||Scratching Hard but with Dignity
by Kerry Riley
West coast writer Anne Cameron has, in her new book Hardscratch Row, focused her clear and earthy gaze on the self-assured, middle-class Canadian mentality. She's gone traipsing down its corridors, wrenching open old doorways long since papered over with complacency and surface politeness, to probe fusty interior cavities and shadowy compartments, unearthing hoary tribal taboos, class prejudices and social stigmas. These she has poked and prodded, blinking and skulking, into the cold light of day¨and then, quixotically, perversely, hilariously, transformed them into the heart-warming qualities of real and likeable characters in this gently pointed tale of survival, rejuvenation, and essential family values.
They are a rag tag lot for sure, the siblings who are at the story's center, together with their assorted children, lovers, ex-lovers and loosely defined and extended family relations. Meet Kitty the female rodeo clown, her lesbian lover Christie, with newly orphaned Noel in tow, and the beautiful Savannah, who, as a teenaged runaway, took up, simultaneously, with three swarthy Sikh brothers, any one of whom may have fathered any one of her several racially-mixed children, the first arriving when she was fifteen. There's Glen the gay brother dying of AIDS, Jim the crazy artist, his girlfriend Audrey, the town tramp, and Seely the single mother of two snarly teenagers. The assemblage seems tailor-made to leave any conservative reader, possessed of firm assumptions about just what's normal and correct (the "shocked and appalled bunch" as Cameron calls them) shocked and appalled. Cameron turns assumptions on their head, however, by having the characters themselves simply refuse to inhabit their appointed slots. However anarchic the exterior of their lives, and whatever damage their pasts may have wrought, Kitty, Jim, Savannah, Seely and entourage, are, it turns out, just decent people attempting to negotiate life and its many complexities (relationships, aging, kids, work) with all the grace, dignity and above all, humour, they can manage. What emerges is a gentle, low-key, slice-of- life portrait of some very imperfect people who "on the whole, more or less, so to speak and all things considered, [had] done O.K." It's familiar territory for the author, who has made a career out of chronicling life on the fringe of society, and she is, in this case, clearly pushing buttons with considerable glee.
The story opens with the death of Glen, which becomes the catalyst for a reunion of the principle characters. Although well into adulthood at the outset of the story, the siblings have, we come to understand, shared a hellish childhood, no thanks to a neglectful, alcoholic mother, and an absent father. Circumstances dictate that this temporary arrangement gradually become more permanent, and this fractured, scattered family slowly begins to reconfigure itself around the sole symbol of love and stability in their collective past¨their late grandmother's house. This rebuilding culminates in a tentative reconciliation with the estranged father.
It would be inaccurate to say that nothing much happens in this novel¨with two deaths within the first thirty pages, a collective haunting, a matriarchal showdown, a fiery car crash and miraculous rescue, a wedding, and a reconciliation, of sorts¨quite a bit, in fact, happens. However, these events are not the main focus of the story. They function, instead, as landmarks, boulders in the stream, around which daily existence, with its relentless and untidy tumble of small decisions, immediate practical details, petty considerations, meals, and laundry, flows. The narrative arc is wide and leisurely, with any heavy drama occurring far off-stage, while the minute-to-minute business of living is lovingly chronicled with, at times, almost documentary precision. Readers fond of action- or incident-driven plot may find this problematic, the long passages chronicling the logistics of, for example, performing farm chores with a gimpy leg, tedious, the lack of a bold and definitive climax unsatisfying. Others, however, will appreciate the subtle way in which the quotidian gradually triumphs over old pain, and tragedy is slowly washed over by time, as this motley crew eat, and sleep, bicker, tease, and talk their way back into being a family.
What tension there is in the story arises primarily from two sources. First, there is a conflict between what the reader expects and what the characters actually does; here the degree of tension depends on the reader's own attitudes towards race, sexual orientation, gender roles, mental illness, and the nuclear family. Through her characters, Cameron confronts some fairly prickly social issues. The relationship between Savannah and her three Sikh lovers is perhaps the most obvious case in point. From a conventional standpoint it might appear to be the final degradation of family and societal values¨and, indeed, there is opposition to the arrangement, not only from a disapproving community, but also from the families on both sides. Bindi, the formidable mother of Savannah's partners, ignites a feud by contending that the children, born out of wedlock to a white mother, have no souls, while Jim, in particular, had in the past always been critical of the inter-racial (as opposed to the supernumerary) aspects of his sister's arrangement. Over time, however, it becomes clear that "the Dads" as the three Sikh brothers are affectionately known, have conducted themselves with fastidious integrity¨lovingly and unquestioningly providing for their children, even though no one is absolutely sure which of the brothers has fathered whom, their dealings with Savannah and her family fair and generous. Savannah, for her part, has proven to be a responsible, attentive and talented mother.
The gradual realization that the family is at a pivotal point in its development is a more subtle source of tension. The main characters are survivors of an awful past, who have, individually, managed to make their way in life, and maintain their humanity. What remains to be seen is whether or not at this stage they can progress beyond survival to reinvent themselves, collectively, as a family, however unorthodox. History is hard to bury¨anger boils and spouts around the periphery of the narrative like a brewing summer storm. Old hurts and grievances linger and new irritations and frustrations arise. For all their folksy wisdom, homespun humour, and wry and teasing ways, Cameron's characters are real people, not saints, and forgiveness and accommodation, when it comes at all, is neither easily attained nor absolute.
Although this family is still very much a work in progress the general movement (from death to a wedding, tentative reconciliation and acceptance) is positive, and although the trappings of a 'normal' family life are still nowhere in sight, the foundations (caring, cooperation, accommodation and loyalty) do seem to be in place. One can't help but wish them well. ˛