A Song for Nettie Johnson

by Gloria Sawai
296 pages,
ISBN: 1550501879

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Award-Winning Graceful Collection
by K. Gordon Neufeld

The title story of Gloria Sawai's moving new collection¨which won the Governor General's Award for Fiction¨opens with a mentally-challenged woman sitting in a chair overlooking a quarry, spelling simple words out loud to herself. Behind her, in a trailer lost on the Saskatchewan prairie, her partner, Eli, a brilliant musician and reformed drunk, stirs from sleep, roused by passages from Handel's Messiah which interlace his dreams. Awaking, he knows it is time¨time to go into Stone Creek to talk to the minister of St. John's Church. It is time, once again, to organize a performance of Handel's incomparable masterpiece.
So Eli goes to town, but Nettie refuses to go with him. Steeling herself for yet another loss, she tells herself that Eli will not be back; and as she rocks in her chair, she consoles herself by singing a song filled with sorrow and longing¨Nettie Johnson's song.
But Eli does return, and the performance he eventually conducts is also, after a fashion, expressly for Nettie¨though hurt as she is by her past, the best she can manage is to stand outside the church door and listen to the music while the snow falls all around her.
This bitter-sweet story¨really a novella¨is just one of nine very fine stories in Sawai's debut collection, six of which are set in the small town of Stone Creek, Saskatchewan. The stories are warm, elegant and full of grace¨a grace that is both aesthetic and theological. For it quickly becomes clear that Sawai's work is completely infused with her Christian faith, and with the belief that God's love is available to all.
This is not exactly a popular position for any artist to take in this dour post-Christian era. A lesser writer might have trotted out these themes in a preachy, anodyne fashion that would have seemed moving or persuasive only to the converted. Sawai, on the other hand, knows how to disarm even the most skeptical reader through her warm and generous presentation of characters.
Sawai's most well-known story appears at the end of the collection: a quirky tale with the irresistible title "The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts". This story has been frequently anthologized because of its bright charm and gentle humour. In it, a housewife named Gloria Johnson who lives in a suburb of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, breathes a sigh of relief because it is Monday morning in September¨which means that her husband is off to work and all her kids are in school. She has the whole house to herself to tend to domestic chores. But while taking a break on the sundeck, she spies a distant figure approaching across the prairie who, when he reaches her back stairs, turns out to be none other than Jesus of Nazareth, wanting to rest up a bit before proceeding on to Winnipeg. Gloria and Jesus pass time chatting about nothing in particular, and when the wind comes up and blows open her kimono, exposing her breasts, Gloria, without quite knowing why, makes no move to cover them up again. "Nice breasts," Jesus remarks mildly.
Because of the juxtaposition of the prosaic with the miraculous, this story could be read in tandem with Diane Schoemperlen's recent novel, Our Lady of the Lost and Found. In that book, the narrator (who, as in Sawai's story, resembles the author) receives a surprise visit from the Blessed Virgin Mary. The BVM, it seems, has singled her out as the ideal hostess with whom to spend a quiet week of R&R. But while Schoemperlen¨whose writing is more intellectually driven¨treats the visitation with her trademark self-deprecating irony, Sawai makes the apparition of Jesus into a simpler and more enigmatic event.
Many of Sawai's stories, including "The Day I Sat With Jesus", seem puzzling at first, because their meaning is conveyed through the feelings with which they leave the reader rather than through any intellectual epiphany that can be summarized in a handful of words. This is especially true of "The Dolphins", which on first reading might seem obtuse, but on second reading reveals its lyrical beauty. In that story, Emily, the daughter of an alcoholic, goes to the West Edmonton Mall to watch trained dolphins, along with her friend Hannah, who is from a Japanese family. The girls are writing a report about dolphins for school. The outing allows Emily to notice that Hannah can behave in a precocious and bossy manner around her parents without always having to walk on tiptoes (as Emily must). As she watches, Hannah lectures her father about dolphins, while Hannah's mother offers a reminiscence from her own girlhood in Japan. The story ends with a series of vignettes about the activities of various dolphins around the world¨portraying them as caring, intelligent, remarkable creatures. The impression the reader is left with is of something breathtakingly lovely.
Sawai's underlying themes always point to something that is ultimately beyond words: God's overarching love. That love is invisible to those who insist on isolating a specimen in a laboratory before they can believe in its miraculousness. By contrast, the divine presence is overwhelmingly evident to those who see the world whole. This theme brought to mind the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote,"The world is charged with the grandeur of God" and went on to imagine God as a mother hen brooding over the world "with warm breast, and with Ah! bright wings."
The story that most directly addresses this particular idea occurs in the middle of the collection. "Oh Wild Flock, Oh Crimson Sky"¨one of the Stone Creek stories¨centres on a classroom debate over the proposition, "Resolved: that there is no God." Arguing in favour of the proposition is Ivan, a brilliant but lonely Russian boy, who immerses himself in science, and speaks with joy (and mind-boggling complexity) of quantum mechanics and the discoveries of Mendeleev.
Elizabeth, a bright, earnest student and the daughter of the town's Lutheran minister, takes the stand against the proposition. After wrestling with a welter of textbooks, Elizabeth finally hits on the idea of responding to Ivan with a poem, in which she lists the many marvels and beauties of the world, so magnificent when taken all together. In this wise response we see the theme that Sawai returns to again and again, with unfailing grace and tenderness¨that the existence and presence of God isn't something that can be explained in words, but must be experienced through a rush of overpowering feeling. Sawai then allows us to experience something approaching this for ourselves, as she has us overhear a small-town chorus striving to hit the most difficult notes in Handel's masterpiece; or as we spy a distant dolphin breaking the sea's surface, prompting Japanese fishermen to exclaim, "Iruka kujira!"; or when a young girl is skating on a star-filled prairie night and, looking up, is captivated by a beauty so vast she can scarcely breathe.

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