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From small-town Alberta, Curtis comes to Edmonton to obtain a teaching degree. There he forms a close friendship with his elderly, blind Aunt Harriet, considered a family pariah due to her eccentric enthusiasm for a lost world of artists and musicians.
When Curtis begins reading aloud to Harriet the diary her intended husband Phillip kept before his death during World War One, an obsessed Curtis examines parallels to his own life: his desire to become a skillful artist and to find fulfilling love.
Timeless and essential, award-winning author Glen Huser’s Burning the Night spans across generations and distance, traversing from Vancouver to Halifax, as it bears down on the history of Canadian painting and Curtis’s awakening as a gay man.
Excerpt from Burning the Night:
Some of the papers, I imagined—those that had not been immediately driven to ground by the black, oily rain—fell, in that odd, unhurried way that airborne papers have, drifting past the blazing islands of debris, fluttering to rest in the grass where moisture fixed and darkened the charcoal lines, the sinuous trunk of a jack pine, the slope of a Toronto roof, the curve of a man’s hip. Hours later, when the fires burned in on themselves and the snow came with a white, ashy fury, water hardened into barnacled ice, anchoring the papers so that, when fingers pulled at them, they were released with odd, torn patterns.
Others flew, like strange birds—cream manila, cartridge white, rag grey—into the racing currents of air, the giant exhalation, the gasp. These settled, finally, into nests of cracked porcelain, tumbled brick, kindled wood. Or they became lost in debris-strewn alleys, the yards, the shattered rime of the marsh grass along the beach.
In my mind’s eye, I could see the leather case falling with curtains and shards of glass, the tiny bottles and dresser-top jars, a tin coffee pot, that small oil painting on a piece of board. How long did it take for fire to travel through the trail of splintered wood that had been Mrs. McTavish’s house? Find the shattered washstand where the case had come to rest? The small portfolio was durable, though, and flames only managed to work their way into one corner before its bonfire underpinnings collapsed and it tumbled into the yard. The drawings tucked within barely damaged, seeming only to have been gnawed at in one corner by a rodent with fire in its teeth.
“I kept it all close by me,” Aunt Harriet told me. “The case with its journal, sketches and photographs tucked inside, resting on top of a ragged collection of the drawings people found. You should have heard the nurses complaining that it got charcoal and chalk all over the bedding and my clothing.
“Hospital volunteers, or Mrs. McTavish, when she visited, would do their best to describe their sequence. I thought I could remember the order in which the papers lay. On top were the ones from inside the case only burned in one corner, and then there were a few Mrs. McTavish retrieved from her front yard. The rest? Found by people sifting through debris. Added over several days.
“Of course it was only a matter of time until I accidentally knocked everything over. When the papers were gathered up, I had no way of knowing which was which. The loose ones that people found here and there were in with those that had been in the case. One of the hospital aides offered to iron the most crumpled pieces of artwork for me but I said no, I wanted to be able to feel the ridges, the rips and torn edges.
The odd thing was that, in time, I got to know the shapes of the damage as well as I could remember the drawings and paintings themselves. That one, with a kind of spoon-shape torn out—it’s the figure of a soldier, isn’t it? I suppose there’s not much left of the actual charcoal sketch, but I imagine you can see his hands. Yes, I’ve been told, I think, his hands, and part of his uniform. That one was found half a mile away. Would never have been picked up, I suppose, if it hadn’t been for that little article in the newspaper. Church ladies or Mrs. McTavish would come in and read the papers to me, and, of course, there were stories to fill the pages for months on end. This one, with a crescent moon shape near the top—you might wonder what that is, but I think it’s a sketch of driftwood washed up on Kitsilano Beach.”
Along the jagged opening, the twisted branches reach out, dead wood on sand, sand marked with small stains of—what? Blood? Oil? The liver spots of age?
Author-Curated Discussion Questions
1. In some ways this is a “doubly historical” novel with parts set in 1916–1917 and other parts ranging over the 1950s to the 1970s. In contrast to our current time, what details are distinctive to these periods? Are there some aspects that resonate with today’s world?
2. Major Canadian cities serve as settings from sequence to sequence—Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto, and Halifax in particular. Do you feel the author captured distinct features of each? Anything missing?
3. What parallels do you see in Phillip’s and Curtis’s lives? How does Curtis shape his life to fit the Phillip who emerges from journal entries and Aunt Harriet’s remembrances?
4. Through much of the novel, Curtis reveals himself as extremely shy and unaccepting of his sexuality. Projecting from the 1960s/1970s to the 2020s, do you think a Curtis growing up today would have been more comfortable with himself? Would Walter have been any different in today’s social environment?
5. “Negative space” is a term artists use in composition, one that Curtis employs with his junior high art club. How does the term expand as a metaphor for other things happening (or not happening) in the novel?
6. We discover that Harriet can be unreliable in recounting some of her experiences. How do other characters choose to cover for her, and how do these choices serve to foster Curtis’s unblinking acceptance of her stories?
7. Although there are hints early on about what happened to Phillip and Harriet in December 1917, why do you think the author chose to use the closing chapters of the book to detail the Halifax Explosion?
8. When did you first learn about the Halifax Explosion? Do you think this is an incident not very well known outside of Canada (and possibly unknown by many Canadians)?
9. How does music resonate throughout the novel? Were you spurred to track down and listen to any of the classical pieces mentioned? Which do you think would best serve as a musical accompaniment for the “Love Has Me Haunted” poem that prefaces the novel?
10. Canadian art is another crucial strand in the narrative. What was distinctive about the landscape art of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven? Is there any resolution today about the mystery of Thomson’s death?
11. If you were to cast a movie of Burning the Night, what actors would you pick to play Curtis, Walter, Aunt Harriet, Harriet as a young woman, Phillip Pariston, Per, Edwina, Radcliffe Malthus, Tom Thomson, Carroll Carmody, Moira Greckel, Curtis’s mother?
"Burning the Night begins with fire; the blackened sketches and journal pages of an artist fluttering down to become memories. Like these charred artefacts, Huser's eloquent words become a puzzle on the pages, with pieces of the narrative fitting together to slowly reveal the lives of Aunt Harriet and of Curtis. This is the work of a master storyteller."
“This is a story of inner and outer sight, of blindness both acquired and enforced on us by society. Huser is a sensitive yet ruthless observer of human nature.”
"Like a vivid shock of red in a sepia photo or the lurid love letter of an historical icon, Burning the Night unshackles the past from our dusty preconceptions, bringing it roaring into the full-colour present with the force of an atom bomb. Painting on a wide canvas of famous Canadian history, Huser perfectly conjures that feeling we get when we see images of our old relatives as young adults and think, 'Wow, they were just like us.”