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Joan Sullivan: The surprisingly intricate life of Liza Brown

Book cover
Book cover - Contributed

Lots of twists and turns in Marshall Godwin’s ‘Home to Liza’

Home to Liza
by Marshall Godwin
DRC Publishing
$18.95  186 pages

 “Home to Liza” is constructed in a diary format. The main character is Liza Brown: “I was born on September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland and started the Second World War. On 1957, eighteen years later, I first noticed Billie Rowe. Not that I hadn’t seen Billie before; everybody knows everybody in Southern Cove Arm. We attended the same high school — the only one in our town of two thousand people — so I knew him; it’s just that I hadn’t noticed him before, if you know what I mean.” 

As for Billie Rowe, he professes himself “truly and madly in love with Liza Brown” past the point of distraction. “Mother had been talking to me about something and I wasn’t heeding; I was putting my shoes on the wrong feet.”

But the course of true love does not run smooth. Stanley Frampton seems equally keen on Liza, pestering her for dances and other tokens of affection. But Stanley might not be motivated by devotion. According to his brother Walter, Stanley said the situation was “‘like trying to win a race ... I want to beat Billie Rowe. I want to take Liza from him.’... Stan had a real mean streak like that.”

Author Marshall Godwin opens the story in July, 1958. As Liza explains, “You can’t keep much secret in a small town.” Everyone knows she and Billie are engaged to marry — he’s even started building a house for them. But Stanley continues to interfere. “Yes, I understand he gave you his mother’s ring. You really want to marry this fisherman who can’t even give you your own ring?” Naturally, this leads to a fight, one that turns unexpectedly tragic. Before any nuptials can take place, Billie is in jail, serving a long sentence at the penitentiary in St. John’s. And he insists Liza move on with her life and not wait for him.

Thus begins Liza’s surprisingly intricate love and domestic life. Without giving away too many spoilers, she has a relationship, which becomes fairly acrimonious, and produces two children. Then she has a chance to reconnect with Billie — but that opportunity is snatched away. Recovering from that, she catches the eye of the shy scion of Southern Cove Arm’s merchant. “Why John Sam took a liking to me, I will never know. He is older than me by fifteen years. He had never married, and has no children. I suppose I am young, not too bad to look at, and I come with a ready-made family.”

As new characters walk into the story, they begin to speak. “They call me JohnSam. They say it as if it were a single word: JohnSam ... I think of her as Liza Brown because that was her name when I first started to watch her ... I kept my feelings inside. But finally the situation was perfect.”

This relationship brings Liza into the fish processing industry, which will become the building block of a diverse family business. “I worked in the office on the books and general financial things. John Sam did everything else. Our life was blessed and going very well until the summer of 1971 when I heard a rumour.”

Which has to do with Billie; despite his long incarceration Liza has never forsaken him. That’s news to John Sam. “I cannot believe what Liza has been up to. I didn’t realize she ever gave a second thought about Billie Rowe.” But John Sam has his own private life, away from his wife: “most people in Southern Cove Arm depended on me for work, and if I wanted to take advantage of my situation, I would. Liza was not at work with me most of the time nowadays; she did most of the financial work at home, and she preferred being near the children ... So she wasn’t around to know what went on in my office behind closed doors.”

And this is just about a third ways into the book — there’s lots of twists and spins to come. So much that Liza prays to God, “if there is one, that it will all stop now.”

The entries are laid out chronologically, in time period clustres sometimes of decades, and others just a few years. The cast — the first-person point of view narratives — widens as the family grows, until there are multiple interlocking “I” perspectives. These allow people and events to be described and experienced from different angles. It’s sprawling but not confusing. And the dramatic core remains centred, homed, in Liza.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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