When I saw the title of this book, I though “OMG has David Bergen written a cheerful book?” And while I had my doubts about that, I was just drawn to this book’s title. My doubts were justified however, as this book features the same pervasive sadness and sense of alienation that his other books that I’ve read had (see my comments here).
The main character of The Age of Hope is a woman called Hope… Hope Plett who becomes Hope Koop after marrying Roy Koop. They are both from the town of Eden in Manitoba, a predominantly Mennonite community, about 40 miles from Winnipeg. Hope goes through life with muted feelings and rapidly gets over the accidental death of her first boyfriend. She married Roy because it seems that right thing to do and they proceed to have a large family. Hope is somewhat happy raising her children but is worrying at her lack of love for her fourth child. She is also worried about not being a good mother and is troubled by the difficulties of raising teenagers and young adults in the increasingly turbulent world of the 50s and 60s.
One day, when her younger daughter is still a baby, she stops the car on the side of a field, leaves the child inside and walks into the field to lie down. She is later found by a family friend. She subsequently spends 3 months in the local mental hospital where she is treated for depression, including electroshock therapy. When she returns home, she has to renegotiate her place in the family and deal with the sense of abandonment experienced by some of the children.
All the children grow up to live their own, more or less fulfilling, lives and Hope and Roy enjoy the affluence born of Roy’s hard work. However, a recession strikes hard just after Roy had heavily borrowed to expand the business and he had to declare bankruptcy. They lose the house, the cottage, the cars… and Hope looses her sense of safety. They move to Winnipeg and work hard at rebuilding their lives.
Roy and Hope’s relationship enables them to handle these difficulties well enough. One day, Roy dies in his sleep. Hope manages widowhood well enough as well but she does get lonely and misses the presence of a man. She meets a charming neighbor and they develop a strong, meaningful relationship. They do at some point mention the word “marriage”… and then he mysteriously disappears. It turns out he moved back to his daughter’s place in order with the final stages of cancer and dies shortly after.
In the end, Hope ends up alone again, but with a sense that she will be OK no matter what life throws at her. One cannot help but think that learning to let go a bit younger would have saved her a lot of heartbreak.
The Age of Hope is not only the fascinating story of one woman through many social changes of the 20th century, but it also offers interesting reflection on the sense of community, on what makes one belong or not, on the strength of family ties and on what helps us be resilient in the face of uncontrollable change. All this in a language and portrayal of events that make everything so vivid and so real.
Bergen, David. The Age of Hope. Harper Collins: Toronto, 2012.