At the Edge:
A Book of Risky Stories

by Dan Yashinsky,
224 pages,
ISBN: 0921556748

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Children`s Books
by Marnie Parsons

Two years ago, I asked Dan Yashinsky to tell stories to my children's literature class. We were studying his wonderful collection, The Storyteller at Fault, and, since the book turns on the importance of stories as experiences of a moment, as oral and aural, it was critical that my students hear as well as read them. He began by telling them about the seemingly incomprehensible directions I'd sent him for finding both the university and the classroom, leaving them laughing and me red-faced. Red-faced and impressed, because he was showing the students that their lives are circumscribed by stories; their lives are stories needing to be shaped by a teller.

It takes a listening eye, of course, to spot a good story, and Yashinsky has that. In At the Edge, the third anthology of stories he has collected for Ragweed Press, he proves again just how perceptive that eye is. He has gathered stories from across Canada and across cultures, retold or newly fashioned by some of the country's best tellers. These are "risky stories", tales about characters (people, sometimes animals) who take chances, face challenges, stretch themselves. They are as everyday as rafting on a prairie slough, and as exceptional as Thunderbird Children entering this world as human babies.

Perhaps I'm biased. I'll admit that some of the stories are ones I dearly love; no book that held them would be denied my praise. Jan Andrews' retelling of "Cap o' Rushes" is marvellous, as one would expect her work to be. Her spare, clean style is stunning whether delivered on the page or directly to the ear. I'm a sucker for Anancy stories, and "More Spice", retold by George Blake, is as witty and clever as the best of them. And Sheila Brush's version of "Jack Meets the Cat" is currently my favourite. Every night before falling asleep, my eleven-year-old listens to a version taped by CBC radio. I can't read the printed text without hearing Andy Jones, Frank Barry, Agnes Walsh, Mercedes Barry, and the rest of the troupe in that riotous performance, but I'm sure that readers as yet unacquainted with this not-to-be-missed Newfoundland classic will quickly fall for it on the page.

I made many happy discoveries in At the Edge as well. Québécois singer and storyteller Michel Faubert's "Paying for the Pig" is a fine and funny Ti-Jean story, a terrific example of trickster tales. Diane Halpin's moving "A Pitcher of Water" is based on her mother's stories of the 1930s' dust bowl in Saskatchewan. Halpin is not the only one to shape family experiences: the entire first section is devoted to "the home front". Other noteworthy "original" stories include Johanna Hiemstra's "Hannah and the River" (a tale steeped in the traditions of telling), Joan Bodger and Meg Philip's "J. Percy Cockatoo" (a down-under version of "Rumpelstiltskin"), and Yashinsky's "The Devil in Don Mills". This last one is a wickedly witty satire on the seduction of computers and the state of the human soul-sometimes an apple is an Apple, after all. Yashinsky's delight in language's playful vitality is everywhere evident.

Few collections of this sort are flawless. At the Edge has moments of unevenness, stories that, while clearly good, don't easily lend their individual intensities to print. Some are broken by the descriptions of earlier tellers and earlier contexts. A few limp in dialogue. What surprises me is not that a few of the stories aren't as polished as they might be, but rather how few stories have suffered from the transition to print. A storyteller's instrument, after all, isn't the pen; it's the body. The way a teller stands, gestures or breathes, the intonations of voice, timing-all are integral to the story. One could think of these tales as scores for future performances, in the reader's head or at such time as the reader takes up the invitation Yashinsky offers in his introduction: to take a risk, to be a teller, too. 

Marnie Parsons edits poetry and teaches literature in London, Ontario.


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