Due West:
Thirty Great Stories from Alberta, Saskatchewan, & Manitoba

385 pages,
ISBN: 1550500961

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The Prairies Go to the Sea
by Nora Abercrombie

Twenty years ago, an anthology like Due West would have strained to identify western culture, or situate western writers in the larger "CanLit" landscape. That so many good stories could be culled this year is a testament to the rapid development of writing and publishing on the prairies; but what is far more exciting is that the stories reach far beyond the cultural, emotional, and imaginative borders that used to be synonymous with western writing.
Sadru Jethra's piece, "Nuri Does Not Exist", is about a Zanzibari who becomes a Tanzanian who becomes a Calgarian. Losing and gaining an identity with each shuffle, he has kept safe from evil spirits by secreting his real names. Jethra's piece is exotic, the mindset and idiosyncrasies of his characters completely foreign (at least, to me). "Egyptian Sunday", by Ven Begamudre, gently prods at racism in a mixed-race relationship, but is set primarily in a white-bread family on the prairies. Perhaps the most fascinating piece of exotica is "David Goes to the Reserve", by Sheila Stevenson. She introduces the reader intimately to her main character's life on a reserve and her shiftlessness at university. When she takes a white friend home to the reserve, we find ourselves comfortable in the wood-smoke and gentleness of her family, and resentful of the well-meaning bad manners of her guest. To straddle the gulf between cultures deftly is a trick, and Stevenson performs it effortlessly.
Short stories, as a form, too often tempt writers to claustrophobic introspection and painfully constructed metaphor. And so I am awash with gratitude for the writers who obviously set out to delight and charm. "The Last Work of a Hired Hand", by Cliff Lobe, is an insanely funny story of the jealousy between a hired hand (nephew) and an arm, amputated from the farmer by a baler, that comes back to the household to render no end of service to his former host and his wife. The macabre images are enchanting. "Downstairs each night, my uncle would watch television, with the arm curled across his shoulder like the vainest Siamese tomcat. It helped him clap when Paul Henderson shovelled his famous goal past Comrade Tretiak, held his beer when we rose for `O Canada'...It carved out his nostrils when it thought nobody was watching." On the night when the nephew plans murderous revenge on the arm, he finds it in bed with his aunt: "The arm ignored not an inch of her willowy body as it administered its agenda of digital indulgence."
Pamela Banting offers "Godiva Rides Again", a satiric romp with the legendary figure through a metamorphosing career change. Resentful of the spin-off merchandising (souvenir plates, mugs, key chains), sick of her husband's jealousy ("you're just another Madonna"), Godiva quits her "one-horse town", "chucks literati for lariati", and gallops to the Calgary Stampede. Banting piles puns and chuckles shamelessly, one on top of another, until you don't know whether to groan or giggle.
And Hiromi Goto provides an extraordinarily bitter, resigned and funny portrait of misery in "Stinky Girl". Not a whole lot happens in this story; it is an endlessly bizarre self-description of an obese, stinky mall rat in striped trousers, tormented by an abusive, cigar-smoking mother, a mongrel who hates her, and the spectre of her dead father's head (which has to be stuffed into the flour bin on occasion). Goto's story is a tour de force of heartbreaking hilarity and if the ending is a bit abrupt, it is because nothing short of cataclysm could provide a balanced resolution for such delightful, monumental weirdness.
It's interesting that so many of these prairie stories are set near, or in, water. J. Jill Robinson puts two sisters next to the sea in "Pier"; a miscarriage, and one sister's longing for the other, is described in saltwater. Sheldon Oberman relates the failing relationship in "Steep Deep Keep" to the "colossal sadness" of whales sounding to each other in the vastness of ocean. In "Puerto Escondido", Warren Cariou puts his couple in a life-and-death struggle with undertow to explore the temporality of sex and love (among other things).
Bonnie Bishop uses water-its buoyancy and weight-to describe her character's emotional state. It takes a hard-headed and unsentimental thinker to make a story of miscarriage read honest and true, but Bishop manages even more than that: she peppers "Bottom" with irony and brutal gender jokes (like: how many men does it take to wallpaper a room? Thirteen, if you slice them really thin), and her toughness is as effective as it is moving.
Women escape, or at least flee, in a number of stories. In "No More Denver Sandwiches", Meeka Walsh bores her character in the glitter of Palm Springs until there's no choice but to leave or surrender to stupefaction. In "All That Summer", Meira Cook's character escapes the oppression of a heat wave and pickup trucks to follow her longings out to the highway. "Long Gone and Mister Lonely" is a long dance of a housewife's retreat from a whining oaf of a husband. It's an amazingly intricate tale, one that catches the subtleties of a shabby courtship through to a quiet evening of spousal disconnection.
Perhaps the most moving of the "women escaping" stories is "Hollywood Legs", by Shelley A. Leedahl. A mother eases out from a dull marriage in this one, but Leedahl tells the story from the point of view of a grown daughter who suspends judgement of both parents. By extending compassion and understanding to all her characters, Leedahl takes the theme of female escape to a new and compassionate place.
Similarly, "Uncle Timothy", by David Bergen, charts atypical emotional ground from a male perspective. His main character stays with his wife despite the fact that she slept with, and has a baby by his wandering brother. While the plot is not unusual, the portrayal of the husband's conflicting emotions around his wife-resentment and desire juggle for primacy-is wonderful.
Birk Sproxton's foray into domesticity and art is as tender and whimsical as it is accusatory. "The Organized Woman Story" portrays one of those persnickety women who manages to make everybody else seem inadequate, but she prods the narrator into a courtship of such charm and gentleness that we forgive her. It's a story of forgiveness, acceptance, and love, and is an utter delight.
There are some writers who could have stretched just a bit further. Norm Sacuta, for instance, employs remarkable sensitivity and imagination to set up his conflicted homosexual character for spectacular degradation in "Orizaba, North of Havana". But his character's fate is a grand statement, approaching Wagnerian, and quite predictable. We know that the world is cruel to people who kiss the wrong people, and that degradation can spur suicide. But Sacuta's wagging finger has all the impact of a mother telling her child of starving children in Bosnia. It's true, but does not render soggy vegetables any more appealing.
Same thing with "Minor Alterations", by Barbara Scott, where a woman submits to plastic surgery to keep a lover. There's precious little to learn from yet another story about a woman sacrificing her identity for a relationship. It's tiresome and irritating to be fed such an old moral. Enough already.
I suppose there had to be at least one little-girl-losing-her-innocence story in this collection. Allison Muri's "Little Boy Games" is well-written and effective, but has that familiar sickening buzz you get whenever you read a story driven by a political agenda. The boy is a hunter and a bully. The girl is cornered into sex games. Animals are killed. The girl is tainted by sadness. Two basic weaknesses in the story are apparent: one, there is no exploration of the girl's feebleness (why she hangs around with a boy she does not like might be more interesting than a hopeless portrait of juvenile victimization). Second, the boy is without redemption; he carries a theoretical burden of male disgrace unconsciously as if it were part and parcel of his gender. It's a two-dimensional, cheap portrait.
There had to be a rape story, too. But happily, Sharon Butala's "Act of Love" is one of the best I've ever read. No grand gestures or political agenda, just a silent ache and a shattered world-view, and a gently bitter ending.
Cultural specificity is nothing to be ashamed of, and the "western" stories in this collection are examples of how a stock theme can be broadened into finely drawn drama. Fred Stenson's "A Year Before Emery Legrandeur", the story of the first Calgary Stampede, was probably included for its historical significance. But "Turkle", the familiar story of a man lost in a prairie snowstorm, is so well-written by David Carpenter that it rises sufficiently above the cliché to be engaging.>br> Two stories in this collection are closer to poetry than the others. I always have to steel myself before reading Rudy Wiebe because I know I'm not going to "get it" the first time through. "Shells of the Ocean" is no exception. The reader is expected to mine the story like a prospector. Yet Wiebe's writing is worth the effort. He crams his story with details, evocations of inner landscape. Images ripple unexpectedly, independently of context. The meaning and purpose of his details are elusive, but Wiebe's murky, dense language sticks like molasses.
It is equally challenging to determine what exactly happens in "The Dangers of B and E". Kathie Kolybaba offers scant characterization and scanter detail of who does what. The reader is not sure which character elicits this delicious paragraph:
"I did not expect the tenderness, that long languid night, in my white house. Only banter and our camaraderie of laughter and rare respect. A strange loyalty, yes. But that cradling my small body, his open palms caressing my throat, tracing the veins on my wrist, my life, all this a secret surprise."
Kolybaba's is a white and silent story, ripe with the duality, and the risk and necessity of being known. It is a compelling, quiet, erotic story.
I wish that the editors had spent a little more time on their prefaces to this collection. Geoffrey Ursell (Coteau) talks about how excited he was to find so many fine stories. Wayne Tefs (Turnstone) muses on his old dreams and how they've been realized in the richness of prairie writing and publishing. Aritha van Herk indulges herself in a strange voyage about the articulation of various bodies (politic, invisible, altered, magical)-an intellectual stretch which bears only tentative relation to what I read in this book.
I wish they had said more about what this books signifies. It's more than the coming-of-age of western writing (the heaping up of Governor General's awards by western writers has already proven that). This anthology is a testament to the maturity of prairie society and is a reflection of a wonderfully supportive and rigorous community of western writers.

Nora Abercrombie lives in Tofield, Alberta.


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