Unless the Lord builds the house

Review of 'Moonshine Promises' by John Van Rys.

Like the moon, marriages wax and wane. In Evan and Mae’s case it takes awhile for their marriage to grow into the promises they made in a hasty elopement after the teenage couple find themselves dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. Moonshine Promises is a collection of short stories, written by Redeemer University English professor John Van Rys. They are linked thematically and progress from the beginning of the marriage until their 40th wedding anniversary. 

A bluebird promise

Told with self-deprecation and humour, Evan narrates the story of a marriage that begins with the ingredients for disaster: pregnancy, elopement, money pressures and family strife. Evan, always ready with information, has researched the origins of the honeymoon and tells Mae it’s like a lunar cycle, “when the newlyweds were the most affectionate and loving and happy – the waxing of the honeymoon – followed by the waning of those feelings into normal married life.” That’s why he gives Mae a ceramic bluebird of happiness, as a symbol of his own “painful happiness” and the promise between them. A promise that for Mae, especially, is slow to build into a commitment to the relationship. 

Mae is the calm, steady partner who is willing to challenge Evan in his tendency to avoid conflict, but there are strains between them. These are exacerbated by her feeling outside the Dutch cluster of the extended family and by the infertility that threatens her dreams of a large family. The arrival of Lizzie, seven years after the birth of Alex, and later the adoption of two young boys, bring fulfilment to Mae and seem to settle her restlessness. 

Everyday life and metaphors

The stories are the stuff of everyday life: buying and renovating a run-down farmhouse in the London, Ontario area; adopting pets; raising chickens and pigs; child rearing and adoption; celebrations. Although the stories have common elements, they each have a theme that Van Rys nicely ties together at the beginning and end. At times, previous references become redundant and the metaphors impose too obviously on the plot. When Evan battles racoons that kill his chickens and steal the eggs, he expresses the desire for “life to be ovoid, complete and contained with rich yoke at the centre.”

There are odd sexual references, particularly in “Under the Honeymoon” where Evan and Mae meet a couple married 40 years who instruct them in the sexual arts of marriage. In “Ride” Evan impulsively drives his lawnmower toward Port Dover for a Friday the 13th motorcycle gathering. When the lawnmower breaks down, he continues by walking. While he passes up the temptation to stop for refreshments offered by three women seated on a porch, he is distracted by the sexual fantasies they conjure. He is picked up by Sally and Phil and gets a ride on their motorcycle. They try to seduce him which is the beginning of a strange experience that stretches the reader’s belief and doesn’t quite connect with Evan’s desire to be “simpatico again” with Mae and offer “the only thing he had left to give, his symbiotic love.” 

Lives built together

Yet the symbols and metaphors often do work as Evan sorts out the puzzle of his marriage and the tangles of the love knot. The bluebird of happiness is joined by two ceramic swans given as an anniversary gift. When Mae talks Evan into building a jelly cupboard, it gives him cause to reflect on how the piece of furniture fills a space in their lives, just as the “hidden joints held things together.” The old farmhouse they purchase becomes the centre of family life and activity, as well as a symbol that both reflects a space between them that is “occupied by a wall growing brick by brick” and the constant renovation it requires. When Mae gets out the sledgehammer and starts ripping walls open, they tear down walls and ceilings down to the studs and together begin rebuilding. 

The jelly cupboard, though refinished and repainted over the years, is a beautiful illustration of how Evan and Mae have built their life together. It holds the cottage shaped teapot; the snow globe purchased on their honeymoon which can either show a blizzard when shaken or a winter wonderland when it settles; and the bluebird of happiness and the pair of swans. So at teatime, when Evan carries the teapot cottage to Mae, “like an offering,” we celebrate the “moonshine promises they’d made to each other when they eloped.”


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One Comment

  1. While it amuses and intrigues, it reminds one of what a marriage is and can be. Definitely a must read.

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