any length. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the themes MacDonald weaves throughout it. I could go on to talk about racism, about the effects of war at home, about the march of history, family, and religion. As for the characters, who indisputably make the book what it is, I have only managed to give the briefest overview of what makes them so complex and well-realized.
So let’s finish off by talking about Lily at the end of the book, by which I really mean, of course, talking about Kathleen in New York.
I remembered James’ demon, but I did not remember the twist that MacDonald introduces during Kathleen’s time in New York. We learn early on that James goes to retrieve her because she has fallen in love, ostensibly with a black man. MacDonald carefully shapes our expectations in such a way that when the details come to light, it’s clever. She plays both on our heteronormative expectations of society in general as well as our expectations of that time period. This is just another facet in the way that MacDonald gently probes the layers of people’s personalities. Like so many other minor characters in this book, Rose takes on a life of her own without stealing the stage. Fall On Your Knees is one of those special novels that manage to contain more of a universe than most: a true microcosm rather than the two-dimensional set that falls apart if you view it from another angle.
Some books capitalize on a single tragedy, one moment of absolute disaster that has consequences for the rest of the characters’ lives. The plot and conflict then comes from watching them pick up the pieces, if they can, and making their peace where they cannot. Other books, though, capture how life is more properly a series of tragedies, some small, some big. Our lives routinely shatter and reassemble, seemingly on the universe’s whim or of their own accord; we don’t pick up the pieces so much as try to reinterpret the map after a geological upheaval. Fall On Your Knees is like this. It’s not just that bad things happen: lots of bad things happen, but good things happen too, and worse still, sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart. Sometimes when we think we’re doing good we are actually doing the most harm—and vice versa. In these respects, this book reminds me a lot of that other inexpressibly wonderful story, A Fine Balance. However, Fall On Your Knees feels a little more optimistic in its prognosis for its characters. There is no such thing as “moving on” or “moving past” a tragedy, because in living through it, it changes you. It is just as much a part of you as every good thing that happens. So as MacDonald closes out the book by showing us the time-lapse photographs of the rest of the Pipers’ lives, we get to see the sum over all their histories.
And then Anthony finds Lily, and the story starts over again.
This is a book that sprawls. It is beautifully written, MacDonald’s style being without parallel here. I first read her play Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) in first-year English, and that’s what led me to Fall On Your Knees. Sometime after that I think I also read The Way the Crow Flies, but it never left as much of a lasting impression on me as this book. For nearly eight years I’ve cited this as one of my favourite novels. But the truth is, I barely remembered the details. I remembered only the exhilaration I felt reading it, the sense that this is so good it’s painful.
Yet I put off re-reading it for the longest time. I was scared that if I did, I wouldn’t like it as much. I would discover that my memory is more false than normal, that it just isn’t as good as I thought it was. I didn’t want that to happen.
This is my 1000th review on Goodreads, though. I could lie and say I don’t care, but breaking into four digits does feel pretty special. I put a lot of time and effort into these reviews, so to say that I’ve written so many is something worth celebrating. To do that, I wanted to review a very special book—and what better than the book I didn’t want to re-read?
I was a fool; I should have had more faith. Fall On Your Knees is every bit as good as it was the first time I read it—maybe more. It cannot offer answers or reassurance, but instead only the certainty that life is complex and difficult. This is a book that sprawls, not just because it covers multiple generations and a dynamic network of characters, but because their stories have no clear starting or stopping points. Unlike a classical tragedy, which ends in the clarity of the protagonist’s death, these characters have to go on living.
This is the truth of Fall On Your Knees and the inadequacy of the novel form that it exposes: stories don’t end after the tragedy is dealt with. As much as we might like, we cannot boil down our judgement of a person to “did they do good?” or “were they a good person?” Life is a series of events, good or bad or a mixture as determined by how we react—but every event shatters us, changes us. Life is the act of continuously rebuilding ourselves. The story does not stop, never stops, as long as we are there to shatter and rebuild, over and over.
And so I’m not going to stop.
Here’s to the next thousand.