Burden of Memory

Burden of Memory by Vicki Delany

Burden of Memory by Vicki Delany

Burden of MemoryPoisoned Pen Press – June 2006 Reissued – April 2012

September 1939. A beautiful Irish maid realizes that her scheming has led to a fatal mistake. A strong-willed nursing sister prepares to head for Europe, and war.

September 2006. A biographer arrives at a grand, historic cottage on Muskoka’s Millionaires’ Row to assist the matriarch of the wealthy Madison family with the writing of her memoirs.

Moira Madison was born to a luxurious childhood, raised between the wars as the pampered daughter of a wealthy family. But she was determined to make her own life for herself and served as a Nursing Sister in the Canadian Army during World War Two and international aid worker for many years after. Her story is a fascinating one, her personality even more so, and Elaine Benson is eager to dive into the research. But the original biographer died her first week on the job, and something is moving in the dark woods beyond reach of the sparkling lights of the great home.

Burden of Memory shifts from the luxurious world of lakeside summer homes between the wars to the horrors of the Battle of Britain and the allied push through Italy, to a very modern woman caught up in the swirl of forces beyond her understanding.

As the timeless change of the seasons brings autumn to the lakes and forests of Muskoka, an enduring wrong seeks retribution and a new one struggles to take shape.


The best Canadian novels are always firmly set in a place. We think of Giles Blunt’s icy Algonquin Bay, William Gough’s gritty Vancouver, Gail Bowen’s Saskatoon, Kathy Reichs’s Montreal. Ontario’s Muskoka playland has been a draw for more than a century. The Group of Seven painted it and Margaret Millar set her first novel in its woods. Vicki Delany’s second novel effectively uses the Muskoka setting for a very fine novel about memory and class and caste in old Ontario.

Elaine Benson is a writer, researcher and PhD in Canadian history. She’s written two novels about women who confronted nature, men and propriety to survive and thrive in the Canadian wilderness. But Benson didn’t learn from her forebears. She’s spent the last decade working on television scripts for a husband who dumped her the second he sold a successful series. She’s starting over, and the chance to write the memoirs of Moira Madison seems made in heaven.

Madison is a member of one of the oldest and wealthiest families in Canada. She’s lived a long and very successful life, which saw her on the front lines of the Second World War as a nurse and, later, participating in international medical charities. She is also, as Benson quickly discovers, a woman of intelligence and stature. Someone who has lots of stories to tell.

Benson and Madison seem ideally suited and Benson is happy to take up residence in the lavish Madison “cottage,” full of history and luxuries. But someone doesn’t want the story of Moira Madison written, and is willing to kill to keep the family secrets.

Delany has done a great job with this book, much better than her debut, Scare the Light Away. This is, obviously, ideal reading for a weekend at the cottage, or as a hostess gift for visitors. Read it under the trees and see every page come to life. – Margaret Cannon, the Globe and Mail

Delany’s fine second mystery (after 2005’s Scare the Light Away) offers a breath of fresh air from north of the border. Soon after Elaine Benson agrees to assist Miss Moira Madison, who served with the Canadian Army Nursing Sisters during WWII, with her memoirs, Elaine learns that the first writer Moira hired drowned in the lake by Moira’s summer “cottage” after less than a week on the job. Later, as members of the privileged Madison clan gather at the cottage in Ontario’s Muskoka region for Thanksgiving, tensions mount, culminating in a fire. Elaine suspects that someone will go to great lengths to prevent Moira from revealing certain family secrets. The alternating rhythm of chapters of contemporary narrative and shorter sections of Moira’s recollections of life as an army nurse helps build suspense. The striking setting, the picture of the Canadian social elite and several deftly handled subplots make for a richly textured and highly satisfying read. – (June) Publishers Weekly

Being proud of the work she did as a Canadian nursing sister attached to the British Army during World War II, elderly Moira Madison wishes to record her memoirs. She doesn’t want the contributions she and others like herself gave to go unrecognized, while she still bridles at the barriers put in front of her in the early part of her life simply because she was a woman!

Moira employs Elaine Benson, a recognized author, to put her papers, letters and memorabilia in order and write the story of an unusual woman’s life. Sound reasonable? Except for one little hitch. Someone in this wealthy background doesn’t want those memories dredged up. The first person hired to do the writing ended up floating face down in the lake after a week. Undaunted, Elaine – who needs this breather to get her life back into some semblance of reality – wades in with both eyes wide open. Maybe not such a good idea. Things start happening that would scare off the more timid of people. But Moira and Elaine are not timid and they press on.

The time period in this highly readable book flips from today to the war and then back, over and over again, seamlessly without losing the thread of the plot. The scenes of war torn London bring back my own memories of Pathay News coverage of the London Blitz. Moira is a tough old bird who stands up for herself and has little time for those who don’t. She is gracious, though, and generous. A great character. Elaine, of course, lives in today’s world and so looks at things a little differently. But for all that, she is the right person for the right job.

Vicki Delany has written a tell-it-all book that is hard to put down. Secrets keep popping up. Just when you think everything has fallen into place, another punch comes from left field and knocks your theories asunder. Burden of Memory is a good second book from a writer who knows her craft. – Mary Ann SmythBookloons.com

A young woman goes to an island in Canada’s northern forest to help an elderly woman write the memoirs of her work with the Canadian Army Nursing Sisters during WWII, but when she begins to research the old documents she discovers that someone has killed to keep the past buried. I loved this for the sense that Delany gives us of a vanished world set in the cold, chilly atmosphere of primeval northern forest. – Clues Unlimited

Many Canadians have hazy images of the heyday of the Muskokas, often based on Tamarack’s lyrics or Leacock’s stories. In these images, the Muskokas are a tame version of the Canadian wilderness; the water and forests juxtaposed with the enormous ‘cottages’ to which wealthy Torontonians escaped for the entire summer, bringing a full staff of servants with them to their wilderness getaways, of course. This vision of the decorous lifestyle of the elite on holiday in the Muskokas is a particularly Canadian version of a period that appears far more elegant and gracious than our own – for the families, if not the servants. For a balanced view, it is important to remember that this period, finally concluded by World War II, saw terrible suffering, and the moneyed elite who summered in the Muskokas did not escape. But can any period of history be so neatly encapsulated; tidily contained within the boundaries of the turn of the century and the end of World War II? In ‘Burden of Memory’, long-ago events still cast their shadows and ghosts of old tragedies linger on.

Moira Benson rules her family’s historic Muskoka cottage with both generosity and a certain degree of rigidity, hosting the remainder of her family when they make the traditional pilgrimage to the Muskokas for holiday weekends. As she nears the end of her life, she decides to have a memoir written focussing on her experiences as a Canadian Army Nursing Sister during World War II. The first writer she hires cannot swim, and drowns in the lake during a Benson family holiday weekend. The death must surely be a tragic accident – although the police seem less certain – and Elaine Benson, Moira’s second choice, agrees to take on the job. Elaine revels in the opportunity to return to her first love, Canadian history, after having been lured away during her unhappy marriage, but some of the Bensons are less enthusiastic about the memoir. Elaine herself becomes convinced that Moira is leaving out important details of her life story.

The action moves backwards and forwards between the present day and the period just before and during World War II, during which Moira matured from a girl to a woman. The physical and mental agonies of war are in stark contrast with the gentle aging of the old cottage and the somewhat more irascible aging of its chatelaine.

In describing Moira’s early adulthood and old age, “Burden of Memory” combines a view of the last of the great days of the Muskoka summer cottages with a tribute to the Canadians in World War II. In both cases, the approach is clear-eyed and unsentimental.

The mysteries – there are actually two of them – are a little slight for a mystery novel, but work well to tie together the two eras in the story, reminding us how the past lives on in the memory and actions of those who survive. I would highly recommend ‘Burden of Memory’ to anyone wanting a light mystery with more depth than usual. – Booksnbytes