LUKE, Pearl

Author Tags: Fiction, Women

Pearl Luke's first novel, Burning Ground, received the 2001 Commonwealth Prize for best first book in Canada and the Caribbean; it was also selected as a Globe & Mail Notable Book of the Year, in 2000 and was shortlisted for the 1999 Chapters/Robertson Davies prize for unpublished first novels, as well as the Georges Bugnet Award and the Canadian Booksellers' Libris Award.

Burning Ground is about a woman named Percy Turner who is working on a remote fire tower in northern Alberta. She falls in love with the voice of a fellow fire tower watcher named Gilmour and commences a romantic correspondence with him via email. Like her protagonist, Pearl Luke had worked during the summers on remote fire towers in Alberta. She told Philip Marchand of the Toronto Star, "The first few weeks in a tower are fine. You get away from the city and immerse yourself in nature. But after six weeks, it gets tough to be alone all the time. Even if someone comes up once a month, your interactions are so superificial that they're very unsatisfying. I just craved touch after a while. I don't mean sex, I just mean someone touching me or hugging me." This novel about smouldering emotions invents a bisexual love sparked by the protagonist's childhood friend, Marlea, when they were growing up together in a trailer park. Written as an M.A. thesis at the University of Calgary, where Luke was encouraged by teachers Fred Wah and Aritha van Herk, Burning Ground was published when Luke was teaching literature at DeVry Institute of Technology.

Pearl Luke's second novel, Madame Zee, invents a sympathetic character for the little-known mistress of Canada's most remarkable cult leader, Edward Arthur Wilson, a.k.a. the Brother, XII, a spiritualist, author and self-inflated shyster who charmed and terrorized his followers on DeCourcey Island, near Nanaimo, within a Theosophically-based religious encampment called the Aquarian Foundation. It is known that Madame Zee, born Mabel Edith Rowbotham, in Lancashire, England, in 1890, taught school in a series of prairie towns before marrying a former North West Mounted Police officer, John Skottowe, a branch manager for the Union Bank of Canada. His fraudulent manipulations at the bank forced the couple to flee to Seattle, where the marriage dissolved. Mabel soon hitched her wagon to a former stage hypnotist, Roger Painter, a philanthropist and philanderer who had gained a fortune as "the Poultry King of Florida."

After Mabel had changed her named to Madame Zee, the couple visited the Brother, XII's utopian settlement at Cedar-by-the-Sea, near Nanaimo, in 1929, whereupon Madame Zee shacked up with the cult leader. Living separately from the colonists, many of whom had donated most of their savings to the Brother, XII, Madame Zee gained a reputation for sadistic cruelty, wielding a riding crop to maintain her ascendancy over the other cultists. After a spate of legal battles, The Brother, XII, and Madame Zee absconded with the Aquarian Foundation’s savings on a yacht. They reached Switzerland where Brother, XII reportedly died, although his biographer John Oliphant has noted the death certificate could have been bogus. As for Madame Zee, well, she might have lived happily ever after. Pearl Luke has traced an imaginary evolution of Madame Zee's personality. In the novel, the protagonist Madame Zee doesn't meet the Brother, XII until two-thirds of the way into the story. [For more information on Edward Arthur Wilson, visit his entry on this site.] Madame Zee was longlisted for the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Pearl Luke has been writing and editing professionally since 1988. Early in her career, she worked as a proofreader and copy-editor, and in 1998 she earned a master's degree from the University of Calgary, after which she taught English Literature and Advanced Composition at DeVry University. In 2010, Luke launched designed to help authors promote both new books and their back list to targeted individual readers and book clubs. The intent is to “provide another venue that connects readers and authors and keeps as many books as possible visible over the year. We post cover images, interviews, reading guides and more.”

Pearl Luke lives with her partner, poet and novelist Robert Hilles, on Salt Spring Island.

CITY/TOWN: Salt Spring Island

DATE OF BIRTH: 21/03/1958



AWARDS: 2001 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book (Canada/Caribbean Region); 2000 Globe & Mail Notable Book of the Year; 2000 Writer in Residence, City of Taipei


Burning Ground (HarperCollins 2000).
Madame Zee (HarperCollins, 2006).

[BCBW 2011] "Fiction" "Women"

Madame Zee
Review (2006)

from Cherie Thiessen
"His smile is so genuine, his eyes so blue, that when he looks away she instantly feels the loss, as if he has taken back something she just now learned she needs."

You could search the English language for months and still not come up with a phrase any more succinct and perfect than this one, describing the meeting between Brother X11 and the woman who came to name herself Madame Zee.

Pearl Luke, who has called Salt Spring Island home for four years, has already won a hefty award for her first book, Breaking Ground, and Madame Zee is sure to follow in its path. You just know that a writer who spends five years writing and researching her work is in love with her craft. As she puts it:

…”I wouldn’t say I’m a perfectionist, but I labour over it, and I do strive for accuracy and precision in detail and language, so I tend to layer the word until I am happy with how it reads, both silently and orally.”

Her efforts to be accurate drove her to pore over documents to discover which plants grew in English meadows, which dolls were available in the 1890s, what children’s diseases then flourished, and what names were commonly given to children. She also honed up on the Theosophical Society and its founder, Madame Blavatsky, researched spiritualism and the paranormal and discovered that for almost every page she wanted to write, some investigation was required.

“At times I thought I would never finish this book..Larger concepts required weeks and months of research…”

Although the author stuck to facts when possible, she was free to flesh out her own Madame Zee who was born in England and christened Mabel Rowbotham. Zee’s life has always been obscured by the far greater notoriety of her lover, the hypnotic Brother X11, the cult founder of the Aquarian Foundation on Vancouver Island and later Valdes and De Courcy Islands in the 1920s. This enigmatic woman, who followed her parents from England to the Canadian prairies in her twenties, changed her name when she began to ‘come out’ as a psychic ten years later, while living with wealthy friends who encouraged her abilities and research.

Luke says one of her main goals was to create a sympathetic character:

“… I consider Mabel/Zee courageous in her own way because she did not marry the staid farmer next door and “settle” for an existence that didn’t interest her…When she did marry, it was to someone who sparked her body and her imagination..she was not victimized, but rather took control, however limited, however poor her choices. … I am unfamiliar with any life that does not include ambivalence and agonizing, and I wanted her to feel “real” in that sense.”

Ergo the reader meets a very different Madame Zee from the cruel and brutal ‘foreman’ of common lore whom everyone supposedly feared:

“… My research allows me to believe that while she could have been an opportunist with a vile temper, there is not much evidence to prove anything, and given the resentment and chauvinistic thinking surrounding her, she may also have had her reputation tarnished unfairly.”

In seeking to reinvent Zee, the author is also sensitive to the fact that she is dealing with people who really lived:

“I did think about how my portrayal of Zee might affect any loved ones she may have left behind. That’s part of the reason why I chose to characterize her in a more positive light, and not to use the real names of some of the colonists, but ultimately, I am writing fiction, so while I have made every attempt to be as historically accurate as possible in terms of background, the character of Zee is just that—a character. An interesting one, I hope. “

Madame Zee
Review (2006)

from Sheila Munro
Pearl Luke spends most of her novel trying to suggest how a rural schoolteacher born as Mabel Edith Rowbotham might have become the notorious Madame Zee. There are the visions that begin after her sister’s death in childhood, her growing interest in theosophy and Madame Blavatsky, the prejudice she encounters in the teaching world, and disillusionment with her marriage. We only get to her actual encounter with Brother XII and his disciples (by far the most fully-realized part of the novel) in the last hundred pages.

Unfortunately, in the long build-up to the main event, there are too many unanswered questions, too many implausible scenes, too many indistinguishable characters who fail to sustain our interest. Luke has done her research meticulously (as she mentions in her afterword) and there are some interesting forays into the world of spiritualism, clairvoyance, and other manifestations of the occult, but overall the story isn’t historically plausible.

When free-spirit Mabel is booted out of one school for wanting to teach about Hanukkah, when she practices mindfulness and meditation, when she becomes a healer and naturopath, dispensing herbal remedies at Cedar-by-the Sea, it’s more new age political correctness we’re hearing than 1920s sensibility.

In the Brother XII section, Luke does come up with some intriguing speculations about Madame Zee’s motivations, and she is adept at exploring her heroine’s ambivalence, healthy scepticism alternating with irresistible attraction to her chosen guru. In the end though, it is the evil character described in Oliphant’s book I will remember as the authentic Madame Zee, not the compassionate, misunderstood psychic Luke has created here. 0-0020-0513-1

[BCBW 2006]

Madame Zee
Review (2006)

from Almeda Glenn Miller
There are people in the world who, for one reason or another, get involved with the wrong crowd. Some do it once; they learn their lesson, recognize the symptoms and don't make the mistake again. Others, however, seem to keep bashing their heads against the same proverbial shadow. They marry the wrong guy(s), go to the wrong parties, take the wrong drugs and end up flirting with madness.
Pearl Luke's second novel after Burning Ground, her much-lauded debut, Madame Zee, is a story that attempts to reconcile her main character's propensity for going to the dark side. How does a nice girl like Mabel Rowbotham of Lancashire County, England, a well-educated child of concerned, intelligent parents, end up as a disciple and lover to Brother XII on the West Coast of British Columbia? This novel explores "how" and some of the "why" behind well-meaning people who allow themselves to be persuaded by charismatic leaders.
Luke employs an internal logic in this novel, one in which every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The novel begins with the death of Edith Mabel Rowbotham's older sister, Honora. Riddled with guilt and intense remorse, Mabel communicates constantly with her dead sister. The story pivots on this initial trauma, setting in motion Mabel's inevitable descent. It is unfair to compare Luke's work to that of any other writer because her voice is distinct, but the details and beauty of her opening passages, her religious attention to historical accuracy, is reminiscent of Robertson Davies's World of Wonders. The seamless nature of the fictional world makes this a liberating read, one that isn't interrupted by a need to check the facts.
The primary interest of this novel, however, lies with language, character and story, and not with the historical accuracy of the details. While I recognize the depth of research the author engaged in to imagine the time and place of this story, it is her language that overshadows any need for accuracy. Read the following passage aloud: "Her sister's face is no longer child-like but has the tender delicacy of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. Her hair, once worn either curly or plaited, is now parted on one side and swept back off her face in a modern style that shows only the lobes of her ears." It is like speaking with a grape in your mouth — the vowels are languorous, the percussives are precious. This is a writer of great poetic sensibilities balanced with a healthy understanding of how to build a good story.
Demonstrating a gift for sketching and an inherent attraction to plant life, Mabel is encouraged to become a botanist. However, her visions lead her to an intense curiosity about theosophy and psychometry. She chooses to become a teacher so that it can free up some time for her "real" interests.
When she immigrates to the Canadian prairies in the early 1900s, she discovers communities steeped in Christian dogma with little tolerance for her private studies. She continues to have visions, but they have expanded into the lives of others. What is she to do with these visions? Can she help other people with them? Luke has created a sympathetic character in Mabel (she later changes her name to Madame Zee), one in total opposition to how history reports the real Madame Zee, lover and disciple of Brother XII: a bitchy dominatrix.
All the characters and situations in the novel begin like enchantments. Luke affords beautiful moments of tenderness: "So the two girls curl together under their flannel blanket. She rubs the smooth surface of Honora's thumbnail with the pad of her own smaller thumb, the circular movement slowing until she falls asleep, still holding Honora's hand in their narrow iron bed." Most of the relationships Luke develops begin this gorgeously. However, as the light changes, shadows are cast and they become warped and distorted. In the small prairie town of Lancer, Sask., she meets and marries the boisterous and attractive banker, John Skottowe, who eventually becomes involved in graft and corruption. His decline is palpable and her response is credible.
Luke performs a kind of necromancy on the sexuality of her characters. The sensuality of Mabel's desires is titillating, the love scenes are well managed and erotic. Madame Zee's affair with Roger Painter, the chicken magnate from Pensacola, Fla., is both startling and disturbing in its veracity. Her love for Nellie Painter, Roger's sister, Nellie's passion for orchids, Madame Zee's talents for drawing, give credence not just to the geometry of relationships mastered by Luke but also to the necessary stitching required to hold this novel together.
With impressive choreography of her characters at dinner parties, elegant balls and chicken factories, Luke binds desire to circumstance. Treated with curiosity, clairvoyance, intuition and sexual desire, Madame Zee's descent as a result of that desire is excellent preparation for the final stage of her journey to Brother XII.
Pearl Luke has written something that explores the terra incognita of the spirit and the disturbing possibilities of a goodness that gets sidetracked. She sustains and creates an imaginative and elegant story that poses a very intriguing question. How does a nice girl like this end up in a cult like that?

[Almeda Glenn Miller lives and writes in Rossland, B.C. This review she wrote for the Globe & Mail appears here with her permission.]