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When Setting Becomes Character
Written by
She Writes
August 2018
Written by
She Writes
August 2018

Today's guest post comes from Jean Pendziwol, author of the best-selling debut novel The Lightkeeper's Daughter. The location of her novel plays a huge part in the story even to the point of becoming a character itself. Here she shares some of her inspiration for the setting of her story .

Lake Superior is vast and deep; a sea surrounded by a continent. It’s fickle and temperamental, prone to dense fog and storms powerful enough to snap an ocean-going freighter in two. The largest freshwater lake in the world by area (third by volume, if you’re keeping track), it rarely freezes completely, even when temperatures drop consistently below the -20C mark. It’s just that big.

This is where I spent my childhood.

My parents owned a sequence of sailboats, starting with a sixteen-foot day-sailer and eventually graduating to a thirty-two foot sloop that allowed us to venture farther from our home port of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Our weekends and vacations were spent exploring the uninhabited islands and bays along the north shore.

Superior is cold. We always packed our “toques” and woollen socks and we had a woodstove to heat the cabin. My father chilled his beer by slipping it into a fishing net and dropping it overboard. I seldom came home from summer holidays with a bikini tan, although sometimes, on still, hot days when the sun reflected off the white deck, and the water teased us by tapping against the hull, my sisters and I would venture in, lasting only a few brief seconds before the cold crept into our bones.

Sparsely populated, we could go days without sharing an anchorage with another boat. My favourite harbours had names like “Otter Cove” and “Loon Harbour;” places where we could take a short dinghy ride to a waterfall for an icy shower, or watch a cow moose and her calf browsing in the shallows.

I also loved visiting Porphyry Island where we could tie up to a dock in the sheltered harbour and easily go ashore to explore. Plus, there was a lighthouse there. At that time, it was still manned, and I remember the lightkeeper giving us a ride behind his tractor to the point. I thought it an idyllic place to live, perched on the rocks with the faint smudgy line of Isle Royale in the distance and huge freighters passing by on their way through the Great Lakes to Welland Canal and the ocean.

When I started writing The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, I knew I wanted the setting to be central to the story. Remembering my fascination with Porphyry Island, I returned with my father and son to find the light automated, the trail overgrown, the foghorn silent, and the keeper’s residences long since empty. But the place still held magic.

I took inspiration from the men and women who served as Great Lakes lighthouse keepers in the early part of the 20th century, speaking with several who were stationed on the island. I connected with a group recently formed to preserve and restore the history of Porphyry, and in the process discovered journals kept by one of the early keepers, Andrew Dick. His words provided a snapshot into life on the island with his Indigenous wife and their ten children.

But as I began to write the story of twin sisters Elizabeth and Emily Livingstone growing up on the island, it was Lake Superior that emerged from the backdrop, slipping from setting into the role of character.

I was already familiar with the Lake’s tendency to brew storms and tease up fog. I knew the bottom was littered with shipwrecks, from the earliest Northwest Company schooner that sank in 1816, (ironically named Invincible) to the 730-foot Edmund Fitzgerald immortalized in Gordon Lightfoot’s iconic 1975 chart topping ballad. I have listened to waves breathing quietly between rocks on still summer nights, and in winter, the eerie, enchanting whale-song of a formidable force confined by a straightjacket of ice.

This, I thought, is a character that is unpredictable, acting without intent, able to move in the lives of the lightkeeper and his family, providing at once both refuge and isolation, a constant yet constantly changing entity.

From the very first chapter, Lake Superior began to exert influence, delivering Charlie Livingstone’s sailboat Wind Dancer into the hands of Arnie Richardson and setting the story in motion. The Lake lived alongside Elizabeth and Emily, a witness to events, reflecting the mood of each scene, sometimes “quiet beneath the pinpricked ceiling of the late summer sky,” sometimes joining the conversation with “mocking laughter…as it rolled onto the rocky beaches or slapped against the bluffs.” And sometimes, the Lake conspired to take on a more active role, to affect to change, to hide or reveal.

I can smell the mustiness of the book. I know it is the journal. She has found something in it that the Lake tried to steal. I’m not sure I want to know what it is. But she begins to speak, and I cannot stop it. It spills from her, my father’s words, like waves rolling toward the cliff, crashing and hissing when they arrive, and then slithering off to disappear into the depths, only to be followed by the next, and then the next. They are mesmerizing.

Lake Superior simultaneously sustained and threatened the Livingstone family of Porphyry Island. And I allowed it.

My life has been influenced by where I live; by the stunningly beautiful but moody Lake, by the boreal forests and the creatures that call them home, by the ancient worn ridges of the Canadian Shield, and the myriad of lakes and rivers that are flung like jewels across the vast unpopulated stretches of northern Ontario. It is little wonder my stories are set here. It’s part of who I am.

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