Review of Tricia Dower’s novel Becoming Lin

Tricia Dower’s novel Becoming Lin explores the notion that being authentically oneself is rarely as simple as it sounds. Whether dealing with peer and parental pressure, cultural expectations, shifting social values or traumatic events that can strike hard at a sense of justice, safety and even self-worth, we all navigate our little ships through treacherous waters that threaten to swamp us. How can we keep our courses true, our captain’s hats on tight?

This follow-up to the critically acclaimed Stony River picks up the life of a now 22-year-old Linda Wise—the character, Dower says she’d left the least equipped to go forward. The backdrop for Linda’s growth into self-determined adulthood is, aptly, one of war. Set in religious, small-town New Jersey and Minnesota in the mid-1960s and early ’70s, communities are in conflict around civil rights and Vietnam. The novel allows Dower to dig into a time defined by intense personal commitment, where people had to decide, sometimes very publicly, what they were for or against. Awakened to activism by a young Methodist minister, whom she marries, Linda soon finds that the route she thought would help her escape controlling parents and painful memories just leads to another set of constraints around how she should think, behave and be. That her new husband had been a Freedom Rider is an irony the reader cannot miss. 

With deftness, sensitivity and an obvious deep compassion, Dower explores the many ways to be targeted and wounded in our own private battlefields. One of her characters’ foremost invisible wounds comes from a past sexual assault that leaves Lin’s mind feeling like “occupied territory.” Attacked at knifepoint but not raped or stabbed, Lin recalls that “the jury didn’t find Eldon Jukes guilty of doing anything at all to her,” yet she fights to break out of the trauma of what did happen, what one of her friends refers to as “a prison of a tale.” What does it mean to be hurt in ways others don’t acknowledge, and how long does it last?

“Social issues, particularly feminist issues, are my passion,” Dower says, and her first book, the short-story collection Silent Girl, was long-listed for the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. Dower, who left the corporate world in 2002 to devote herself to writing, is trying to help move us all forward by calling us out on the idea of a life of integrity: Are we doing the work, both individually and societally? And in our own time of threats, be they climate change or civil war creating thousands of refugees, where will we stand? What will we say, and then what will we do?

One of the book’s major lessons is therefore about listening to your own voice and finding the way to your real beliefs, your integrity. What another might write off as reckless may be brave; the so-called selfish can be saving; the seemingly embarrassing, empowering. While questioning the establishment—whether in terms of religion, feminism, civil and basic human rights—can be viewed as rebellious or even, in certain circumstances, immoral, Dower’s novel shows that seeking answers outside the norm and inside yourself is where we find personal power and freedom. It’s never a calm journey, but it’s the most important we can make.

A longer version of this piece originally appeared in Focus in March, 2016 at http://focusonline.ca/node/1052

Writer, editor and musician Amy Reiswig has published book reviews in The Malahat Review, The Danforth Review and Quill and Quire, while her non-fiction has appeared in The Walrus, Utne Reader and This Magazine. Amy has been fortunate to interview and delve into the minds of local writers for the Coastlines column in Focus magazine since 2010.