Jane Cawthorne's Patterson House (Inanna Publications) takes readers back to a Toronto of the early 20th century, a place of rapid change and brutal inequality still reeling from the effects of the First World War. Amidst it all is Alden Patterson, an early feminist and the last of a once-great Toronto dynasty that was plunged into ruin and scandal by the suicide of Alden's grandfather.
She lives in the once-grand decaying family home, Patterson House, with a child she took in, an injured veteran, and the erstwhile Patterson family gardener. As her fortunes deteriorate further, they're joined by boarders whose rent keep Alden's head above water – until twin catastrophes arrive in the form of the 1929 stock market crash and one particular boarder fixated on bringing Alden to ruin.
Sweeping in scope and intimate in its characterization, Patterson House is the story of a woman limited by her gender, time, and circumstance, but who is as determined and resourceful in looking to the future as she is haunted by the past. Cawthorne's taut storytelling is spellbinding and Alden is imperfect, honest, and alive on the page.
In the excerpt we're sharing today, courtesy of Inanna Publications, we see a pivotal moment for Alden, when a moment of curiosity changes the course of her life.
Excerpt from Patterson House by Jane Cawthorne:
There is sound coming from the pile of trash ahead. A street urchin—a little girl of about five or six with dark circles under her eyes, olive skin, and missing front teeth—sifts through debris. She stops what she is doing and stares at Alden.
“Who are you?” the child asks. Her coat is much too big for her. Its filthy hem skims the ground. Her bare wrists and chapped hands reach out from rolled up sleeves. Alden shakes her head and shoves her hands deeper into her pockets where she feels the woolly softness of the spare pair of mittens she has brought with her, just in case.
“You shouldn’t play here.”
The girl looks away and back to the pile. “I’m not playing.” She pulls out a length of wooden crating, assesses it, lays it on the ground, steps on it near the centre and pulls up on the other end with all her might, snapping it in half. She adds it to a small pile that Alden realizes is kindling.
This is not work for a child. “There are rats here. They could bite you and give you the plague.”
“What’s the plague?”
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Something in the garbage catches Alden’s attention. A mewling.
“Is it like the diphtheria?”
“Shush. Do you hear that?”
The little girl stops, nods and chooses a stick from her pile of kindling.
“I told you. Rats.” Alden backs away.
The girl drops the stick. “It’s not a rat. It’s a kitten.” She tosses debris aside, dismantling the pile—pulling out broken wicker, tangled wire, and a scrap of corrugated metal too small to be useful—pricks her thumb, puts it in her mouth for a second, and gets back to work.
Alden should stop her. She should take over. Instead, she only says, “Be careful. That’s sharp.”
The mewling becomes a squall when the child overturns a broken crate. There is a bundle underneath. A squalling bundle.
The girl’s eyes widen with excitement. “It’s a baby,” she squeals.
Deep in Alden’s mind, the truth of the girl’s statement rings clear, but she does not want to believe it. “Don’t be silly. Who would leave a baby in a pile of trash?”
“It’s a baby.” The little girl reaches down and pulls out the bundle with both hands.
Alden steps back. “Don’t touch that.”
The girl pays no attention and unwraps her treasure from stained linen and brown cotton twill until she comes to a ripped flannel sheet. Two bluish feet appear and then tiny calves and the backs of knees.
“Oh, good Lord.” Alden’s palms are on her cheeks. “Don’t do it like that. You’ll make it dizzy with all this twirling. It’s upside down.”
The girl sits on the frozen ground, deposits the bundle in her lap and unwinds the last of the flannel revealing small buttocks and back.
“It’s still upside down.”
The girl turns the baby over. “It’s a girl!” The tiny chest moves up and down. There is a shock of black hair, eyes squeezed shut, and a dark circle of open mouth that wails into the biting cold. The girl holds the naked baby out to her.
Frozen Charlotte. “For heaven’s sake. Wrap it back up. It will freeze. Use this.” She unwraps her scarf from around her neck. Cashmere. A shame. It will be ruined now. The baby sputters and cries fully awake now to the cold.
Alden scans the street. They are alone. Only half a dozen shacks have any smoke rising from them. The others must be the same temperature inside as out. And inside one is a woman who has left her baby to die.
“Where did it come from?”
“She,” says the little girl. “She’s a she. Like me.”
“Fine. She. Where did she come from?”
The girl shrugs. “Babies come from inside their mother’s tummy.”
Alden has never seen a newborn before and has no way of judging how old this one is. How can one think with the crying?
“How long have you been out here?”
“And you didn’t hear anything before?”
She shakes her head.
“And you didn’t see anyone?”
Alden assesses the street again. There is movement at a window, the slightest shift of a curtain. They are being watched.
“Do you live here? Do you have a mother?”
“Yes, everyone has a mother.” Alden is amazed at the girl’s confidence in this statement.
“Where is she?”
The girl points to one of the shacks, one of the few with smoke rising from within.
Alden pushes her handbag up her arm and takes the baby from the girl. It is surprisingly heavy. “Take me to her.”
The girl runs ahead and pushes through her door while Alden tries not to trip over the broken ground. She stops at the threshold of the shack, which smells of wet wool, smoke, and kerosene, and allows her eyes to adjust to the dimness. “Mama, look! A baby! Can we keep it?”
“What in hell?” The mother has her back to the door. “For the love of Christ, close the door.” Alden flinches. Yes, the girl has a mother, and what a mother she is. Her hair is tied in a kerchief and she wears so many layers of clothes it is hard to tell her size. When the woman turns and sees Alden, she gives a small yelp and clutches her throat. “Oh, you scared the daylights out of me, Miss. Excuse me. I didn’t know she’d brought someone in.” She scowls at the girl. “Shut the door. You know better.”
The girl pulls Alden away from the door by her coat sleeve and pushes the door shut by leaning her shoulder into it until it lodges in the fame. The windows are covered in newspaper and only shards of light land in the small room. Alden holds the baby out to her. “This baby. It was outside. In the street. In the garbage.”
The woman recoils. “Well, it ain’t mine, I can tell you that. I have enough trouble already.”
“My name is Harriet,” the girl says and then spells it. “H-A-R-R-I-E-T. Mama, can we keep it?”
Alden asks, “Do you know whose it could be?”
“Looks to me like whosoever’s it was, they didn’t much want it.”
Harriet throws her giant coat on the floor and dances around her mother, her nose running. “Her. She’s a she. I want her. Can we keep her? I’ll look after her, I promise.”
“It’s not a stray cat.” Harriet’s mother sighs, lifts the baby from Alden’s arms, unwraps it, fingers the scarf and says, “Yours?”
Alden nods. The baby’s cries diminish to snuffles.
The woman lays the baby on the table. Harriet climbs up on the table and coos. “Can we keep her?”
“No, Harriet. We can’t keep it.”
The woman holds the scarf out to Alden. Alden examines it and lays it over her arm. The baby flexes and curls, throws its arms open, and lets loose a cry that seems impossible from such a small body. The woman assesses the umbilical cord with a practiced eye. “Maybe two days old,” she says. “No older. Someone tried. It’s been fed. It’s clean. What a shame.”
“She’s been fed.” says Harriet.
Another baby starts to cry. “Go settle your brother. This one will wake the dead.”
For the first time, Alden notices another baby squirming on a cot in the corner.
“Your girl says she didn’t see anyone.”
“I told you my name is Harriet.”
“Shush. For once in your life, be quiet.” Harriet’s mother goes to a cupboard and searches for something, comes back with a cloth, and hands it to Alden. “You’ll need this.” Alden holds it between her thumb and index finger and holds it up.
“For a diaper.”
“Oh.” She turns it over once and then again. “I’m sorry, I have never—I don’t know how—”
The woman sighs and takes it back. “You’d better watch then.” She folds flannel with chapped hands.
If only Alden had paid attention to where she was, she would have been at the march already. She frets about the banner. Who will manage the banner? She wanted to remind the processionists to hold the banner straight and keep a steady distance between them so that it does not droop or fold and will remain easy to read. The whole endeavour requires military precision.
The baby gears up for another squall. Alden has completely missed the diapering lesson. Harriet’s mother softens and brings the baby to her shoulder. She clucks, “I guess we’d better feed you or you’ll wake up my own baby and we don’t want that, do we?”
Harriet’s mother sits in a chair, loosens her shawl, two cardigans underneath, and unbuttons her shirtwaist revealing a swollen, blue-veined breast with a nipple so large and dark it could not be less like Alden’s. Alden has never seen or imagined such a thing. The baby moves its head from side to side and continues to cry. The woman squeezes her breast and, to Alden’s astonishment, milk sprays out. She wipes some onto her finger, brushes it over the baby’s lips, and then directs her nipple into the baby’s mouth. The room is quiet.
“There you go,” she says. A sucking sound accompanies the baby’s swallows. Realizing she is staring, Alden turns away. Harriet shows Alden the little brother who has miraculously fallen back to sleep.
“Look. This is our baby, Herbert. H-E-R-B-E-R-T. I’m very good at looking after him.”
“I’m sure you are,” says Alden.
“And I’ll be very good at looking after the new baby. I’ll take the best care of her.”
When the baby drifts off the breast, the woman lifts it across her shoulder and pats its back. Then she hands it to Alden, who fumbles.
“Keep it upright, up against your shoulder. Keep patting.”
“Can I name her?” the little girl says. “She should be called Grace. G-R-A-C-E.”
“Here.” Harriet’s mother hands Alden another rag. “Lay this on your shoulder in case she spits up. You wouldn’t want to spoil your coat.” Alden cannot tell if the women’s concern is genuine but suspects it is not. How must she look to this woman? Her coat is ripped. She does not know how to hold or feed or diaper a baby. Alden tries to wrap the scarf around the baby while she is holding it in her arms and the baby whimpers.
“Do it like this.” The woman lifts the baby again and holds it with one arm while spreading out Alden’s scarf on the table with the other. She folds the scarf over and lays the baby down gently in the centre, wrapping her tight and leaving a flap at her head. “Pull this over her face and head, like a hat. Keep it loose though.”
Once in Alden’s uncertain arms, the baby opens its unfocused eyes. They are a grey deeper than the deepest part of Lake Ontario and full of inestimable need. Alden shudders and pulls the top edge of the scarf over the baby’s face.
“What should we do?”
“We? All due respect, Miss, I’m not the one who found her.”
“Finders keepers,” says Harriet. “I want to keep her.”
“It’s a baby,” says Alden. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“Because it doesn’t.”
“How does it work, then?”
Alden has no idea.
Jane Cawthorne writes about women in moments of crises and transformation. Her short stories and essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, scholarly journals, and anthologies. She has edited two anthologies with E.D. Morin, Impact: Women Writing After Concussion, which won BPAA’s prize for Trade Nonfiction Book of the Year, and Writing Menopause. Her debut novel, Patterson House, is set in Toronto, her birthplace, and a city dear to her even when she lives elsewhere. Jane spent decades active in the pro-choice and reproductive justice movement and is a former Women’s Studies instructor as well as a former high school and middle school teacher. Her play, The Abortion Monologues, has been produced many times in Canada and the US and was once performed at the University of Texas, Brownsville as part of a Ford Foundation funded “Difficult Dialogues” initiative. She has an M.Ed. from OISE and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Solstice Program in Boston, MA. She lives in Victoria, BC.