Betty Jane Hegerat stretches our nonfiction expectations in her exploration of family and memory through the lives of two Canadian women, one real and one imagined, and a third, her own. "The Boy" is a Best Nonfiction finalist for a 2012 High Plains Book Award and one of three Canadian books selected among 22 finalists in seven categories.
Hegerat’s story is rooted in actual events surrounding the 1959 murder of Ray and Daisy Gasper Cook in Stettler, Alberta. Ray’s son from a previous marriage, Robert Raymond Cook, is arrested for the horrific deed within days of release from the provincial penitentiary, convicted amid a flurry of publicity and executed barely two years after the crime. He was the last man to receive the death penalty in Alberta, and he went to the gallows proclaiming his innocence.
Hegerat, a creative-writing instructor at the University of Alberta-Canada, was a girl in a nearby town when the murders occurred. As she unscrambles her personal recollections amid her quest for more information, she is drawn to Daisy, Robert Raymond’s stepmother and a schoolteacher, who married Ray Cook, a hardscrabble man with a bereft, car-crazy boy in tow. As five more babies join Daisy and Ray, emotional and legal troubles soon mount for young Robert, or Bobby. He looms in the distance of Daisy’s life, more like an enigma than a real young man. We know Daisy reached out to Bobby while he served time for theft. Letters she wrote to Bobby in prison surface in evidence files and hospital records.
Trying to understand Daisy from a contemporary perspective and the tangled bonds born of step-family relationships, Hegerat, once a social worker, crafts a fictionalized Louise, a schoolteacher who marries the kind widower, Jake. Like Daisy Cook, Louise gets a troubled adolescent stepson in the deal. As Louise juggles the demands of two new babies, she re-examines her notion of family and her sense of physical and emotional security. Louise is Hegerat’s muse, pushing her forward into the Cook story, daring her to go on, refusing to be silenced.
Hegerat doggedly traipses across the windy, snow-blown prairies of Alberta to uncover more about Bobby Cook and the infamous murders. She tracks down health records, foster parents, trial transcripts, social workers, journalists, lawyers and judges. Many of those once involved are dead or can’t remember. Some still insist the government executed the wrong man.
Easy solutions and happy endings aren’t part of Hegerat’s tale, in fact or fiction. The story line feels a bit strained when the fictional Louise uncovers a box of news clippings from the Cook murders among in a dusty attic box. But overall, Hegerat deserves kudos for her examination of raw, real-time events and complicated family relationships through a daring and unconventional literary lens.
Virginia Bryan chairs the High Plains Book Awards Committee, a project of the Parmly Billings Library. A retired lawyer, she’s a freelance writer and an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction from the University of New Orleans.