Old lady on a train? Jocelyne Saucier follows up her ‘cult bestseller’ with a mysterious journey across Northern Ontario

Jocelyne Saucier’s new novel, “And Miles to Go Before I Sleep” (published in Quebec last year and translated from French by Rhonda Mullins), is based on a mystery: What happened to Gladys Como? As the opening paragraph of the novel establishes, “On September 24, 2012, Gladys boarded the Como Northlander and was never seen again in the swastika, which is not even a town, even a village. No, it’s just a community along the rail line.” It’s a powerful opening that immediately raises the question in the reader’s mind – who is this Gladys Earnest? Why did she leave? Why didn’t she ever come back? – which will lead them deeper into the novel.

However, it doesn’t take long before even the most casual reader will realize they’ve been misled somewhat: “End Miles to Go Before I Sleep” isn’t really a mystery, at least by the way. The word is commonly used. No offense: Seventy-year-old Gladys boards the train of her own free will, but her privacy, especially to her neighbors and her closest friends, raises the alarm. The fact that he abandoned his fifties daughter due to depression and suicide attempts adds to their concerns.

The more we learn about Gladys, the more we begin to understand her journey, in which she is jumping from train to train through northern Ontario, without any direction or planning. Trains have always been a part of Gladys’ life: apparently, she was born on a train, and she spent her childhood on a school train that crossed the north, allowing children to live in small, resource-intensive communities. Education was available. But why this trip? Why now? And why does she befriend the much younger Janelle during her travels?

These questions are similar to those that underlined Sausier’s previous novel, “And the Birds Rain Down,” which focused on aging and identity in the forests of northern Ontario. That novel, Sausier’s fourth, was the first Canadian book to win the prestigious Prix des Cinque Continents de la Francophonie, was a contender on Canada Reads in 2015, and was adapted for film in 2019. (Not bad for a book that its publisher referred to as a “cult bestseller.”)

While “End Miles to Go Before I Sleep” isn’t a specific mystery, it is, at heart, an investigation, sometimes literally, and sometimes philosophical in nature. The anonymous narrator, who sets out to write a straightforward history of Gladys’ journey, is overwhelmed by the scale of this short story, “Too many facts gathered, too many anecdotes collected, too much of everything.” He finds himself drawn into the story as both a participant and an observer.

His experience tells of the reader, who will find himself embroiled in the larger, superficial questions of Gladys’ journey, and the novel, only consumed, overwhelmed, with less obvious, though more important, questions. With a funny humor and a distinct, almost journalistic approach to events, Saucier examines the love of family and community, and the nature of loss, what we owe to each other, and what we owe. “End Miles to Go Before I Sleep” is what makes us human, and it is the question, as much as the answer, that keeps us alive.

Robert J. Wirsema is most recently author of “Seven Crow Stories”.

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