Kristen den Hartog


"Origin of Haloes"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie OCT 30, 2005)

"The story of Joe and Kay and Margar was a tale of such danger, of secrets kept and revealed, a tale of lies and consequences. The couple had three children, in just a few years from their romantic meeting, Joe would be gone. His absence would come to define him."   

A trusted athletics coach seduces an innocent minor in his charge, resulting in a pregnancy, the birth of a daughter, a marriage built on a lie, and secrets which eventually taint the lives of many people in Ottawa Valley's Deep River community, especially members of the LeBlanc and Halliwell families. These deceptions, the very act which made them necessary, will cause death, disappearance and despair beyond measure.

Sixteen year-old Kay Clancy is an "aspiring, teenaged gymnast of uncommon talent" getting ready to compete for a spot on the Canadian team headed for the 1960 Rome Olympics. However, her dreams are dashed when she becomes pregnant by her coach, a man more than twice her age with a lovely wife and child of his own. Shortly after her disquieting discovery, Kay falls in love. She literally flips off the school's trampoline right into Joseph Patrice Emmanuel Francois Gabriel LeBlanc's "Herculean arms." Kay believes it is love at first sight for both of them, but Joe had seen her before, so he loved her earlier. When Kay confesses her pregnancy, but not the identity of the father, Joe disappears. He returns, however, months later, in time to claim Kay for his wife and baby Estelle as his first born.

What follows are happy years for the LeBlancs. Baby Louis arrives on the scene not long after Estelle. And Margaret, (called Margar), is about to be born when tragedy strikes and Joe disappears again. He is last seen portaging his canoe toward the nearby river. Years later, when all have given up hope of finding him or his remains, (except for Louis, Margar and his LeBlanc uncles), Joe's disintegrating canoe paddle is found, along with a canoe 'thwart,' underneath the dock in front of the Halliwell home, where the coach lives with his emotionally fragile wife, Marie, and their son, Eddie. Margar LeBlanc, the only one of Joe's three children never to see him, longs to do so. The mischievous and very curious girl is frequently drawn to the Halliwell home, by the river. What she will eventually find there will alter her forever.

This beautifully written and complex story is framed by the quadrennial Summer Olympiads, from Rome in 1960 to Moscow in 1980, and oddly enough, it is also interspersed with sitings of the Trudeau family, debonair Premier Pierre, his wife Margaret and their three sons. I grew up in this time period and was a fan of Canada's first family, as well as the Summer Games, so it makes sense to me. It also gives me a vivid sense of the period and setting.

Kristen Den Hartog's characters, especially the children, really leap off the page. She captures them in telling moments of joy, sorrow and fear with remarkable eloquence. Ms. Den Hartog describes with great poignancy a child's longing for a lost parent, a hero figure - "Margar never knew her dad, but because she was always looking for him, she was the one who bumped into him most often, after he disappeared." And a child's irrational fears: "Born into a time of pain and sadness, Margar developed her own belief about Joe, secret as a crime, and as chilling: that the thought of her impending arrival was so repugnant to him, he could not remain one Moment longer. Something about her that mortified him had emanated from Kay's belly like a poisonous gas or a smelly, jaundiced aura." There is not enough room to quote all the passages I marked and found myself going back to read over again.

Origin of Haloes touched me deeply. I look forward to reading more fiction by the author.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
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"Water Wings"

(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer APR 23, 2004)

Darlene, after years of fooling around, is finally getting remarried...but that is not the story, merely the catalyst for two daughters to return home, and for four women to tell another story.

The story, ostensibly, is about Mick, the first husband and Vivian's and Hannah's father. At first we think they were without him because he died in a freak accident, but later we learn that he divorced Darlene prior to his death. It is also the story of Wren, a gentle and sweet girl born with hands that are different...mitten like, the source of shame and mockery. It is also about her mother and Darlene’s sister Angie. Angie loves her sister and tries to deal with the mistakes she makes, yet jealous at the perfection of Darlene’s daughters, and perhaps a little at how Darlene seems to skate through life despite the drama that she seems to generate. Angie, as self destructive as Darlene, has ruined her own life in some ways, but is more subtle about it.

Except for brief forays with Angie, mostly we stick with Hanna, Vivian and Wren, who tell about their youth. Like everything, their stories seem to revolve a lot around Darlene, but we see glimpses of other things. With Darlene we see a woman who seems to be quite a consummate drama queen, one who is irresistible to all men save the one she truly loves. She is very beautiful, and she uses that beauty to manipulate the poor men around her...the most pitiful being Tim, the first man she dates after the divorce, who hangs around waiting for her, but ends up only taking photos at her wedding.

The other theme is that of the natural world. Insects, the stars, different kinds of trees all are an intricate part of the book...the two main men, Mick, Darlene’s first husband, and Charlie, Angie's husband, were both environmentalists, and so that gives a reason for their daughters' knowledge of these different things. But there’s another aspect, too...the reactions to these things is what characterizes the very heart of the person. Vivian doesn’t think twice about crushing a bug, while the other two cousins have a reverence for nature. Vivian’s carelessness shows how she has hardened her heart to the people around her, and how easy it is for her to cut her ties and leave. There are also comparisons Wren creates between insects and humans and their relations that are quite lovely.

Sometimes it’s a very dark tale, filled with cruelties both subtle and unspeakable..and sometimes it’s a hopeful story, allowing us to believe that there is something bright waiting after the darkest moments. A very credible debut, this novel actually precedes last year’s Perpetual Ending.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
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"The Perpetual Ending"

(reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer JUL 08, 2003)

They were twins, mirror images of each other, even down to their souls. But that statement, just like a mirror, is tricky, for they are mirror opposites, where Jane is left handed, her sister is right, where Eugenie is sloppy, Jane is perfectly ordered. Where Jane is alive, and an adult, Genie is dead. This ripping away of her other half has left Jane strangely empty. As an adult and writer of fanciful children's tales, she has not been able to confide her past to her lover and book illustrator, Simon. Although he draws her words to life with a perfection that she can hardly believe, she can not bring herself to even confess that her parents still live, that is, until a phone call from her father forces her to admit to it. She has to travel back to her childhood home to see her dying mother. This cuts her off from everyone...from her lover, who sees her as a stranger, from the parents she abandoned ages ago, from her local friends. In this very insular environment she lays it all bare for us in a sort of letter of explanation to Simon, and we meet Eugenie, her butterfly of a mother and wasp of a father. In a world where her father (who is at times violent, at times very loving) and her mother (a drifty and sweet woman who seeks to define herself through creativity, who hungers for a world of color) are distracted by the instability of their mairrage, Jane and Eugenie are each other's only anchor. And since Genie takes after her mother much more than our solemn Jane does, Jane becomes a little adult in many ways.

Tired of having her spirit and dreams crushed, their mother leaves her husband to go to Toronto. Eventually, she collects her daughters, bringing them into her bohemic world of paintings and thrift stores. Jane often feels pulled between her parents, who she loves dearly, and even as her sister embraces the new life, Jane longs for the sanity and order of the old one...and when the chance comes to return to it, she grabs it, a choice that has heart breaking consequences.

As Jane tells us her story, she adds in stories from one of her books. The stories of Siamese twins and girls with horns reflect the story back to us, in the strange world where girls can have skin of incredible dryness and a deep, relentless thirsts, Jane reiterates the basic themes of what she's saying, what's she's been trying to reveal to Simon all along. The only person who seems to understand is her mother, who sends her cards every time a book comes out, and who Jane cannot bring herself to communicate with.

"The Perpetual Heart Break" might also be a good title for this story. The contrasts between story and confession, beauty and ugliness, is brilliantly wrought, but there is no joy in this book, only hope that joy may someday come. Jane is a very straight line person. Even as a child, she frets over germs and dirt, longing for order. In one scene, when her father forgets to bring change for hotdog day, he tries to make up for it by bringing in a pair of oversized, condiment covered hotdogs. Jane is embarrassed by the stares of her classmates and heartbroken, guilty over the fact that it is obvious her father now thinks that he made a mistake and is guilty, and disappointed that the hotdogs aren't even the way they like them. It is scenes like this, vividly real, uncomfortable, sad, that really got me thinking as well as to characterize the people in it. I'd say to myself that the kids are nasty...their father made a great deal of effort, they should have played it up and at least made him happy...but how would I have reacted, in real life? So even as I disagree with the people's action in this book, I feel empathy, because these are small, dumb things that anyone can do, that anyone can regret.

As I sit and try and think of descriptive terms for this book, the word quiet keeps coming up. It is a very quiet story...even the yelling between her parents comes second hand and is deadened by walls and time. Draining is another...despite the quiet nature that so echoes its narrator, it is a very emotional book. The fabulist aspects of this book, such as a girl who trades her lovely laugh for luxurious cobweb hair, do not leaven the plot...I liked the stories a lot, and would have loved to seen them illustrated, but they are not happy stories. Finally, I think it's strong. The architecture of the book is well wrought, and the substance of it will stay with readers a long time.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 2 reviews


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About the Author:

Kristen den HartogKristen den Hartog was born and raised in Deep River, Ontario and now lives in Toronto. Her short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines throughout Canada and short-story anthologies, including The Journey Prize Anthology and The Turn of the Story: Canadian Short Fiction on the Eve of the Millennium.
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