As a creative person of mature years, I was fascinated by Kay Parley's new novel, The Sixth Age (Regina, SK, Your Nickel's Worth Publishing, ISBN 978-894431-85-9, $19.95) The Sixth Age presents life in an imaginary coop residence for older artists in a school formerly owned by Oblate Missionaries on Mission Lake, near Lebret, Saskatchewan. No such artists' colony/co-op has ever existed there, but the setting is real. In 1972, when Parley attended a Summer School of the Arts at Fort Qu'appelle, SK, she visited the abandoned mission property, which included a three-storey brick boarding school, a barn, a greenhouse and a non-functioning swimming pool.
One of Parley's characters explains that the founders of the co-op chose a former school building as the residence, "to remind us of our student days and keep us young." Parley was thinking of Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man whenshe chose her title. As Shakespeare put it
"The sixth age shifts
into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
with spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
his youthful hose well sav'd, a world too wide
for his shrunk shank and his big manly voice
turning again to childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound."
Aging artists rediscovering their "inner children" and pursuing their creativity in a co-op setting sounds wonderful, but, as Parley shows, it has its difficulties. As we walk hand in hand through the novel with Allie Dutton, a farmer's widow and poet, we see some of the issues. We first meet Allie getting rid of sugar and processed food from the co-op kitchen. Following her through her day, we meet charming and eccentric characters such as Mavis, who sits and types her novel in the abandoned swimming pool. The co-op of forty people includes a free-spirited dog and cat.
The residence is deteriorating with age, and has serious problems, like asbestos insulation and bats in the attic. Mysterious events occur, like the ringing doorbell in the middle of the night, and the smashed windows in Allie's beloved greenhouse. Are vandals loose? Later in in the novel, walking by the lake, Allie and an elderly co-op resident see a body floating near shore. Flustered, they drag it onto the bank, set out for help, turn back to see if there are any signs of life, and find the body no longer there!
Some of the tenants are deteriorating too. One is abusing alcohol again. Several individuals take off for days without informing anyone of their plans. The residents' governing committee rejects a sign-in/sign-out system because it goes against the spirit of the co-op to regulate the tenants as a nursing home or retirement residence would. Allie wonders: Will Mrs. Pratt, the manager they have hired, become their keeper someday? When Jane, an older resident goes for a walk and breaks her leg, her ambulance trip to hospital brings publicity to the co-op, and results in a visit from provincial social service and public health inspectors.
While enjoying the amusing incidents, the reader sees, with growing concern, that the older co-op members need more care than their peers can give them. Yet the creative opportunity the place provides is much better than any activities offered in even the best retirement residences. It is gratifying when some of the mysteries turn out not to be senile hallucinations, but to have logical explanations.
Early in the novel, the co-op committee hires Oliver, a retireee who does odd jobs. He and Allie bond over a dicussion of Jung and the subconscious. The back story, and growing relationship between these two main characters is presented subtly. As the novel moves along at a brisk pace from one incident to another, Parley quietly inserts a phrase here or a line there that reveals information about these two key personalities. Ther reader is glad that Allie and Olvier have found each other, and sees, too, that children and grandchildren, while beloved, are insufficient for fulfillment in old age. Although the initial experiment in co-op living must end, its spirit continues in a slightly different form, thanks to these two characters.
In this well-paced novel, Allie's short poems (actually, Kay Parley's) appear between the chapters of
The Sixth Age, further deepening Allie's character and revealing more of a creative person's inner life. The poems contribute to the total effect of the novel in the same way that Hemingway's "interchapters" in In Our Time add to the impact of his famous first book.
In pursuit of her own creative dreams, Parley studied art, drama and writing while earning her living as a secretary, psychiatric nurse and teacher of adult students in a college setting. She is the author of They Cast a Long Shadow: the story of Moffat, SK, published on line at www.ourroots.ca and Lady with a Lantern (2007) the story of the Saskatchewan Hospital at Weyburn.
After attending the Summer School of the Arts at Qu'appelle in 1972, Parley wrote The Sixth Age, then put the novel away in a trunk. She chose a particularly good time to publish it, with the baby boomers entering their retirement years and having time to pursue their innate creativity.
The Sixth Age is available for $19.95 from Kay Parley at 227-3105 Hillsdale Street, Regina, SK, S4S 7K8