by Margaret Creal,
Dancing at the Crossroads
by Joan Finnigan,
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|The Prairie and the Valley
by Linda Leith
JOAN FINNIGAN -- A VETERAN poet, playwright, and oral historian with more than 20 books to her credit -- turns her hand to fiction in Dancing at the Crossroads, writing rough-hewn, moving, and sometimes shocking stories of the Ottawa Valley that are informed by the musicality of the Irish oral tradition. In the opening story, "The Woman Who Named All Her Cows," Gilleen McGarrity's life is devoted to keeping house for her father and her brother, Edwin. The topography of this part of the Valley is such, Finnigan writes, that every passerby from every angle could see down and into the McGarrity farm, "inventing one of those strange rural paradoxes, for the McGarritys were the most secretive and untellable of clans, until Gilleen."
Once a week Edwin comes to Gilleen's bed in the middle of the night, until finally -- she may have been 60 years old by this time -- she leaves the farm sobbing, on foot, and is taken in by the local hotelkeeper. Though that puts an end to the night-time visits, it is only when Edwin finally dies at the age of 91 that Gilleen, herself nearly 80 by this time, breaks loose and buys herself 20 good Jersey cows -- "My late, late babies," she calls them -- and gives them each a lovely name.
Not all the women are quite as long-suffering as Gilleen. Finnigan's dark sense of comedy comes to the fore in her account of Carey, who fell in love with a Protestant lad, was forbidden to see him ever again, and ended up unmarried and keeping house for her four bachelor brothers. In revenge she becomes "an obsessive-compulsive housekeeper, a dirt-and- dust fanatic, a complete hausfrau dictator." Carey's taste of freedom, like Gilleen's, comes late in life. At the age of 78, she has taken to signing her brothers into the Riverside Rest Home in Bryson:
She was working on the youngest one, Lenny, who remained obdurate, especially since, when he visited his three other brothers, they told him how they rued the day they had signed in.
Like the McGarritys, these are people hemmed in by habbit,by family history, and by something perilously close to destiny. Gilleen has along wait for freedom since the McGarritys all "lived forever." And it surprises few that Carey's
brothers never married, for the Costellos are descended from Irish kings and have been brought up to believe there's no one good enough for them to marry. Those who do make a wild bid for freedom -- in Montreal, out west, or across the river in Protestant Boyneville -- risk not only their bodies but their immortal souls.
Time and history are not always the enemy, though. Gilleen's mother's family, the McTiers -- unlike the McGarritys -always die young, and Grandmother McTier could sing 200 Irish songs. Gilleen never learned those songs, and she mourns their loss, even when she reminds herself, "I am a McTier." It is a triumph over bitter adversity that she is capable, in the end, of astonishing her neighbours with the songs of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Bing Crosby blaring out of her farmhouse.
Not all the stories work as well. "Command Performance" is too structurally flawed to be the rollicking story Finnigan likely intended. She falters, too, when it comes to political developments -- as in her handling of Quebec's language laws in "Clan Wake." But the immediacy and power of her writing are impressive in communicating the poignancy of lives that survive disappointment and despair, and she is wonderful in her account of aging and, in "Crossing the Calumet Bridge," of the love that outlasts youth.
Winnipeg-born Margaret Creal, a contemporary of Finnigan's, grew up in a very different milieu, as the daughter of an Anglican minister in Saskatchewan. Now living outside New York City, she has published two previous works of fiction, but is probably better known to readers of the New Yorker, Ladies' Home Journal, Prairie Fire, Grain, and Women's Day, in which many of the stories in Singing Sky -- which draw on her memories of her childhood in Grenfell and then in Regina in the 1920s and 1930s -- first appeared.
Far from being hemmed in, Creal's world is defined less by the Prairie itself than by the world beyond. The roar of the ocean in the spiral shell her father had brought from his home on the Isle of Wight prompts the little girl to dream extravagant dreams of far away. "What was Canada?" she asks: Miles and miles of emptiness with an ocean on either side and the Canadian Pacific Railroad racing straight across it; anchored by the great cities ... and dotted with little towns like ours, and rich in rocks, lakes, mountains, valleys, forests, gold mines, ice and snow, over all of which arched the singing sky.
It is there that her father teaches her "to see castles, spires, towers, fabulous beasts, majestic landscapes, armadas, the north wind's puffy face."
The world the girl actually lives in, though, is more interesting than the one her father teaches her to see. Similarly, Creal's writing is strongest when she moves away from platitudes and abstractions to the stuff of Prairie life. Real life is not, in fact, elsewhere. Singing Sky is at its best when Creal allows us to see the girl's energy and vitality running up against the strictures of the life she lea as the daughter of a small-town clergyman -- a life not only of dreams but also of respectability, refinement, and polite silence. A scene with a prissy English boy she meets at Crooked Lake dramatizes this tension beautifully:
Having just learned to swim, I splashed around boisterously, playing spouting whale and steamboat, screaming with pleasure in myself and in the frothing sunspattered water, even while the princely boy's aloof and somewhat Puzzled gaze made me aware of myself as a noisy Canadian girl.