It has been a while since I last reviewed a short story.  Let’s just say that I have been delayed by difficult weather conditions on my Canadian tour.  Manitoba is know for extreme weather, isn’t it? and this is where I am this week…

The first story I will review this week was written by Margaret Laurence.  I was surprised to discover not long ago that Laurence might need an introduction, even to some Canadians coming from Manitoba (to be honest, I was in shock!).  Laurence (1926-87) was born in Neepawa, Manitoba, which served as a model for the fictinal town Manapawa, the setting of her most famous work, The Stone Angel.  Manapawa is also the setting of her short story sequence A Bird in the House, which has become a Canadian reference for this hybrid genre. 

A Bird in the House is a collection of various episodes from Vanessa’s childhood and is narrated in the first person and in a retrospective mode.  In “The Mask of the Bear”, Vanessa tells us about her grandfather and how he reacted to the death of her grandmother.  Laurence’s writing is often seen as questioning religion, although this theme is present in the story, I think there is a lot more to it.

I must admit that the story bored me a bit at first, but then I became more interested, probably because the character of the grandfather reminds me so much of my own grandfathers.  The story highlights the contrast between the grandmother, pious and with a heart of gold, and the grandfather, a rough man who does not care whether he hurts people or not.  Vanessa has always seen her grandfather wearing a coat made from a bear skin until the day her grandmother dies and she finds her grandfather shattered by the loss.  Vanessa’s aunt is bitter; she believes her father’s reaction is coming a bit late and does not understand why he has always treated people around him with such coldness and disregard.

There are other themes running through the story and the character of Vanessa’s aunt is an interesting one.  However, it is this focus on the grandfather that appealed me the most.  How even under a rough skin this man had a heart and really loved his wife, thus telling us how important it is to show your emotions before it is too late. 

“I remembered then that in the days before it became a museum piece, the mask had concealed a man.”

I would be interested in reading the whole collection.  I believe more meanings would come out of this individual short story by reading it as part of the sequence.

The second story I read was written by Sandra Birdsell (1942-), who was also born in Manitoba and is of  Cree metis and Russian Mennonite origins.  “Flowers for Weddings and Funerals” bears some resemblence to the previous story since it comes from another short story sequence, Night Travellers, in which the setting is another fictional town, Agassiz.  It is another childhood story in which the first-person narrator recounts her relation with her grandmother and with her best friend, Laurence.

Although it is a story I would probably appreciate much more by knowing more about the context, I still enjoyed it.  Multiculturalism is an obvious theme in the story and the narrator appears as a bridge between the two cultures, that of Laurence and that of her grandmother, who is of Russian origins.  The clash between cultures is evidenced in the encounter between the grandmother and Laurence. 

“Laurence hesitates.  He stands away from us with his arms folded across his chest as though he were bracing himself against extreme cold weather.”

I found this story quite painful.  The grandmother is depicted as the most generous person and is obviously loved by her grandaughter; yet, she is eventually rejected by the narrator in favour of her friend.  The narrator seems to be constrained to make a choice between the two cultures, a choice she should not have to make.

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

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