A Hard Witching & Other Stories|
by Jacqueline Baker
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|Tales from a Saskatchewan Desert
by K. Gordon Neufeld
If the name "Saskatchewan" evokes miles and miles of waving crops punctuated by an occasional grain elevator, think again. In the south-western part of the province near Maple Creek can be found the Great Sand Hills, a huge expanse of rippling sand dunes reminiscent of a scene from "Lawrence of Arabia".
Guy Vanderhaege, in his best-selling novel The Last Crossing, portrayed the sand hills as a place that native people preferred to avoid. Near the middle of the novel, MTtis guide Jerry Potts regales his travelling companions with an old Peigan ghost story about a man who goes to the sand hills to retrieve his wife from the land of the dead. There, he meets up with ghosts and skeletons who reluctantly agree to give him back his wife, on condition that he never strike her¨for if he does, she will return at once to the barren hills which are the dwelling place of the dead.
The sand hills play a similar ghostly role in Jacqueline Baker's impressive dTbut collection, A Hard Witching & Other Stories. Though little of the action in the stories actually takes place in the sand hills, they are always present in the background, looming over the lives of those who inhabit the towns and countryside around them. From beginning to end in this subtle, finely-wrought collection of tales about these people, Baker rarely strikes a false note.
The first story, "Cherry", runs to 40 pages and is divided into nine segments. It recounts the memorable summer of a girl and her younger brother from Saskatoon who are visiting their grandparents in a small town near the sand hills. Told from the girl's perspective, the story is a pitch-perfect rendering of a child's growing understanding of the troubles and secrets of adulthood. In particular, the children are fascinated and repelled by their great-uncle, Aloetius, a gout-ridden old man with a ponderous wit. Part of their fascination for Aloetius derives from the mystery of his absent wife, who departed for points east years before, leaving her shadow hanging over the entire family. Only after Aloetius's death do the children finally meet their Aunt Cherry, who comes out from Thunder Bay for the funeral.
In "Redberry, Ministikwan, Buffalo Pound", Baker examines the lot of a farm wife, Lavinia, who had intended to leave country life behind when she moved to Medicine Hat to take a restaurant job. But then she meets and marries Jack, a young farmer who lures her back to Saskatchewan with talk of "All that open space. Those fields. The light there." Lavinia is pulled back not only by the landscape, but also by the poetry of the town names: Pelletier, Candle, Old Wives.
But the story takes a disquieting turn as Lavinia learns from Jack that a neighbouring farm wife has been committed to an institution for insanity. She then observes how callously the unfortunate woman's husband discusses the matter with Jack. This story is reminiscent of "Gravity", in Sharon Butala's recent collection, Real Life, which treated a similar theme. However, in "Gravity" the farm wife's insanity was brought on by physical abuse; in Baker's story, the cruelty is mostly mental. In the chilling final scene of the story, Lavinia uncovers a secret her husband has been keeping from her.
Ironically, it is the title story which is the least successful in this fine collection. In "A Hard Witching", Edna, a farm widow, learns that her well has gone dry and hires a stranger to discover whether the well can be salvaged or a new well must be drilled. This story is the closest in spirit to the ghost story from the Vanderhaege novel: it is full of portents and omens and unsettling discoveries. "What you got", a nosy neighbour tells Edna, "is a haint"¨a visitation by a restless ghost. But this promising premise is undermined by the seeming irrationality of Edna's fear of the man who investigates the well. "As her eyes adjusted to darkness and the man grew nearer, she could make out his shape coming slowly toward her [from the depths of the well], and she was overcome by an awful terror, as if everything evil in the world was about to climb out of that pit." This would be great stuff if the man had actually done something to provoke Edna's unease, but in fact he only seems a little odd. As a result, the more ominous passages of this story seemed forced or overwrought rather than compelling.
Apart from "Cherry", the strongest story in Baker's collection is "Bloodwood", a potent dissection of an old woman's peculiar problem. As a child, Perpetua Resch had been well-loved by her family, but this had not led to her being able to extend her love beyond her parents, her brother and her sister. Instead, the warm cocoon of her parents' love had calcified around her, leaving her forever a pupa¨unable to love anyone but her birth family. The others in this close-knit clan share this affliction, and as they gradually pass away, Perpetua is left pondering this bittersweet trap. Then one day her sister's daughter arrives at the farm for a visit, and just for a moment, Perpetua feels her heart open up for this lonely woman, like the briefest flutter of a butterfly wing. The emotion in "Bloodwood" is rendered with raw purity, and its conclusion cuts to the quick.
The collection finishes, appropriately, with a story titled "Sand Hills", which examines four generations of a farm family whose luckless progenitor had selected for his homestead "the worst possible tract of land in all of Saskatchewan." Having staked his claim, the would-be settler promptly died, leaving the farm to his widow, two sons and one daughter. The two sons eventually become the eccentric great uncles of the story's narrator, who recalls them with fascination, especially their ability to string out fanciful tales. This talent for embellishment is shared by the entire family, even the narrator's mother, who never told her who her father was, nor why he ran away. Eventually, while on a chokecherry-picking expedition, her great uncle Carl launches into a story about an unusual Bible salesman who once passed through town by the name of John James. Was James her missing father? Probably not; but even so, the story reads like a meditation on the truth and lies of shared memories, and how they mingle with fantasies and wishful thinking, until it is no longer clear what is remembered and what is not.
Baker's stories are particularly good at capturing a child's viewpoint, for example in "Cherry", "Small Comfort" and "Sand Hills", all of which show the frank curiosity that children have for their elders, and their unthinking acceptance of the starkly beautiful landscape in which they live. Baker, who now makes her home in Edmonton, describes that same landscape with breathtaking nostalgia in the final story of the collection:
"Behind the porch rails, behind the house, there is a red barn with the loft door hanging slightly off one hinge, flapping and creaking in even the slightest wind. There is a rusted-out half-ton behind it, and three granaries weathered to the same grey as the dirt, and just a few yards farther, sunk oddly almost below the level of the horizon, a sparse row of cottonwood and caragana someone once intended for a shelter belt. Beyond the trees, so far in the distance they can hardly be seen, the smooth, pale Sand Hills shoulder up from the prairie."