26 pages 52 minutes read

Margaret Atwood

Death By Landscape

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary: “Death by Landscape”

An elderly widow named Lois considers the Toronto condominium she moved into after her husband’s death. She’s happy to no longer have to deal with caring for a lawn, but she’s even happier to have found a place where she can fit all of her paintings. Lois’s art collection comprises work by the “Group of Seven”—a school of 20th-century painters who depict scenes of the Canadian wilderness. Contrary to what some of her friends think, however, Lois didn’t collect the art in the expectation that it would one day be valuable: “She bought them because she wanted them. She wanted something that was in them although she could not have said at the time what it was. It was not peace: She does not find them peaceful in the least” (Part 1, Paragraph 5).

Lois has firsthand experience with the terrain these paintings depict. From ages 9 to 13, Lois attended camp in the woods of northern Ontario every summer:

Girls of her age whose parents could afford it were routinely packed off to such camps, which bore a generic resemblance to one another. They favored Indian names and had hearty, energetic leaders, who were called Cappie or Skip or Scottie. At these camps you learned to swim well and sail, and paddle a canoe, and perhaps ride a horse or play tennis (Part 2, Paragraph 3).

The first summer Lois spends at Camp Manitou is largely unhappy; she dislikes the “rowdy sing-songs at which you were expected to yell in order to show that you were enjoying yourself” and is initially frightened of “Monty Manitou”—a stuffed moose head the older girls claim is haunted (Part 2, Paragraph 12). During her second summer at camp, however, Lois meets Lucy, a rich American girl whose mother attended the camp and who “accepted Camp Manitou with the same casual shrug with which she seemed to accept everything” (Part 3, Paragraph 9). Although somewhat intimidated by Lucy’s wealth and good looks, Lois strikes up a friendship with her that lasts through the changes of the next few years: Lucy takes up and discards new hobbies, her parents divorce, her mother remarries, and she gets her first period, which she and Lois commemorate by burning a used pad.

By Lois’s final summer at camp, however, Lucy has changed more profoundly: She is “slower, more languorous […] pensive, and hard to wake in the mornings” (Part 4, Paragraph 1). She is also increasingly dissatisfied with life at home: She believes her mother is having an affair, and she dislikes her stepfather.

The girls in Lois’s year are scheduled to take a week-long canoe trip under the supervision of only two counselors—Pat and Kip. Lois is excited about the excursion, in part because the head of the camp, Cappie, depicts it as an opportunity for adventure:

‘You go on big water,’ says Cappie. This is her idea—all their ideas—of how Indians talk. ‘You go where no man has ever trod. You go many moons.’ This is not true […] But when Cappie says this—and despite the way Lucy rolls up her eyes—Lois can feel the water stretching out, with the shores twisting away on either side, immense and a little frightening (Part 5, Paragraph 1).

The first day of the trip, the girls enjoy themselves rowing and singing. That night, however, Lois and Lucy ask for permission to sleep outside the tents, and once they are alone, Lucy remarks that it will “be nice not to go back” to Chicago (Part 6, Paragraph 17). Lois reminds Lucy of the boyfriend she bragged about having, but Lucy doesn’t say anything in response.

The next day, the group stops for lunch near a cliff called Lookout Point. Lois and Lucy request to climb to the top of the cliff, promising to be back in fifteen minutes. Once at the top, Lucy wanders close to the edge, commenting that it would be “quite a dive” into the water below (Part 7, Paragraph 3). This unnerves Lois, who has a fear of heights, but Lucy eventually walks away from the edge, saying she needs to use the bathroom. Lois accordingly goes down the path a bit to give Lucy some privacy, only to hear a shout a few minutes later: “Not a scream. More like a cry of surprise, cut off too soon” (Part 7, Paragraph 13).

Lois runs back up the path but can’t find Lucy anywhere. At that point, she tells Kip and Pat what happened, and they search both the cliff and the water around it. However, there is no trace of Lucy anywhere, and the group is forced to return to the main camp. A police search follows but also fails to turn anything up.

After they return to the camp, Cappie questions Lois. Desperate to explain Lucy’s disappearance in some way, Cappie tries to get Lois to admit that she pushed Lucy off the cliff. The interrogation upsets Lois so much that she begins crying, which Cappie takes as a sign of guilt: “[S]he felt she had been tried and sentenced; and this is what has stayed with her: the knowledge that she has been singled out, condemned for something that wasn’t her fault” (Part 8, Paragraph 18).

Back in the present, Lois sits in her condominium overlooking Lake Ontario. She finds that her memories of being married and raising children are growing fainter but acknowledges that she didn’t feel fully present for these events even at the time they were occurring: “She was tired a lot, as if she was living not one life but two: her own, and another, shadowy life that hovered around her and would not let itself be realized” (Part 9, Paragraph 3). Turning to look at her artwork, she thinks about how different the paintings are from traditional landscapes: They are “a tangle, a receding maze, in which you can become lost almost as soon as you step off the path” (Part 9, Paragraph 8). In fact, she has the sense that Lucy is hidden in each of these paintings, “entirely alive” (Part 9, Paragraph 12).

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