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Sad, Valorous, & Funny
by Trevor Ferguson

Arguably, the Canadian prairie has produced more writers per capita than any region of similar girth on the planet. Various theories, none credible, have proposed why this is so. The wondrous sky, the restless horizon, a mythic and mystical landscape, winter's forced confinement, the dearth of other things to do. Whatever the cause, prairie people write. There's at least one blessing to this, the creation of a supportive literary arts community, and also one serious drawback: it's a hard slog when the book gets done. Pity the writer who presents yet another story collection about growing up in a small prairie town, and while we're at it, make that a northern prairie town, a northern Ukrainian prairie town, a northern Ukrainian prairie town in the fifties. In the fifties. Publishers can be forgiven for offering a slim smile and dashing off to cadge a drink.
What is required, and what the Ottawa writer Mary Borsky, a native of Alberta, provides in the first lines of her debut book, Influence of the Moon, is a counterweight to what we expect: "When the Russians shot a dog up into space, my father celebrated for three days. Later, when he got sober, he took us fishing, me and my brother Amel." The disposition of small-town life on the prairies yields to that other fertile field, the family. "The Russians ... they're scared of nobody," shooting that dog into space; inspired by them, Dad isn't scared to fish illegally with nets, as long as he can do so secretly. A loose-tongued daughter, however, puts him on the run from law-abiding, Communist-hating fishermen, and the daughter gets a glimpse of her father's inner fright.
So begins this collection of interconnected stories.
The stories follow a chronological order, providing wry, evocative scenes from the life of Irene Lychenko, from early childhood through to early womanhood. The prairie and the town may ration the terms of existence, but this is a book with a scope more compact even than that. The Lychenko family compose almost the entire cosmos of these narratives. Visitors such as the Bible seller, or the suitor (ten years her senior, chosen by her dad when Irene is sixteen), or The-Important-B. B. Hunt, who chased after the rules-busting fisherman, slip into the tales never to do much and never to return. By design, this is a book determined to work through its inherent claustrophobia.
The form bears some consideration. Why stories? Since the arrangement is chronological and the characters are set, why not use the material for a novel? Some stories read as though they were chapters. All the stories gain as a collection, accumulating wisdom and power as they connect the various stations of these lives. The author is frequently in pursuit of the epiphanic moment, which makes sense in a story collection that traces different lives, but in going from one such moment to the next Irene begins to be shaped as much by the demands of the literary form as by the incidents of her existence. So why stories?
In a novel, what is put down is usually best picked up again. Little resurrects itself in these stories. I would have welcomed a return visit from The-Important-B. B. Hunt's Volunteer Fire Brigade. I would have expected Irene's mother's mental illness to have had a flare-up or at least a measure of definition. I expected Dad to revive his Commie leanings, but after the first story he is mute on the subject. Are we to believe, then, that that early speech was not integral to him, merely an utterance of the moment to suit a particular story? And after Irene leaps off a roof to elude the man her dad wants her to marry, I hoped to be a witness to their next exchange. Nada. A difficulty with the form, then, is that each story takes its own measure as a story, and whatever is put down, stays down.
And yet, this is an elegant, spirited, meditative, and gracefully written book. Through wit and affection Borsky alleviates the bleak moonscape of a marginally dysfunctional family. I argue against the aperture only, believing that these characters deserve more light. The book repeatedly comes up against its form, asking to be let out of the box. Everything is constrained and restrained: the mother's mental illness, the baby sister's death, the father's infidelity, the brother's turning away from opportunity to embrace the merely familiar, Irene's delineation of what is important to her. When each image develops to a similar quietness of realization, other emotions-rage, bitterness, sorrow, passion-are either undisclosed or shunted to an anteroom off the page.
This is a sad and valorous book and along the way it is funny. "When you pass grade twelve, son ... I'll buy you one of those plug-in vibrating chairs so that you can sit and listen to the radio on it." In its own right, it's a prairie book, although the land is scarcely mentioned. This is a book of small rooms and pool halls, of new worlds emerging from within the old unnoticed, as though ordained, as though inevitable, but surprising at most turns. As in a novel, momentum begins to move one story into the next, and there is emotive power to the final story, which serves also to conclude the larger narrative, to celebrate the fuller life now eclipsing its moments.
As Irene becomes a young woman, and sets out alone, bidding the past farewell, recognizing the sad countenance of her mother and the diminishment of the lives around her, what she knows we have learned also. The reader is intimate with this life and pleased with the acquaintance. The collection closes with the daughter assuming shape and direction out of the withering life of her mother, and Irene is connected to both portent and loss. Mary Borsky has done what is difficult and elusive, delivering a faithful small-town fiction that is avid, touching, and engrossing.

Trevor Ferguson lives in Hudson Heights, Quebec. His most recent (and sixth) novel is The Timekeeper, published in February by HarperCollins.


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