Gail Anderson-Dargatz

The Cure for Death by Lightning

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The Cure for Death by Lightning Summary

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The Cure for Death by Lightning (1996) is a fantasy novel by Gail Anderson-Dargatz. A bestseller in Anderson-Dargatz’s native Canada and in Great Britain, it was nominated for the Geller Prize and won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in Canada and the British Betty Trask Award.

Beth Weeks is a young woman living with her parents and brother on a farm in British Columbia in the 1940s. Beth and her family work hard in order to keep the farm operational. Days are taken up by milking, caring for the animals, cooking for the farmhands, and canning and preserving fruits and vegetables. In spite of the incessant work, the Weekses live hand to mouth, contending with constant poverty. When Beth’s father John is attacked by a bear and barely manages to escape, he descends into paranoia and anxiety.

Though he was once a kind and caring person, John becomes mean and aggressive. He shocks the family when he picks a fight with a man in town. He also escalates a land dispute with the family on the farm next door. Public opinion in the community turns against the Weekses, and Beth now must struggle with being a social outcast. Finally, John begins to molest Beth right under the nose of his wife who refuses to acknowledge the situation, instead, lapsing into a fantasy world where she can commune with her dead mother.

However, John is not the only person in the community suffering from extreme mental instability. Both the white residents of town and the community on the local Indian reservation are unusually prone to mental and physical health problems. A high number of people are physically deformed or have mental health issues.

One day, a local girl is discovered dead, mauled beyond recognition. The official story is that she was mauled by a bear, but many people in the community do not find the explanation satisfactory. Some think the hermit Coyote Jack committed the murder, while others think that the spirit of Coyote, a trickster of Indian mythology, is responsible.

Beth has taken to escaping from her home into the wilderness. She meets the elderly Indian woman Bertha on the reservation, and Bertha explains that she believes the spirit of Coyote has been influencing people all over the area. Coyote possesses people who are weak in spirit, causing them to do terrible things. She thinks that Coyote has possessed Coyote Jack because he has spent so long in self-imposed isolation, and has influenced John because he suffered a head injury while fighting in World War I.

Beth realizes that Coyote has been possessing many people in the area. Extreme stress, alcohol consumption, injury, or isolation can make a person vulnerable, and Coyote has found many hosts both on the reservation and off. Bertha tells her that Coyote always has one host that he likes best and that he will keep returning to possess that person.

In the past, Coyote’s home was in the father of Billy, a hired hand on the Weekses’ farm. Beth has begun to have romantic feelings for Billy, though she soon learns that he feels a responsibility to keep an eye on Coyote to mitigate the damage he does in the community. This is because his father died in order to temporarily banish Coyote to the spirit world, and Coyote was reborn in Billy himself.

Nora, Bertha’s granddaughter is also vulnerable to Coyote’s influence. Nora’s ancestor was a white man who was descended from Coyote, and Nora has inherited some of Coyote’s otherworldly powers. Like Coyote Jack, who is also closely connected to the spirit, Nora can move without sound and seems supernaturally aware of the world around her. Nora is also psychologically disturbed, cutting herself and shunning human contact.

As the influence of Coyote grows, Beth finds herself affected by the spirit. Coyote decides that he wants to make Beth his wife and, while in the body of Coyote Jack, sets about trying to persuade Beth to marry him. However, Beth is singularly strong of will and fights back against Coyote. She is unique among the people in the area in that Coyote is not able to influence her due to her powerful will and character.

Beth goes to the cabin of Coyote Jack, demanding that he leave her alone and stop stalking her. This so shocks Coyote that he abandons his pursuit of Beth, returning to the spirit world. Beth and Billy decide that she frightened Coyote away by confronting him directly. After Coyote leaves, Nora, John, and the other people affected by him recover and lead normal lives once more.