When asked how we (the ladies in my book club) would rate Canadian writer Helen Humphreys’ new book Rabbit Foot Bill on a scale of one to ten, the average score was about six. It’s a shockingly low number for an author whose book The Lost Garden we almost all universally loved. (I have also read her novels Afterimage and Coventry.) I have come to expect a certain degree of poetry in Humphreys’ prose, and while Rabbit Foot Bill is certainly easy to read, it lacked something. Usually after a book club meeting, especially if I am ambivalent about a book, I come away with a deeper appreciation of it. Honestly, I still don’t know how I really feel about this book.
Leonard Flint lives in small-town Saskatchewan with his parents. He’s a solitary kid and his only friend is Bill, a quiet man who lives in Sugar Hill, “right inside the hill.”
We have been friends for a year, Bill and I, and although people don’t approve, we are friends anyway. I like that Bill isn’t bothered by what people say.
The reasons why people don’t like my being friends with Bill are these: first, because he is a man and I am a twelve-year-old boy; and second, because he is a man who is not like other men. He doesn’t talk much. He doesn’t live in a house. He doesn’t have a real job. He doesn’t have a family.
One day, Leonard witnesses a shocking act of violence that lands Bill in prison. It’s fifteen years before he sees his friend again, and when he does it’s at the Weymouth Mental Hospital. Leonard has just accepted his first job as a psychiatrist, a job that he doesn’t really understand how to do. He really is out of sorts and then one night, crossing the yard back to the cottage where he lives he sees a man “moving along the outside of the building. He’s far enough away to be in the shadows and he has his back to me, but I recognize the way he moves as though it was myself moving in my own skin.”
It is indeed Bill, and although Leonard is warned against making contact with him, he can’t help himself. Bill and Leonard’s pasts are so closely linked that it is impossible for him to resist, even though it means that he is derelict in his duties to his own patients.
Rabbit Foot Bill is based a a true story but the real-life relationship between Bill and Leonard is peripheral at best. In Humphreys’ imagination their relationship is far more complex, which is of course the stock and trade of a writer. There were times when I wondered if there wasn’t some sort of homoerotic connection between the men, and the reveal, when it comes, is certainly plausible.
So, I am not sure why I didn’t love this book. Thinking about it now, as I write this, I guess I can see its merits, but I just felt it was somehow superficial. True, as my fellow book club member Karen said, Humphreys doesn’t get in the way of the story. In some ways, though, I wish she had spent just a teensy bit more time making these characters more substantial.
It’s not a total miss for me, but I didn’t love it.