As I was saying on Monday, yesterday was Canada Day. As a way to celebrate, I have posted a few reviews of Canadian short stories during the week, and will keep doing so during the weekend in an attempt to finish my tour of Canada through short stories (you can find links to all the stories I have reviewed here).
(1963-) is a good author to make the transition between Alberta, where she was born, and British Columbia, where she lives. She is also the youngest author in the anthology I own and I was eager to read her story, especially after reading an excellent review of her novel The Sky is Falling (great title!). “The Chmarnyk” is also a story about the sky.
I found this story difficult to read, but I will try to do my best at reviewing it. It is told by a first-person female narrator who recounts her family’s story, or should I say disasters? The story opens with the death of a dog in 1906, which led the family to move from Dakota to Manitoba “into safety”. However, there, Mama’s baby is impaled. The family moves again to escape the curse, but the death of the father makes them realised that it was him who was cursed. When Teo, the narrator’s brother, dies, the mother exclaims that he has inherited his father’s curse. There are many religious references and superstition can be seen as one of the main themes of the story.
Yet, we can tie these superstitions and religious references to the family’s origin. From the term “Baba”, used to designate the grandmother, I would deduce that they are possibly Eastern European immigrants. The family is depicted as always on the move, fleeing the curse of the land, but maybe also trying to find a place where they will be accepted as the narrator mentions that “they said we were worse than Jews” and that “Baba said she could smell hatred”. It seems therefore that the family and their superstitions are not understood by the other inhabitants (in the same way the reader might be confused by these beliefs), but, and most importantly, are not accepted because of them. The curse on the family might then act as a metaphor for the way the family is rejected.
The story is set during the depression, at a time when the Prairies were experiencing a drought (as in Ross’s “The Lamp at Noon”). Most the story revolves around this lack of water and the efforts made by the inhabitants to survive. The narrator even says that she was afraid to cry for fear that people would lick her face. The title of the story is also a reference to the rain. “Chmarnyk” refers to the narrator’s brother and is the name given to a rain-man in Galicia, the narrator explains. In the story, the brother tries to find ingenious ways to survive despite the dryness. When he dies, there is a thunderstorm: he has finally managed to make it rain. The mother decides then that he has inherited his father’s curse. The inhabitants claim that he has been struck by lightning; however, the story clearly suggests that he was shot by a farmer.
I find this story complicated and I believe each new reading will reveal more meanings and subtleties. By reading on Caroline Adderson, I discovered that she writes about various historical periods and in the voice of various characters; she is not actually of Eastern European origin herself. This story is well-crafted and I believe she must have done some careful research for it. I think that knowing more about the context, but also about Eastern European customs would be enlightening. However, the story can still be appreciated without prior knowledge.