The Uncharted Heart

by Melissa Hardy
218 pages,
ISBN: 0676973434

Simple Recipes

by Madeleine Thien
227 pages,
ISBN: 0771085117

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Secrets and Survival
by Gloria Hildebrandt

The Uncharted Heart and Simple Recipes are books of seven or eight short stories, written by women, about Canadian-born and immigrant characters struggling with secrets and survival. Here the similarities end. The nature of their secrets and survival are different, and except for these broad themes, the books are almost polar opposites.

The Uncharted Heart is set in the rural past, while Simple Recipes presents a view of contemporary urban society. One book has natural settings as big as Canada, while the other is restricted to cramped houses, suburban streets, junk shops and motel rooms. One is light and humorous in tone; the other is entrapped and depressing. One set of stories celebrates life; the other conveys hopelessness and suffering.

Different authors, different views. Are they simply an expression of nostalgia for the past versus the grim reality of the present? Or are these views due to different attitudes to life?

The Uncharted Heart is an uplifting, triumphant book, Hardy's third. Its characters are survivors despite tough obstacles. Work is hard, often manual labour for many hours for subsistence or low pay. Winters are long and lonely. Death is familiar¨of children, spouses, pet animals. Sometimes people have to do the killing themselves. One character has to shoot her father after gangrene sets into his leg. Yet in this book death is presented and regarded as part of life, which goes on. Children are buried, bereaved spouses remarry, more animals are bred. As experienced by biblical Job, entire families can be renewed, and life remains worth living. The character Digory in the story "The Bockles" suffers the loss of two complete families of wives and children, but continues to seek his fortune mining for gold.

The hunt for gold affects to some degree all the characters in these stories, which are set in the Timmins area during the Porcupine Gold Rush of the early 20th century. Some of the secondary characters appear in more than one story, giving the impression that the stories are linked or related. Hardy has created a whole community in this work. The characters are as varied as Canada's history. French, British, aboriginals, Finns, Chinese and others populate the land.

All the women, save for an invalid who becomes addicted to opium, seem to be strong, self-reliant and resilient. In "The Heifer," Aina, pregnant and left alone on the farm by her prospecting husband, saves herself and some livestock from a devastating forest fire. In "The Traplines," Mimi, on her own while her husband checks his traps, repeatedly outwits a dangerous neighbour intent on attacking her. In "The Uncharted Heart," Marguerite lives isolated at a camp in the forest, after the deaths of her father, husband and children, with absolutely no fear of wolves or bears. As for advances from unwanted men, her camp is so well hidden that she has to lead people there. "So, you see, you needn't be concerned for me," she says, speaking for most of the women in these stories, "I am good at taking care of myself."

Yet the dangers go beyond wild animals and violent men. They extend to the realm of the supernatural. The Uncharted Heart includes mythical beings and superstitions from many of the ethnic cultures presented. Sometimes, the supernatural world comes near enough to do harm.

"The Ice Woman" introduces us to the nebaunaube, an underwater female who will pull a man beneath the waves to marry him. "Traplines" explores the needs of the weendigo, "a terrible manitou that lives deep in the forest and feeds upon the bones and blood and flesh of human beings." "The Bockles" shows supernatural beings whom Digory tries to outsmart, which any reader of fairy tales knows is a bad idea. Such dealings are kept secret.

Even many of the characters who don't come up against goblins have secrets, many of which they keep hidden to their graves. One isolated wife gets away with murder when her husband suddenly returns from prospecting. Neighbours assume that he died while away in the bush, never coming home.

Some characters have entirely secret lives. The title story reveals the lifelong secret of a geologist and surveyor who forms an important relationship with a woman who lives by a lake he refuses to name and mark on a map. Secrets are as powerful a theme as survival in this rewarding book.

Simple Recipes is Madeleine Thien's first book, and if this book reflects anything of her life, we could assume she has had a life of suffering. Her stories explore the most painful of family secrets: beatings, cruel psychological punishments, sexual abuse, emotional and actual abandonment. These tortures are not fully described, but are witnessed or hinted at, sometimes hidden in the text, as if a minimalist treatment is all that could be borne by author or reader.

The writing seems tight, introverted and restricted. There is little description of the outer world. It is as if these characters are so focused on their pain that they are oblivious of anything else. They seem locked in cramped claustrophobic houses, bland motel rooms with blaring TVs, a cubicle behind a shower curtain in a used furniture store.

The title story captures the helpless horror conveyed throughout the book. In one scene, a dying fish slowly suffocates in the draining kitchen sink before the father picks it up and hits it on the head before gutting it. When the narrator's brother refuses to eat the fish and offends his father at dinner, the father beats his son with a bamboo pole until it draws blood. The narrator sees it all. "I am afraid of bones breaking," she thinks. Yet the father continues the beating.

The first-person narrator of "Alchemy" tells the mother of her best friend Paula about witnessing a sign of probable sexual abuse by the father. "In her own house, Paula was always afraid to sleep alone," she says. The mother denies this, trying to keep it a secret even from herself.

Another cruel father inhabits "Bullet Train." If nine-year-old Harold falls asleep on the couch or forgets to put away the dishes, his father punishes him by forcing him to climb onto the roof and stay there. Harold is terrified of heights, and while there, is subjected to taunts by neighbourhood boys.

In other stories, pain is caused by abandonment of or by a parent. An alcoholic mother leaves her two little girls with a father who puts them in a foster home. A father's bargain furniture store goes bankrupt and he leaves his family to return alone to Indonesia. A mother takes her children away from their father as she leaves with her lover.

No deaths occur in this book, except for the fish, but helplessness and hopelessness is pervasive. When hints of abuse are revealed, it is almost no surprise. It provides an explanation for the trapped, depressing tone of the writing.

The cover photograph of a little Asian girl shows innocence, delicacy and vulnerability that could not contrast more with the theme of the book. There are secrets in these stories, and survival, but at a profound emotional cost. ˛


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