Rabbit Foot Bill, by Helen Humphreys. Pub 2020
I’ve had this one in the pile since January’s annual purge-and-splurge (part of the book diet), and it was a perfect little short book to add to the vacation pile. Helen Humphreys is a favourite author, and I’ve read nearly her entire oeuvre of novels. I should try her poetry next.
This most recent novel tells a story over several decades in the 1940s-1960s, using two real/true events as inspirations for the story (a bit like Lincoln in the Bardo did). First is a strange murder in a small Saskatchewan town, followed by the early use of LSD in the treatment of the mentally ill at a large rural institution. In the novel, Leonard befriends the town’s hermit, Rabbit Foot Bill. While they are fast friends and enjoy their solitary hikes and hunts, Bill is strange and damaged, and commits a murder on behalf of and in front of Leonard. Bill is quickly dispatched to prison, and Leonard grows up, moves away, and becomes a psychiatrist. At a prestigious hospital, also in Saskatchewan, Leonard joins the staff fresh out of med school and excited to join the LSD research program (although disturbed by the unusual applications of the program to both staff and patients). He learns almost immediately that Bill is now a patient at the hospital, and despite the orders of his boss, restarts his friendship with Bill. Disaster ensues, Bill returns to prison, and Leonard is fired. Another doctor from the hospital agrees to work with Leonard to help him understand his strange affection and draw to Bill. In the end, we learn that Bill, while troubled, is not bad and was in fact a refuge for Leonard from an abusive home life. Both Bill and Leonard’s father were war veterans, and it was the horrors of war and untreated PTSD that led to their individual troubles, violent behaviours, and ultimate impact on Leonard.
Like all of Humphreys work, the novel is lyrical and surprising, and unusual for the predominantly male characters – appropriate for the time and story, but different for Humphreys. I enjoyed following all the various thread of the story, and the surprises at the end as many truths are revealed to Leonard are well done and believable.
Fate: while good, this certainly is not my favourite Humphreys book, so it will go to another reader.