Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Hope of Life


It was on this same day that Penny announced it was time to move beyond the short story and write a novel.  She was going to take a leave from the hospital.  The novel would be about a woman born in 1930 whose existence was both minor and major.


Hope was wary.  She smelled a rat.  “What do you mean, ‘major’?”


“She is a woman.  And what is there about the life of a woman that is worth exploring?  A woman does not fight in wars, does not invent, does not make something out of nothing, except for the exceptional woman, like Madame Curie or Jane Austen.  Most women your age had children and raised them … I haven’t figured out the major part yet, though it has to be there.  Doesn’t it?”


Hope Koop was born in Manitoba in 1930.  The Age of Hope tells her story, almost as if David Bergen were writing the novel that Hope’s daughter, Penny, proposed.  The novel reads more like a biography or a third person memoir, a collection of stories of Hope throughout her life.  Many of the stories are mundane, and as I read, I couldn’t help but wonder why I was so fascinated by the life of such an ordinary person.  There is nothing special about Hope, and the style of writing does not add dramatic flair or suspense.  Yet I felt compelled to keep going to see what happens next.   Bergen somehow makes all the minor events of one life amount to something major, and in so doing, exposes for one and all to see a snapshot of Canadian history through the eyes of a woman who lived it. 


Hope was born and raised as a Mennonite, but never fully immersed herself in that community.  She was both an insider and an outsider in many aspects of her life: a part of her family, yet somehow disconnected from her husband and children; a part of her community, yet with few actual friends; a woman who lived an average life, yet had enough deviations from the typical script to be complicated and interesting.  Like many women of her time, Hope marries young, has children, raises them, and has hopes and dreams for them like any other parent.  Her responses to her children’s choices are similar to that of any loving mother.   Yet still she feels somehow different.


There were warning signs of trouble early on.  Hope liked to flirt with danger.  She would pick up hitchhikers along the highway, inviting one of them back for dinner.  There was a brief, unsuccessful attempt to go back to school.  There was a random, one-time counselling session with a local pastor.  There was lending her wedding dress to the random hitchhiker she had invited home years earlier.  There were many small moments of doubt.  And then she got pregnant again, an event which did not make her happy, and the warning signs intensified.  Hope combated the overhanging clouds of doom by forming a friendship group where she met Linda and Frank.


Linda waited impatiently for Frank to finish and then she said that the hardest thing in life was to accept one’s lot.  “All this nonsense about the world coming to our doorstep and destroying life as we know it is just fearful people blowing smoke up your ass.  Take control of your life.  Make smart decisions.  Realize that this is it, this is all you have, this life, in this little place, on this planet, in this corner of the world.”  She paused and looked at Hope and for a brilliant moment Hope saw that what she was saying was absolutely true, and then the window that looked out onto that clear space slammed shut.


This was the tipping point. This is where the conflict and plot come in.  The Age of Hope is Hope’s quest to come to terms with this poignant statement.  While she continues to struggle and have her ups and downs (as we all do), Hope slowly figures out how to do exactly this.  Little by little, she works her way to finding her place, blundering at times, shining at others, living not so different a life from you or me.  She faces her depression and overcomes it (for the most part).  She learns to come to terms with having more than others, with the humiliation of going bankrupt and having less than others, with children who choose to live lives very different from those that she would have expected or desired for them, with life, with death, with love, and with everything in between.


The Age of Hope is a worthwhile read.  While not the most exciting story, it is comforting, like a conversation with Grandma.  By sharing in the life of Hope, the hope of life comes through and one walks away feeling as though one matters, no matter how big or small one is in the grand scheme of things.  As Linda so succinctly points out, “this is all you have, this life, in this little place, on this planet, in this corner of the world,” and so you leave the book considering the life that one woman had and what your life will be that you will carve out in your own little corner of the world.