Jann Arden's debut novel a dark but funny rural tale about friendship, loss and kidnapping

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In the two decades since Calgary singer-songwriter Jann Arden began writing her debut novel, The Bittlemores, she came up with various fates for the titular characters who make up the dark heart of the story.

That would be Harp Bittlemore and Mrs. Bittlemore, or Mrs. B. Arden didn’t think the latter was worthy of a first name. They are easily two of the most loathsome characters put to paper in recent memory. They are hate-filled, delusional, violent and selfish. Harp is particularly mean when hopped up on homemade booze, which is almost always. Their actions early in the novel destroy a family and ruin at least two childhoods. They are particularly cruel to the animals that suffer on their farm, which is presumably somewhere in rural Alberta although that is never made clear.

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But Arden is clear, she wants readers to “hate” these people.

So we might take delight in thinking about the sort of violent ends their creator had planned for them in earlier drafts: Burned alive in a barn fire, for instance, or being decapitated by a shotgun blast. Without giving away too much, the Bittlemores’ fate isn’t quite so dramatic.

“It was a much darker book than it actually turned out to be,” says Arden, in an interview from Random House Canada headquarters in Toronto.

Make no mistake about it, The Bittlemores is still dark. Arden’s take on poverty, alcoholism and the long-term impact of neglect, isolation and abuse occasionally recalls the work of Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor or New Brunswick’s David Adams Richards. On the other hand, it is also comical. It has an endearing coming-of-age story at its centre, told in snappy first-person narration by a wise-beyond-her-years 14-year-old girl named Willa. Because Arden is a bit fuzzy on time and place, it also often has a fable-like feel. This is strengthened by the introduction of the Bittlemores’ long-suffering dairy cows, virtuous and heroic beings who talk amongst themselves and plot their escape.

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All of which makes it hard to pigeonhole The Bittlemores into a genre. Random House Canada gamely describes it as a hybrid of coming-of-age, cozy mystery and humour.

But when Arden started working on the book years ago, apparently on a sojourn to Nashville, she was pondering a specific idea.

“What would happen if rural people – before CCTV cameras, cellphones or DNA – kidnapped a baby?” says Arden, who joined Rick Mercer for a sold-out Wordfest event at Calgary’s Grand on Nov. 17. “I just kind of mulled that around. But the thing really took off probably a few weeks later, when I thought: What if the baby that they kidnapped, upon turning into a young teenager, had a baby of her own? Then the whole thing just took off from there.”

So the book is not a mystery in the traditional sense. We know who the villains are. Readers are told early on about Harp’s trip to the hospital, where he pulls a fire alarm and kidnaps a baby girl from a loving family who never gets over the loss. He does this after Mrs. B. suffers a series of miscarriages and demands a baby girl of her own. The girl, whom they name Margaret, is unaware of her actual roots and grows up in such a loveless household that she grows to hate her “parents” and decides to punish them by getting pregnant at the age of 14. She then abandons her baby, named Willa, to The Bittlemores and disappears into the night.

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At the age of 14, Willa begins to doubt the stories she has been told about her sister, who she eventually learns is actually her mother. Margaret, meanwhile, tries to assuage her overwhelming guilt by sending her daughter letters and postcards, which are hoarded by Mrs. B. and never revealed to Willa. Eventually, an enterprising young police officer new to the small-town force decides to reopen the cold case of the kidnapped child. Everything starts to unravel.

Those are the broad strokes of the story. But there are other elements. Berle, Crilla and Dally, the brave and plotting dairy cows, are devoted to the kind-hearted but tenacious Willa and united in their hatred of The Bittlemores. While talking cows might add a sense of the fantastical to the tale, but Arden says she didn’t want readers to see this aspect of the story as a cute novelty.

“I knew they were going to be talking,” Arden says. “At one point, I had considered making them understandable to human beings, but that lasted about five seconds. No, this is very internal, amongst themselves. It seemed to work very well, the world that they created. I tried to make it as plausible as possible without being too far out. I wanted people to forget after a while that they were cows, to think of them as characters in the book and plotting their own ideas.”

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Some of the most uncomfortable passages involve cruelty to animals and our indifference to their suffering, something Arden admits overlaps with her own animal rights activism over the years. In one scene, one of the cows has her tail hacked off.

“It’s terrible, it’s awful,” she says. “But I hope people understand the everyday violence, the randomness. Never mind chopping the tail off a cow, there are 5,000 cows slaughtered every day in Alberta. You think of what they put them through, these sentient beings, every day for somebody’s hamburger. In the book, it was very purposeful so people could, for a moment, whether it lasts for them or not, think of these animals having conversations with each other, having friendships with each other, lamenting the loss of their calves with each other, dreaming of better times, being frightened. I wanted (readers), for the 10 hours that it might take to read the book, to just consider something different: The people are definitely the bad guys.”

Fiction writing is just the latest endeavour for Arden, who is probably still best known as a chart-topping singer-songwriter. She was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2021 and has released 15 albums. She has also borrowed from her own life with other pursuits. She has written the memoirs Falling Backwards, Feeding My Mother and If I Knew Then prior to finishing The Bittlemores. Her CTV comedy, Jann, was also strangely autobiographical, holding a funhouse mirror to Arden’s career and life with a protagonist named Jann Arden who is a diva who has fallen on hard times.

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While The Bittlemores is not autobiographical, Arden says the coming-of-age elements of the book did draw from her childhood growing up in rural Alberta.

“I have such fond memories of Springbank Junior High School,” Arden says. “As much as we were young kids, we were also born in these rural settings. In a way, any kids who grew up in the country, you kind of raised yourself. Your parents were working. You’d come home from school, you had to figure out what snack was going to be, you had chores to do. It wasn’t like being a city kid. It wasn’t like we could hang out in the 7-11 or the gas station. My nearest friend was three miles from me.”

Wordfest Presented Jann Arden and Rick Mercer on Nov. 17 at the Grand at 7 p.m. This event was sold out. Jann Arden will also perform Christmas concerts at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Dec. 19 and 20 at 7:30 p.m.

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