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The Stone Carvers
by Jane Urquhart

From Booklist
*Starred Review* Canadian novelist Urquhart, author most recently of The Underpainter (1997), brings a discerning visual sensibility and near obsession with what makes a man or woman an artist to her exquisitely rendered, morally inquisitive, and intelligently romantic imaginings of the North American past. Tilman is a mystical boy impelled to wander, and comes of age living a blessed hobo's life. Klara, his homebody sister, lovely yet stoic, is gifted in the arts of the needle and the chisel, one skill inherited from her mother, the other from her Bavarian grandfather, who carved the statuary for their tiny Canadian settlement's grand stone church, the brainchild of Father Gstir, who is sent to the frontier by mad King Ludwig in 1866. In a spellbinding tale that spans two time periods and is rife with pairings and parallels, Gstir is matched with Walter Allward, a real-life Canadian sculptor who built the enormous Canadian First World War Monument near Arras, France. With their edifices of faith and memory as her polestars, Urquhart orchestrates poetically dramatic adventures for nomadic Tilman and reclusive Klara, each of whom ultimately discovers the vicissitudes of love, faces the horrors of war, and embraces the solace of art, and of home. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From: Barbara Moors Date: Thursday, July 15, 2004 01:35 PM The time frame of this novel extends from 1867 when the story begins with Father Gstir being sent from his idyllic village in Bavaria to the wilds of Canada to establish a church, to 1939, at the outbreak of WWII. Along the way, it stays true to its theme of the power of art and its relationship to individual lives and, sometimes, the course of history. It was interesting for me to think of the common threads between Father Gstir, Klara and Allward. All 3 had competing drives, but, ultimately, it seemed to me that their obsessions for creation were the pivotal forces in their lives. What did you all think about how they were alike and different? The only character that I didn't truly believe in the book was Tillman. Urquhart seemed to be trying to portray a mildly autistic person or one with, what is called now, Asperger's Sydrome which involves primarily social disabilities. Being a special education teacher, I was probably more critical than most, but it didn't ring completely true for me. What did you all think of Tillman? One of the nicest parts of the book was finding out at the end that Walter Allward truly was a sculptor who worked in Canada during the first half of the 20th century and that he did create the Vimy Memorial near Arras, France. Some of my favorite parts of the book were the descriptions of that monument. Barb
From: Barbara Moors Date: Thursday, July 15, 2004 01:47 PM Here are a couple of photographs of the Vimy Memorial and a website for more information. The tunnels described in the story were real! And, the website: Barb
From: R Bavetta Date: Thursday, July 15, 2004 01:50 PM I didn't believe Tilman, either. He should have ended up as a birdman in the wilderness. My eyebrows really shot to the ceiling when he became a gay restauranteur. It's like the child and the man were two entirely different people. Contrary to you, Barb, I found most of the artistic stuff to be really more about craftsmanship. Klara came closest to being a genuine artist. I know Allward was a real artist, I looked him up, too, but I thought his portrayal gave too much credence to the usual popular misconceptions about artists. For what it's worth, and having nothing really to do with the book, I think the Vimy Memorial is hideous--a conglomeration of ubermensch cliches. R
From: Ian Cragg Date: Thursday, July 15, 2004 05:34 PM I think one of the things the novel tries to do and more or less succeeds in doing is to show the difference between an artist and a crafts(wo)man. Father Gstir is a visionary but doesn't have the skill to build the church himself- he inspires the community to build its own church. Allward has the skill and the vision although ultimately he falls out of fashion- yes, the Vimy monument isn't exactly elegant, but at least knowing what the symbolism means, we can appreciate it a little better. Klara has the skill and, to an extent, the vision, but doesn't have the will or the opportunity to put it to use for a long time. Urquhart is quite subtle in that it's not the fact of Klara being a woman per se which stops her working as a sculptor, it's the responsibilities which accumulate around her having to keep the farm going on her own without family or a husband. As regards Tillman, I thought he did actually emerge as a rounded three-dimensional character with all his inconsistencies. The symbolism of him being identified with the migrating birds worked well for me, but I think the thing about his relationship with Recouvrir is that it seems to come from nowhere and yet feels absolutely right. The thing with Tillman is that he has to discover certain things about himself- his passion for French cuisine as much as sexuality- before he can open up to somebody.
From: R Bavetta Date: Thursday, July 15, 2004 06:23 PM Ian, I liked your analysis of the different facets of artistic endeavor. Right on the money. Yes, Tilman's relationship with Recouvrir did seem right for the adult Tilman. And the birds seemed right for the child. But try as I might, I could not make a connection between the child and the adult. R
From: Jane Niemeier Date: Friday, July 16, 2004 10:35 PM Before I note my criticism of this book, I want to say that I really enjoyed it, and I found it easy to read. I liked all of the details about carving and even the sewing. The part that I didn't buy was that Klara was able to live in a dormitory of men for several months without her true identity being discovered. Women do have to go to the bathroom and do have periods, and I assume that she did take showers. She states at one point that she could take a shower right after work because no one came in then. I just didn't believe it. I found the idea of the Vimy monument to be very moving. I didn't realize that Canada had 11,000 soldiers missing in action. WWI was such a destructive war in France. I always explained to my students that France lost a whole generation of young men and that much of WWI was fought on their soil. It was no wonder that they were weak when WWII began only 21 years later. Jane
From: Barbara Moors Date: Friday, July 16, 2004 10:48 PM The description of living in those tunnels gave me the heeby-jeebys. I am claustrophobic and could relate to to Tillman's choice to run out into more danger, just to be outside. It was very moving to learn that this description was fairly accurate. Barb
From: Barbara Moors Date: Saturday, July 17, 2004 08:23 AM There is a good interview with Jane Urquhart, in which she talks quite a bit about The Stone Carvers, at the following website: In it, she says some things that I wanted to especially pull out to post here, in case you don't have time to read the article: Tell me what The Stone Carvers is about for you. For me I think it's about the redemptive nature of making art. I always hope that a book will teach me something that I didn't know that I knew. By the time I'm finished I want to know something I didn't know when I started. And I think that that was what this book taught me. And it also taught me that making something -- it need not be the great big huge work of art either -- just making something: just taking experience, reshaping it and reordering it -- whether that experience be celebratory or terribly tragic -- is redemptive. [The character] of Klara interested me because I knew women like her -- though not of her generation necessarily -- and I have now come to realize that those spinsters, some of them were considered to be completely old women and they were in their 30s. Now I look back and think: How is this possible? You were considered to be an old, old lady if you weren't married by the time you were 26 or something. [Laughs] My daughter is so far away from settling down and being married and this is changing with every generation. The childbearing age is changing, everything is changing. But those women were often the most interesting people around. I've been very moved all across the country by people bringing me photographs of their great-aunts who were all spinsters as a result of losing people in the First World War; bringing me pictures of soldiers who were killed at Vimy who were grandparents and great-grandparents. And it's very touching. It's astonishing. It's as if somehow the book and the idea of memorializing and the monument and this redemptive nature of having some trace has given people permission to care about stuff that they probably already did care about but hadn't really talked about. Barb
From: Jane Niemeier Date: Saturday, July 17, 2004 01:52 PM Barb, Thank you for posting that article. I think that Klara is a fascinating character as well. She could be from a small town in Indiana. By that I mean that there were some of the same attitudes toward women when I was growing up in Indiana and that was 50 years later than Klara. Thank God that women can pretty much do what they want now. Jane
From: Tonya Presley Date: Monday, July 19, 2004 02:24 PM I have been behind on the reading lately, so the bad news is: I started this book yesterday. The good news is: I covered 80 pages in the first day. That means I am really, really enjoying it! Wish I had located it earlier. Tonya Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot.
From: Barbara Moors Date: Monday, July 19, 2004 10:04 PM Oh, good, Tonya, I really think you will like it. Barb
From: Sherry Keller Date: Friday, July 23, 2004 10:46 AM I am working on this too, but haven't read any in the last couple of days. Life and a sick husband are intruding. Sherry
From: Sherry Keller Date: Monday, July 26, 2004 05:20 PM I just now finished this book. I was very moved by the part where Giorgio let Klara carve Eamon's name. I guess that's what Urquhart meant by "the redemptive nature of making art." By allowing herself to express her sorrow, Klara was able to pass through it and come out the other side, able to love again. I liked the book quite a lot, too, but agree with Jane about Klara's living with men. It almost felt as if they all really knew, but pretended not to know. Another thing that felt a little rushed to me was when Klara got the obsession to go to the monument. I wasn't entirely convinced she would do that. Sherry
From: Barbara Moors Date: Tuesday, July 27, 2004 07:36 AM I agree with Ruth's original comment that the characters in this book are more craftsman than artist, with the exception of Allward and, possibly, Klara. But, I think Urquhart was trying to present a full spectrum of the effect that creation and art can have on us. I am neither a craftsman nor an artist, about as far from it as I can be. However, looking at art, especially certain art, gives me a feeling of floating, rising above everything around me. And, I think that Urquhart does succeed in conveying the quality of that effect on her characters. Reviews of this book often talk about its theme being "the redemptive nature of art". I think that's true and used the phrase in my original note, but it sounded too pat so I've been mulling it around in my mind ever since. For the craftsman, there is still that same slightly euphoric feeling of creation, I think. I'm wondering if there have ever been any studies done on the chemical secretions in the body elicited by art, like endorphins. Sherry, I agree with you and Jane about Klara living with the men. My only thought was that the men may have been so self-involved that they didn't notice her or it was so far outside of anything they would expect that it just didn't occur to them. What surprised me was that they weren't more angry when they did find out! I know that men are supposed to be less modest than women, but I think many men, particularly at that time, would have been angry. The obsession about going to France for the monument was a bit sudden, but Klara's loneliness and lack of fulfillment had been building up for a very long time. Urquhart seemed to be saying that she was just waiting for any spark to ignite her and this was a perfect one. Barb
From: Sherry Keller Date: Tuesday, July 27, 2004 08:03 AM I think the reason the men weren't angry was that they suspected she was a woman. I was surprised that Allward wasn't more angry. One thing I wondered about, just on a practical level. Were the names carved high into the monument? How would anyone ever read the ones up high? And I wonder if there really is an "Eamon O'Sullivan" there. Sherry
From: Robert Armstrong Date: Friday, July 30, 2004 08:12 PM From: "Robert Armstrong" I finished THE STONE CARVERS today and liked it very much. It has a definite feminine sensibility and many parts were romanticized, sometimes bordering on a literate Romance novel, but I was taken in. I love tramp stories, riding the rails, hobos and wanderers, so Tilmanís story appealed to me and I was plenty delighted that he fell in love with the chef which I didnít see coming. I donít buy that it was his first sexual experience, but I can believe it was his first relationship. Part 2, ďThe Road,Ē about Tillmanís life on the road, was in a similar vein to the center section of THE PROFESSORíS HOUSE by Willa Cather (was it Tom Oaklandís story?) where Tom discovers the Anasazi ruins in New Mexico. They both were stories that could almost stand on their own surrounded by a greater context. I lent my Cather book out to a friend who just wonít read it so, I canít reference Tomís last name. There were a number of stretches of credulity, like Father Gstir falling over dead when he got the bell, and war being announced a few moments after Klara and Eamon consummate their love. These were cinema-like shorthanded overstatments, as was Crazy Phoebe and the whole Klara male disguise thing. But I was both moved and entertained by them so, so what. Barb, did you nominate this? Despite my criticisms, I really enjoyed it. I seem to remember Bob M. giving it a glowing review when it was first released. Robt
From: Robert Armstrong Date: Saturday, July 31, 2004 08:57 AM At the beginning of the novel, before Part 1, two men are examining the monument in 1934. I take it that they are Tilman and Recouvrir. Any other impressions? I find it very funny that the first time Klara wants to go to a restaurant she has to just about pull Tilman out of the garbage cans to get him to go in the front door and then Tilman ends up being a connoisseur of Ecrevisses a la crŤme and Grillades aux pommes soufflees. Just cracks me up. I thought the portrait of Klara as the town spinster was well done and revelatory of a type. Robt
From: Sherry Keller Date: Saturday, July 31, 2004 09:25 AM I went back to reread that first bit, too, Robt, and I think you are right. I like how she sets up our introduction the monument, so that when it becomes part of the story, we have a sense of "where have I heard about this before?" (I took a while reading the book, with a big break in the middle to go to my grandmother's funeral, so those connections weren't quite as tight as they normally would have been.) I have a sense that Tilman is quite an original character. He seemed to me totally asexual and very childlike even as an adult. I think that he could have had either a female or a male lover, depending on who made a deep connection with him. So it didn't seem out of place that Recouvrir was his first sexual partner, and only one, apparently. Sherry
From: Barbara Moors Date: Saturday, July 31, 2004 04:30 PM Robt, I did nominate this one. I actually bought it last summer in Beaune, France, which is in the Burgundy area. A store there had a decent selection of English language novels and I was stocking up. Now, I understand why they might have chosen to stock it. I didn't get a chance to read it while we were traveling, but it gave me a nice mental return to the trip. Barb
From: Lee Beech Date: Saturday, August 28, 2004 08:24 AM I read The Stone Carvers when it first appeared and then again for our live book club discussion. After both readings, I was sad to finish, as I loved the characters, the events, the concepts and Urquhart's style. No one has mentioned the way she "book'ended" the novel with the monument to religion -- the church -- at the beginning, and the monument to sacrifice at the end. In many ways the priest and Alltman were equally obsessed and each man achieved his vision. I have visited the village which was the inspiration for Urquhart's church, and it dominates the landscape. It is impossible not to be amazed at the achievements of those settlers who built such a structure in such a landscape. I have also seen some remnants of the brickwork of Alltman in houses now under threat of destruction for monster houses. What a commentary o this age that such dedication to craft and originality should be pulled down to build a tile and arborite abortion! Give me the little houses with the beautifully executed bricks. Urquhart has said that she likes to learn from what she reads. I agree, and I learned much from reading The Stone Carvers, and at the same time I was engrossed in her story. I found this one of those great books that has never left me.
From: Barbara Moors Date: Saturday, August 28, 2004 09:40 AM Lee, your earlier comments are what motivated me to buy this book and then nominate it for the Reading List. I am so glad that you posted. I thought about the obsessions of all of the characters in the book who wanted to create or facilitate creation, but I didn't think of the particular connection between the priest and Allward and their bookending placement in the story. Thanks for posting about the village and Allward's stonework in houses. That adds a precious little extra to the story for me. Barb


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