This week I visited New Brunswick with a short story by Elisabeth Harvor, “Foreigners”.

Elisabeth Harvor, born in 1936 in St John, is the daughter of Danish emigrants, so is Anna, the main character of her story “Foreigners”.

Anna is a trainee nurse in the Maritimes in 1957.  She appears as a discreet person, compliant, reserved and overshadowed by the eccentricity of her mother and extroversion of her sister.  Early in the narrative, we learn that she wants to quit her training, but is encouraged to pursue because it could be something she could fall back on (if she does not get married?).  As she goes back home on her days off we encounter her sister who is the centre of attention and the one who gets all the boyfriend.  However, Karl, a Norwegian who is the son of the vet and is admired for having learnt to speak perfect English so fast after moving to Canada, seems to be more interested in Anna than in Chess.  The mother, a strange and intriguing figure, facilitates the courtship between Anna and Karl.  As their relationship evolves to something more serious, Karl visits Anna regularly and together they go to spend a day in Anna’s family’s summer cottage.  There, they are welcome by the mother who acts, in Anna’s words, as if  she wanted to marry Karl herself.  After Karl goes away to Toronto and admits that they should see other people, Anna leaves the hospital and goes back home.  She eventually manages to mend things with Karl; however, we learn some of the things she hides from him about her mother and how unstable the latter is.

This is a strange story.  There is a lot in it and I did not know what to focus on.  I probably need to read it again to appreciate it better.  Its title, of course, draws attention to the foreigners who populate the story: the kitchen assistants who speak many languages, the Danish sailor who communicates with Anna by putting her hand on his crotch, Anna and her Danish family who have assimilated so well in Canada that Anna cannot even speak Danish, her cousin Kamille who is on a visit before moving to the State, the two Mormon visitors and Karl who is from Norway and remembers the second World War and the horrors perpetrated by the nazis.  The story can thus be seen as speaking about Canada as a multicultural country and the experience of immigrants there.

However, it is also about a young woman facing her options: should she keep studying for a job she hates or just get married as soon as she the opportunity presents itself?  She wants to do good and work hard to help the sick; but this is maybe just because no one as ever been interested in her.  Indeed, as soon as she has a suitor she feels that she can escape her hell in the hospital.  Her character is torn by various tensions.

Then, there is the mother.  Taking her into account makes us reconsider the whole story from a different angle.  She is a weird character and at no point can we really figure her out.  She is eccentric and extremely egocentric.  She manages to make her daughter’s relationship revolve around her, as if she were the instigator but also the one deserving the attention.  At the end of the story, Anna tells Karl stories about her mother; however, she does not tell the whole truth, which is partially shared with us though and makes us reconsider not only the character of the mother, but the whole story as well.  What else should we believe in the narrative?  What else is not told to us?

This is an interesting and intriguing story, which would probably deserve more attention than what I have been giving it here. 

Short Story Monday is hosted by John at The Book Mine Set.

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