When you think of nautical disasters in Canada, it’s the stuff of legend that comes to mind: the Halifax explosion of 1917, or the 1975 wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. But Valerie Mills-Milde’s latest novel The Current Between charts a course for the freighter James Carruthers and the Great Lakes Storm of November 1913 – the most destructive and deadly Great Lakes natural disaster in recorded history.
The story opens in the aftermath, with farmer Rob McNeil surveying the damage to his pasture and equipment, as well as what the lake has washed up, dumbstruck at the sight but not revealing what the storm has laid bare on the beach. Then Mills-Milde shifts us back to the start of that November, introducing the events and characters caught in the eye of the Lake Huron storm and winding up the tension as she leads us towards her novel’s end.
The Current Between AOS Publishing
The Current Between
As the novel progresses, we discover the storms inside each character. Mills-Milde reveals how the water and the land pull at them and draw the other characters into the story: Macey, the successful farmer with a soft spot for the Darlings; Kat, German immigrant and mortuary cosmetologist who fills the gap left by the death of Connor’s wife while remaining true to herself; and all the characters and crew – past and present, here and away – who form the backdrop of the building storm over four days in November.
Mills-Milde has also made the lake and the weather characters, and their foreboding greyness seeps into every space, forcing everyone to batten down the hatches against their destruction. As the storm draws closer, it reveals the undercurrent of loneliness that threads through the story. The writing is beautifully, heartbreakingly poetic, threatening to break open the gaps left in everything. “His loneliness is like a crow that scrutinized him from one of the naked tree limbs,” writes Mills-Milde about Connor, “the world around him reduced to black and white, all colour gone.”
But it is the two women of this novel who crack open the grey and let light and colour spill in – Kat with her cosmetician’s makeup kit, giving life briefly back to the dead, and Flo, at ease in her independence and love for Harry, mending relationships with her ability to see what lies on the other side. As the storm rages and the dark descends, the women push back to make room for healing and moving on. Even after the storm is passed and so much is lost, Flo continues to light the way and mend what’s broken.
Although a ship called the James Carruthers really was lost in the 1913 storm, Mills-Milde has crafted her fictional crew to imagine the effects of the blizzard and hurricane gales on the freighter and everyone aboard. What Rob McNeil finds washed up on his beach tells the tale of that destruction. The Current Between is ultimately a story about relationships asked to weather such storms and the rudders that help people navigate the way. While the pace picks up as each character’s story spins faster towards the end, one almost wishes it would pause just to relish this novel a little longer.mRb