This week, I decided to linger a little longer in Nova Scotia and read two stories set there at the beginning of the 20th century.
“My Grandfather’s House” is an extract from Charles Ritchie’s memoir with the same name. Although collected in The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories, which is edited by Michael Ondaatje, it is not a short story per se. The subtitle of Ritchie’s memoir is “Scenes of Childhood and Youth”. Indeed, except for its brevity, I did not find that this piece read as a short story. However, the conventions of the short story can be quite reductive and too exclusive and one should be able to step outside of these, especially when we consider the new forms contemporary short stories might adopt.
This “scene of childhood” is not actually a scene, but multiple scenes and memories. However, we can see how they all lead to the final scene and the narrator’s realisation of the impact is, now dead, grandfather had on his childhood.
The narrator recounts some of his visits to his grandfather’s house in Nova Scotia in the early 1910s. He gives us an evocative description of the street where the house stood, tells us about afternoons spent with his grandfather and about the absence left by the death of his grandmother. Each thought leads to another one and we are introduced to a few characters who populated his childhood, as well as what it meant to be a colonial at the turn of the century in Nova Scotia.
To be honest, this story did not do much for me. I cannot say I disliked it, but it left me indifferent. Maybe you need to read the whole book or be more familiar with the Nova Scotian context to appreciate it better? It could also be that I was not in the right frame of mind. There is one thing I keep noticing when reading stories or childhood accounts about Nova Scotia though: how often drinking and attitudes to drink are mentioned (the Gaelic heritage?).
Following this story in the collection is Hugh MacLennan’s recording of the Halifax explosion. Again, this is not a short story per se, but an extract of his book Barometer Rising (I then had a glance at Ondaatje’s introduction and he explains why he selected some pieces that were not really short story; because he deemed them relevant to give a more complete picture of the Canadian culture).
This piece takes the form of a literary documentary. MacLennan was actually in Halifax during the explosion in 1917 and would have thus been a first-hand witness. In this piece, he sets to explain how the explosion happened. The narrative is divided into three parts, each preceded by the time. The piece begins by focusing on the crew of the Mont Blanc before the collision; it then describes how the collision and explosion happened; finally, it reports the impact of the explosion: the earthquake, the air-concussion and the tidal wave created by the explosion.
I think this piece is informative, but also well-written. One can feel the tension growing as we get closer to the explosion and can judge the dramatic consequences it had. I was glad to read this documentary piece as it gave me some context for McKay’s The Birth House, as it is one of the historical backgrounds for her novel.
Short Story Monday is hosted by John at The Book Mine Set.