THE COUNTRY is a novel about an unfashionable subject: growing very old and dying of natural causes. Of course there is more to it than that, David Plante being a writer of quite considerable range. But the central concern of the novel is the simple, mundane act of dying, and the effect it has upon those members of a family who must witness it.
The novel, like its subject, is neither glamorous nor sexy. Plante's prose is spare, measured, quietly insistent; though the novel is brief, it conveys the labored pace of a long dying. It also conveys both the ordinariness and the extraordinariness of dying, its universality and its uniqueness.
The man who dies is Jim Francoeur. We have met him before, in Plante's previous novel, The Family. He is the patriarch of a family in Providence, Rhode Island, that also includes his wife and their seven sons. As was The Family, The Country is narrated by the sixth son, Daniel, who is now about 40 years old; like Plante himself, he is a writer and lives in London.
The novel begins with Daniel returning to Providence to visit his ailing parents, who are in their eighties; the middle section is a flashback to a reunion about two decades earlier; in the last section, Daniel comes home for his father's funeral. In each part and as a whole, the novel is Daniel's attempt to understand, and come to terms with, his parents and his heritage.
Like many residents of New England industrial cities, the Francoeurs are French-Canadian; there is also a somewhat mysterious dash of Indian blood in the family, mysterious in that its precise contribution to family tradition is a matter of frequent and puzzled discussion. For Daniel, it becomes a palpable presence during a trip with his father to the family's country house:
"Sunlight beamed down through the trees and, as I walked, flashed across my eyes. It all at once seemed to me there were people in that light -- naked, brown-red people hidden among the trees. They were familiar to me, familiar enough for me to sense that they were close. Yet they were strangers, too, because I could not see them and knew nothing about them. I had some remote claim to be among them. I imagined I could, by stepping through a shadow, find myself among them, but they would be like nothing I had imagined. They watched me, but they kept to themselves, and among themselves they formed a tribe in which their relationships were in no way comprehensible to me. I stood under a pine tree, sere blueberry bushes around me; I wasn't quite sure which way I should go. The woods were still, as the inhabitants were still. I pushed my way silently through the bushes."
That passage, which is precisely representative of Plante's prose style, contains the novel's principal images. The Indians are the family's lost past and its connection with the earth; when Jim Francoeur dies, Daniel senses that he has "gone into the woods," hence the novel's title. The Indians are also a tribe; and the sense of tribal memory and loyalty within the Francoeurs is very deep indeed.
Yet they are neither a particularly close family, nor an unusually happy one. Reena Francoeur, the mother, has hot bursts of resentment against her husband: "I'm where you want me to be, in the house. I've had to submit to this house like I've had to submit to your will. I've had to submit to your will like I'll have to submit to lying forever in my grave." The sons, though they love their parents, are confused by the tensions between them and hurt by their father's frequent brusqueness; as brothers they are bound by strong ties, but they do not see each other often and are awkward with each other when they do.
Of the parents as a couple, the sons learn that there are moments of tenderness that ease the hostility. Of the father, they learn how grievously he suffered when he was fired from his job, and how much that loss shaped the bitterness of his later years. Of the mother, they learn that their father's death, no matter how mourned, is a liberation -- even if it comes too late.
For Daniel, the entire experience brings him closer to his Franco-Indian heritage: "My father was born, as I was, among the ghosts of a small community of people of strange blood. They were people who saw that they were born in darkness and would die in darkness, and who accepted that. They spoke, in their old French, in whispers, in the churchyard, among the gravestones, in the snow, and with them, silent, were squaws with papooses on their backs, and the woods began beyond the last row of gravestones. They were strange to me, and yet they were not strange."
From his "Canuck God," Daniel arrives at what he perceives as "stark truth," that "death is what we live for, and as terrible as it is, to die is better than to live." The inevitability of his father's death finally comforts him, and enables him to reach not merely an accomodation but a veneration: "My father, all throughout his life, could not think of himself, but had to think of his duty to the outside world. I must be like my father."
The Country has one unfortunate weakness. Its intensity occasionally lapses into humorlessness; when seriousness becomes solemnity, as Plante is inclined to let it do, what we get is huffing and puffing. But for the most part Plante has his eye firmly and unsentimentally set on life's simplest truths, and his prose has an undeniably luminous quality. The Country is a serene tribute to the life of "a complex and a simple man."