The Big Dig
The Big Dig
Lucy stood at the edge of the hole watching Colin try to leverage out a large rock with the handle of his shovel. “Hey,” she said. “Why don’t we skip the digging and hike around the Cape?” She wanted to talk to him, but away from the hole, where he wouldn’t get distracted.
Colin shook his head. “Nope. You made me go to the beach yesterday. I missed a whole day.”
“That was because it rained! That wasn’t my fault!”
Stubbornly, he kept shaking his head.
“Oh, come on,” she pleaded. “It’ll be fun. Josie said it’s kind of like a race. You have to make it all the way around before the tide comes up.”
“I’ll take a break in the afternoon, but I can’t skip another day.”
“That won’t work; the tide’ll be wrong. And I hate to rain on your parade, but I don’t think your plan is working. I mean, has your mom ever been out here? Has she even seen the hole?”
The shovel handle slipped out from beneath the rock. “No!” Colin snapped.
That was not going the way she’d hoped but it was now or never. “Listen, I kind of want to talk to you about something.” She’d decided to stick with the necklaces, because it was sort of intriguing, like a mystery. He probably wouldn’t be much interested in her feelings about her dad. And now her mom.
He looked up and wiped his forehead with his arm. “Okay. Talk.”
Since he made no move to get out of the hole, she lowered herself over the side and got in the hole with him. “See, I – well, I found something in Josie’s drawer.” She was trying to tell him without letting on she’d been snooping.
“You were snooping.” He said.
“I wasn’t.” She quickly shook her head. “I was looking for Noxzema.”
The Big Dig, by Lisa Harrington, is a thoughtful exploration of loss as seen through the eyes of Lucy, a 14-year-old, the first summer after her mother’s death. Instead of focusing on sadness and grieving a death specifically, The Big Dig explores how grief can take many forms and come from many places. Lucy, of course, is grieving her mother, but she’s also grieving the summer she had planned: staying home and babysitting to make some spending money, plans which she lost when her father decided to ship her off to her mother’s hometown for the summer. Once Lucy arrives, staying in her mother’s childhood bedroom in the house now occupied by her deaf great-aunt Josie, Lucy begins to lose the idea she had of her mother as she learns more and more about the person her mother was before, a person who is a complete stranger to Lucy.
This second loss of her mother begins when Lucy meets Colin, a teen who has just moved to River John, Nova Scotia, from out west. Colin isn’t just any neighbor, though – he is Lucy’s mom’s best friend’s child, someone she never knew about but who spent a great deal of time with her mom. Colin was even at the funeral, but Lucy didn’t even know he existed. Colin is angry at moving away from his home and, in protest is digging a big hole in the field outside his house – the literal “big dig” of the title. Colin isn’t really interested in digging, though, but in creating an obvious, impossible-to-ignore reaction to his family’s uprooting him. Readers also meet Kit, Lucy’s cousin. Kit’s mom and Lucy’s mom had a falling out years ago before Lucy was even born, the cause of which Lucy becomes more and more determined to find out as the summer goes on. Kit is also a bit of a character – she first appears in a full Princess Leia outfit, in the middle of a field on a hot summer day, and readers later learn she doesn’t feel like she fits in with her peers.
This trio spends the summer of 1977 in River John, exploring their lives as they are now and trying to sort out the mysteries that are shaping their current experience. Why did Colin’s parents decide to leave a successful business out west and suddenly more to rural Nova Scotia? What happened between Lucy and Kit’s mothers that caused them not to speak for nearly 20 years and to not up even with Lucy’s mom on her deathbed? Why did Lucy’s mom keep her relationship with Colin and his family a secret? One day Lucy finds a ceramic bunny hidden in Josie’s room, a bunny that had belonged to her mother. Lucy, wondering why Josie would have hidden this one rabbit from her in the middle of the summer, investigates a little further. She discovers it is not just a figurine, but in fact a small container, and inside it are six emerald necklaces. This mysterious rabbit gives all three kids something to latch on to – a tangible mystery to be investigated and solved, while their other concerns seem so intangible and unsolvable.
As the three investigate the provenance of the six necklaces, answers to their other questions creep into the investigation. The necklaces weren’t stolen (so Lucy’s mom wasn’t a jewel thief as Kit hypothesized), but had been bought as gifts for a wedding that never happened between Lucy’s mom and her high school sweetheart who called off their wedding at the last minute and was later killed in a car accident. Readers learn Colin’s mom was a bit of a wild one in high school and was viewed as a negative influence on Lucy’s mom. Eventually, Kit discovers some letters from Lucy’s mom to her mother, and the pieces all begin to fall into place: Lucy’s mom was distraught after her engagement fell apart, and, instead of staying home to take care of her mother as she had promised her sister, she left suddenly for the west to take care of Colin’s mother who, pregnant with Colin, was in need of help. At this point, it might seem that all the questions are answered, but it doesn’t feel right to Lucy – her mother wouldn’t abandon her family, and it wouldn’t explain why she had never heard of Colin or his family her whole childhood. So, Lucy keeps digging, and the last of the secrets these families kept finally unravel.
The pace of The Big Dig is slow and meditative, like a long summer in the pre-internet era, but the story and characters are so engaging that the pages will fly by. While grief and loss are the backdrop, Harrington’s light and funny prose creates fully realized characters who are grieving but are not defined by their grief. Not that the loss of a parent is incidental – it’s central to the story – but Lucy existing as a teen who is grieving but is also continuing to live her life is excellent representation in YA literature where losing a parent often becomes the defining characteristic of a character.
The Big Dig is about losing a parent and losing family, but not just through death. It’s about losing the idea of who someone was to the reality of their actions and coming to terms with the new truth. It’s about the definition of family, whether biological or chosen, and how our choices can have ripples that affect generations. This book will appeal to a wide range of youth (and adults too!), especially those who prefer realistic stories and more mature emotional themes.
Susie Wilson is the Data Services Librarian at the University of Northern British Columbia. When she isn’t at work, you’ll find her curled up with a cup of coffee and a good book.