To me, Fort Erie will always be a place of bootlegged 60oz-bottles, ladies’ nights, and pink vomit coloured by too many half-price vodka crans; and Crystal Beach, just a sandy bank riddled with fish carcasses. But to my mother Crystal Beach was the place she long ago spent her summers, training her white skin to soak up the sun with ease and witnessing the town’s heyday through the big, wondering eyes of a child.
Those are the stories she likes to tell. And the stories I ask her to tell again when I pick up Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn, ready to climb up into her ribcage where she keeps them — close to her heart.
When I text my mom a picture of the book’s title page she texts back excitedly, “that’s a real place!” According to Amber Dawn, the name “Sodom Road” is a remnant of Crystal Beach’s early days as a religious colony. Later, it became known for the Crystal Beach Amusement Park — the Coney Island of Canada — that stayed open from 1888 to 1989, the year I was born.
My mom, born in 1960, was part of a family of 15 kids who spent their summers running The Store in Crystal Beach (actually, a little east in Silver Bay, she’ll correct me). Every morning was a race to see which kid would wake up first and beat the others in the rush to clean up after the Yankee teens that hung out on the store steps at night, drinking pop and, hopefully, dropping quarters. Those were the gems my mother’s brave little hands would grope for underneath the steps; collecting five pop bottles meant you could buy an ice cream cone (ten cents) and finding a lucky quarter meant you could buy your own bottle of pop — plus a bag of Hostess salt and vinegar chips or some Fritos. Nothing was free at The Store, not even for its proprietors.
My mother’s step-dad worked for Atlas Steel and their family was among the “union picnickers” Amber Dawn describes in Sodom Road Exit. In the novel, a ghost named Etta pulls the image of the steel plant’s annual picnic from a man’s memory: “Remember how excited you got every year on that fateful evening when your pop came home with Park tickets? Like winning the children’s lottery. You could ride the swings or bumper cars all day while the adults played beach volleyball or sunbathed.”
I send my mom this passage and she tells me, “that’s exactly what it was like!” She remembers it vividly: there were races, free ride tickets, and coolers full of fried chicken and potato salad. But still, to afford extra trips to the amusement park my mom delivered groceries on her one-speed bike with the big wicker basket, and ran two newspaper routes all summer long. She spent her earnings on tickets to ride The Comet, the famed wooden rollercoaster that hugged the edge of Lake Erie, offering views of swimming fish if you were foolish enough to look down. As the coaster ripped along the tracks, my mom’s tiny body would lift off the seat, terrifying her that she’d fall into the water below — a tragedy that did befall one young woman in Amber Dawn’s novel. It was Etta, the young woman whose ghost goes on to haunt the main character, Starla, in the year 1990, after the park and its famous coaster have been torn down.
In the first few pages of Sodom Road Exit, I sit with Starla, a young woman born sometime between me and mother, on the drive away from her failed urban life in Toronto and back to her mother’s house in Crystal Beach — taking the Sodom Road exit home, of course. I already feel a kinship with her; Starla’s is a trip I’ve taken many times myself: driving away from my new life in Toronto to reluctantly return to my mother’s home in the Niagara region.
When, like Starla, I fled to bigger cities in my late teens and early twenties, I also resisted coming home. I told myself the drive was too long, the bus ticket too expensive, the town —too lame.
As Starla returns home and remembers her old self, I remember mine, too. I was a rebellious, punk rock Starla of a different generation: it wasn’t Siouxsie and the Banshees but The Distillers who watched over me in poster form as I slept in my teenage bedroom. Through high school I crowded the all-ages shows at the L3 in St. Catharines, too chickenshit to try to scam underage drinks, and still buzzed off the five-dollar 40oz of Max Ice I had chugged in the alley.
I turn the pages of Sodom Road Exit and remember how easy it is to turn on your hometown, perhaps especially for queers, feminists, and other misfits; these are often the first places where we learn to hate ourselves, often the first places that hate us back. We hear it’s different in the city. I hear we get different in the city, too.
I don’t remember when my mom first called me City Slicker Andi, or told me that I — thank God — hadn’t picked up the Toronto accent yet. She laughed and I laughed a little, too, and start to notice for the first time the space slowly expanding between us. Starla knows this city-girl-guilt well: she bites back the facts she learned in university, hides her Barbara Krueger prints in her suitcase, but even her thrifted designer shoes seem to communicate an air of superiority.
“You think I don’t know who Barbara Krueger is?” Starla’s mother asks. “You think you’re so much smarter than your hick mother?”
Coming home is painful. For everyone.
My mom — like Starla, like me — ran at first, too. She found other, bigger cities to call home before settling nearby with my dad and, soon, all of us. I remember the ways she kept finding back. I remember looking out the car window at the cottage-style homes lining the Niagara streets as we visited old family friends, or chugged around looking for a reasonably-priced beach getaway. After a rough divorce, my mom managed to save enough money for a down payment on her own house, right on the beach. Her friend Susan beamed and said, “Connie, you’re going home.”
Starla’s return is less triumphant. She has grown disillusioned with city life, the friends who didn’t help her pack, and her fancy education — now cheapened by realizations like 1) the woman who taught the Aboriginal Studies course was whiter than herself and 2) none of it means shit around here anyway. Here, Starla has bigger problems. She’s being haunted, both by an actual ghost and the sexual abuse she endured as a child. As both hauntings grow stronger in proximity to her childhood bedroom, it becomes clear that she can’t reckon with one without also reckoning with the other.
My mom is dying to read the book, but I warn her, “it’s a bit … gritty.” I brief her on some of the other themes: alcoholism, suicide, custody battles with Child and Family Services. She reminds me she grew up there, and bore witness to it all. Those are the stories she doesn’t like to tell, but ones she has told me anyway. They are the same stories you can almost hear swirling behind her eyes before she tells you, “I really had a charmed childhood, in spite of it all.”
For all the grit imprinted in the stories of my mom’s hometown, there are equal measures of beauty, love, and compassion. It may have taken a ghost to exorcise Starla of her snobby city girl dreams, but when she finally wrestles herself free she finds it wasn’t only something supernatural keeping her bound to the place she grew up. She looks around at the hodgepodge of people that have become her unlikely family and feels love: “I love this place, these people. I want wholeness for them,” she thinks. “I’m never going back to Toronto or moving to New York or Montréal. I’m going to quit chasing the dummy’s dream, or whatever it was that made me think I was too good for this place,” she realizes. “I belong here.”
Us wannabe city kids try to inflate the space between ourselves and the places we come from until it grows almost too big to traverse. But I didn’t know I’d never really be a city slicker if I will still fix a bike chain with my bare hands. I didn’t know I had a rural heart until it broke when I found out city kids never felt grass between their toes. I didn’t know I was raised working-class until I rode the train beside women with sleek hair and sleeker dresses. I don’t know, is it too late to walk back? It’s not really that the drive is too long, the bus ticket too expensive, or the town too lame. What does it really take to go home?
In the city, we can lose ourselves if we burrow deeply into the crowds. We can avoid certain parties, friend groups, and entire city blocks if we want to. There’s no place like that back home. So, do we avoid our hometowns because we are afraid of seeing the person we once were reflected in its faces and places? Because we are afraid of the work that awaits us if we return? Are we afraid that we, too, will be haunted?
What’s more terrifying: the pain of the exorcism, or what we might excise?
The fantasy of a safe and loved queer/feminist/misfit is itself safe in the city. Our past pain is frozen by the city’s coldness. But thinking about my mom, and thinking about Starla, makes me think that, maybe, it’s worth it to thaw.