The Unlikely Redemption of John Alexander MacNeil

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Can we start up a “Not the Giller Prize” like they have for the Not the Booker Prize?? Please? Because The Unlikely Redemption of John Alexander MacNeil would be my #1 entry for the prize.

John Alexander has left me in a puddle of tears and I have fallen madly in love with him. Said one bookish friend of mine when she saw that I too was reading this book, “Everyone needs a little John Alex in their lives.”

I can’t quite remember how I came across this one, but I will say that after reading the description, it flew immediately on my TBR (list, pile, mountain, volcano – whatever we are referring to it these days)! That description contained every ounce of my reading kryptonite: John Alexander MacNeil is eighty years old. Sharp-tongued and quick-witted, he lives alone in rural Cape Breton, but he still cooks breakfast for his wife, who’s been dead for thirty years. He silently starts to question his own mind after stopping to pick up a hitchhiker — a hitchhiker who turns out to be his neighbour’s mailbox.

An old man reading/writing/talking to and in this case, making breakfast for, his dead wife? Oh yes please! This had to be a winner, just as Terry Fallis’ Best Laid Plans  and Roger Rosenblatt’s Thomas Murphy both were for me. And I was already sold after reading page one of Chapter One! This bit ensured I was in for an excellent reading experience:

“I was pretty sure it was a person standing there by the side of the road with his thumb hanging out, looking for a ride back to Inverary. I usually pick up any hitchhiker that doesn’t look like an axe murderer or Brian Mulroney. The mailbox looked like neither. But it turned out, it was mute and didn’t seem to have any interest in riding to Inverary with me. I had even reached across and opened the car door. When I discovered my mistake, I cursed the damn thing. So there you have it. An old man driving himself down the road stopping to pick up a mailbox that he believes is hitchhiking to Inverary.”

John Alex’s days are lonely now for sure, and he knows he’s slipping more and more each day, and when Emily, a pregnant teenager shows up at his door he knows he must fight to keep his sanity for Emily’s sake, but really, for his own – for now he couldn’t imagine being on his own again after the companionship Emily provides him, giving him the will to be, to continue on each day. Mixed into John Alex’s life are these wonderful cast of characters – honestly, Lesley Choyce has written such a wonderful gift here, his writing is poetic and genuine – writing about so many people that pull at our hearts!

There are so many well-written and heartfelt moments inside. Like when John Alex recalls his hard, abusive, unloving father, and the faults that were always landing on John Alexander:

“And it was also often my job as well to accept the blame and take the punishment. Even in my old age, I would discover a scar on my body that I was not familiar with and, if I thought about it long enough, I could pinpoint the punishment. Strip off my clothes and anyone could see my childhood history, the testimonial of what a man can do to his son to punish him for all the shortcomings of the world.”

Lauchie is John Alex’s brother, nicknamed Lucky, because luck was always with him. Lauchie says this to him:

“The old miners,…they used to say every father gives his son one special gift that he should never forget. That was true even of our father, wouldn’t you say?” “What was his gift to you, Lauchie -aside from the fact that he died and freed us both from having to work in the mine as kids? “His gift was a brother, an older brother who looked out for me. Have you ever considered what his gift to you was? “Yes. His gift was scars, Lauchie. He gave me ones you can see in a mirror and he gave me the other kind too. He gave me the gift of scars.”

Not a lot to say more here, just that by the end I was a puddle. I was openly weeping, first because of John Alexander, but also because damn! this book was ending and I really didn’t want it to end. This was the first time I’ve read Lesley Choyce (which is astonishing since he’s written countless books!) but it will definitely not be my last. I think I’ll be picking up Sea of Tranquility much sooner rather than later as another Choyce to read. :-) 5 stars for The Unlikely Redemption of John Alexander. This book was way too short! I want/need more John Alex.