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For its summer issue, The Walrus asked five Canadian writers to write a short story or poem according to the guidelines provided by the other writers.  Three of them are short stories…  It is interesting to see how each writer has dealt with the guidelines s/he received.

Kathleen Winter‘s story, “Madame Poirier’s Dog”, is written according to the guidelines of Alexi Zentner.  The first-person narrator of this story lives in a nursing home and explains why she always waits with so much anticipation for the visits of her youngest son, Armand.  Whereas her other sons are kind of business-like with her, Armand chats with her.  Together they remember the past and laugh.  This is her secret pleasure, which makes her tolerate her old age.

Last week, they were talking about Madame Poirier, a neighbour from years ago who will soon be moving in the same nursing home.  In particular, they discussed her precious dog, Dentelle.  Despite wearing a chastity belt for dogs, Dentelle was twice impregnated by the narrator’s dog and died from her second abortion.  Winter actually uses the prompt that a character has “to state that he or she finds people who treat dogs like children sort of creepy” at the heart of her story.  This story, which is about growing old reminded me of Binnie Brennan’s novella, Harbour View, which I reviewed a while ago.  It is a touching story, about how to cope when you get old, and is filled with memories and positivity.

Winter also makes a brilliant portrait of the characters, especially Madame Poirier and Armand’s wife, without describing them physically (another guideline).  The characters are not described as such, but evoked through their actions and what they say; however, Winter creates a vivid picture of these people, whom we might have ourselves encountered in our lives.

Another prompt is “evoke warmth without mentioning the sun,” but I let you discover how she does that…

Sarah Selecky‘s story, “The Cat”, is written according to the guidelines of Kathleen Winter.  The topic of this story might seem awkward as it is about the reincarnation of the narrator’s father into a cat.  One of her guideline was “The story should have at least one paragraph that contains something the author personally finds subversive and hilarious.”  Selecky explains on her website that this prompt gave her a liberation and “permission to write something ridiculous, inappropriate, terrible, or otherwise WRONG.”  This is a story that will really speak to cat lovers, but I must admit there is something disturbing in imagining that the cat is actually the narrator’s father.

Talking about her cat makes her remember her father when he was still alive.  She shares childhood memories (another guideline for her story) about going fishing with him when she was young or that time when he brought back live snails for dinner. 

I also liked her wink at Winter when she mentions that the cat spilled a glass of water on her copy of Annabel.

Alexi Zentner‘s story, “The Rules of Engagement”, is written according to the guidelines of Sarah Selecky.  Zentner begins his story as prescribed in a sunny location where three women are flirting with three locals, one of then being nicknamed “Fork” (another prompt) because of his pronunciation of the word “fuck”.  The women meet up the following morning and discuss their night, which is the occasion for the omniscient narrator to tell us a bit more about them and their affective lives. 

This might not be my favourite of the three stories, but I think that Zentner manages the guidelines very subtlely.  I actually really like the way these women are represented through their actions and the dialogue.  Although the narrator provides us with more information, very little is actually said about these characters; yet, we are able to get a clear idea of who they are. 

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

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When I decided to do this Canadian tour through short stories, I was stuck for a few provinces / territories, but John at The Book Mine Set came to the rescue.  For the Northwest Territories, he suggested “Show my Yours” by native writer Richard Van Camp, which you can actually find online (you can also read John’s review here).

At the heart of this story is a call for peace amongst people despite their differences.  The narrator explains how by wearing a leather necklace with a picture of himself as a baby he escaped bullying.  Following the incident, his aggressors began wearing a similar necklace with their own baby picture and shook hand with him.  Everybody then started following this trend.  The baby pictures become peace symbols reminding us of our innocence when we were born.

“Whites, Natives, Inuit — oh we all laughed together when we saw each other and there are just so many beautiful babies inside us all.”

The story is framed by an episode in which the narrator and Shawna look at the Northern Lights.  Shawna mentions that customs regarding Northern Lights are different in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, thus again emphasising that we are all the same even though we have different beliefs.  We are still all humans in front of this mystery that is nature, no matter how we interpret it.

There is also an elusive love story between the narrator and Shawna packed in this very short story.  They seem to have been in love for a long time, but have always been separated either by other relationships or by location; however, their relationship seems to be strong and lasting and transcends their separation.  It reinforces this feeling of love amongst people.

The story is thus at once universal in its emphasis on our common humanity and equality in the face of nature, while at the same time retaining some strong native characteristics.  The prose is quite poetic and I liked the evocation of the northern lights.  It is a peaceful story which screams for happiness.  However, a shadow still hangs in the possibility that Shawna might leave again. Yet, I believe that this possibility highlights the strong bond between the two characters even in the face of spatial separation, thus stressing once more the fact that no matter where we are on earth we are all part of the same human community.

Canada Day being next friday, I have decided to post more Canadian short story reviews during the week in order to celebrate and to finish my tour.

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

It was not easy to find a story from Nunavut.  I soon gave up in trying to find a short story proper and decided to try to find some legend or myth instead.  Even then, it was difficult.  The tales and myths are often associated with the people rather than the territory itself.  At first, I found a collection called Tales from Nunavut, Stories from Nunavunga by Jacques L. Condor.  It seemed perfect; however, when I looked closer, I realised that Condor wrote these stories after spending time with the people of the west coast of Alaska, which is a bit far away from Nunavut itself.  You can also find Inuit tales from Greenland and Labrador.  I must admit that I got a bit confused as I do not now the culture well enough to make the distinctions.  Finally, I managed to find a website offering tales, legends and myths from the Inuits of Nunavut (it might overlap a bit with the Northwest Terrritories, but the two were only officially separated in 1999).

Inuit Art Zone website has a page dedicated to Inuit legends.  The page actually presents myths of origin/creation.  The first myth on the page is the “Legend of Sedna”, which explains how the white men and the Indians were created, but also the sea mammals.  Sedna, the daughter of a hunter rejected the suitor offered by her father.  Feeling dishonoured, the father told her to marry the family dog.  She was impregnated and, in anger, the father sent her to a remote island where she gave birth to dog-children and human-children.  The dog-children became the ancestors of the white men, while the human-children became the ancestors of the Indians. 

Eventually, the daughter was rescued by a trickster figure: the fulmar who appeared to her under the form of a handsome sailor, ut later transformed into a bird.  One day, the father came to rescue his daughter, but as they were escaping on the sea, the fulmar caught up with them.  To save himself, the father threw his daughter overboard, but as she was clinging to the boat, he cut her fingers one by one, each becoming a different sea mammal.

Finally, the daughter sank at the bottom of the sea where she was later joined by her husband, Dog, and she became a goddess.  Sedna is thus the one who rules the sea, but also decides to release the sea animals so that the Inuits will not starve.

I read a few of the other stories on the page, and what struck me most is the fact that animals and humans are treated as equals.  Also noticeable is the presence of shape-shifters.  I particularly liked the “Origin of the Raven”.  Two birds decided to paint themselves to become more beautiful, but as one would not hold still, the other poured black paint all over him and this is how the raven came into existence.

One story also caught my attention on a site that gathers Inuit tales from Greenland: “Imarasugssuaq, who ate his wives”.  This tale is a variant of the Bluebeard tale.  In this story, the husband fattens his wives with salmon before eating them.  As with the Bluebeard tale, the husband marries the sister of his previous wife and she also has many brothers.  While he is away, she manages to go outside and eat some snow, thus slowing down the fattening process.  One day, as she is now able to move, she makes a speaking dummy and hides (as in Grimm’s version, the wife is here represented as clever).  When the husband comes back, the speaking dummy claims she cannot move and the husband stabs her.  The wife escapes and, furious, the husband chases her.  She manages to save herself by transforming into a piece of wood.  The tale ends with a dinner party at the brothers’ place where the husband comes looking for his wife and is mocked and finally killed.

The similarities between this tale and the Bluebeard märchen are unmistakable; even the dinner motif is present.  Yet, this tale retains obvious Inuit characteristics.  I wonder if any research has been made on the topic.  It would be interesting to see the relation between the two.

This is te first time I have read Inuit tales and it reminds me of the time I was introduced to Greek myths.  However, I found these tales more naive in a way.  They are certainly enjoyable and I look forward to reading more.

If you are interested in reading more Inuit tales, you can look at the two websites I have already linked to.  There is also a book of Inuit legends available online or you can order books from a Nunavut publishing company, Inhabit Media.

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

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.

As a third writer representing Ontario, I chose Jane Urquhart, whom I saw reading a few weeks ago.  She was born in 1949 in Ontario, where she still lives.  At the reading, I asked Urquhart to discuss her relationship with the short story.  She explained that she had been writing poetry but that her poems were getting increasingly narrative and she consequently experimented with the short story, although she noted that she never excelled in this genre and was more suited for the novel.  Storm Glass is consequently her only collection of short stories.  It was first published in 1987.

Overall, I find the prose in the three stories I read very poetic.  The stories are more focused on language than on plot.  Although they are agreeable to read, they are, perhaps, less accessible than other stories.  Consequently, they might at first appear as unsatisfying as stories.  However, I think that they evoke successfully the feelings of their characters and create an atmosphere that will stay with the reader.

“The Death of Robert Browning” is the opening story in the collection and imagines what Robert Browning did the day of his death.  We enter the consciousness of Browning and share his dreams and thoughts as he is about to die.  This idea was in fact reused for the frame narrative of her novel The Whirlpool.  I indeed felt that it was more an exercise in style than a short story.  It is pleasant to read, but did not stay with me for any length of time.

“John’s Cottage”, which is the second story in this collection, is my favourite of the three stories I have read so far.  The story is told in the first person by a woman who moves to Northern England in order to escape the affair she has with John, her married lover.  She tells us about her relationship with him and how she is always followed by his shadow.  Ironically, the house in which she moves in is called “John’s cottage”.  We then see how the narrator replaces John’s shadow with another idea: the idea she makes of the other John, who lived in the cottage before.  There is very little difference between the two John despite the fact that one is only based on the stories she has heard rather than on a real relationship.  However, it seems that the second John gives her more satisfaction than the actual John.  Although I found it difficult to get into this story, I ended up enjoying it immensely.  It is quirky enough to appeal to me and I like its atmosphere of weirdness, while still dealing with feelings any of us might have encountered.

“Storm Glass” is the closing story of the collection and, like the first story, is concerned with someone facing death.  The character on whom the story focuses, only referred to as “she”, remembers her past while lying in bed looking at the lake that is part of so many of her memories.  In particular, she recalls that summer when her children were looking for pieces of glass eroded by the water on the shore.  The story contrasts her immobility with the passage of time and subtly evokes her relationship with her husband who has become distant since she has been ill.  This story is in a way painful but evokes the imminence of death beautifully.

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

My second Ontario story is actually not set in Ontario, but in Nova Scotia where Janice Kulyk Keefer, who was born in 1953 and raised in Toronto, resided for a while.

“Transfigurations” takes us on a journey to a hair salon where Angèle works as Régine’s assistant.  On her way to work, Angèle is usually bipped by truck drivers, which draws our attention to the status of women as commodities.  In the hair salon, Angèle is confronted to the same politics: women come there to retain a youthful appearance and become metamorphosed into those models that make the cover of glossy magazines, without much success.  For Angèle, these women are all the same and she knows that they will eventually grow old and meet their death, without recovering their youthful looks.

“Watching the rows of hopelessly hoping faces, Angèle knows in every pliant bone, in every glinting hair of her sweet-skinned, seventeen-year-old body that she will never, ever look like these old women under the dryers – never let herself tell or be told such a story.”

Although the theme of the story interests me, I must admit that the story did not do much for me.  It did not stay with me and I did not feel like I wanted to read it again.  I might not have read it at the right time in the right place…

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

I have arrived in Ontario, where I might spend a few weeks.  The first story for this stay in Ontario had to be by Alice Munro (born in 1931), Canada’s most notorious short story writer.  Munro began writing short stories as many writers do: for practice, but she then realised that she liked the genre and decided that it would become our genre of predilection.

“Walker Brothers Cowboy” was published as part of her first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, in 1968.  It is a childhood story in which the first-person narrator recounts memories of her and her father when he was a peddler during depression. 

The story opens with the narrator going for a walk by the lake with her father.  There, her father tells her a story she is familiar with: how the lake came to be, which leads her to ponder on time and our short existence on the planet in the grand scheme of things:

“He tells me how Great Lakes came to be.  All where Lake Huron is now, he says, used to be flat land, a wide flat plain.  Then came the ice, creeping down from the North, pushing deep into the low places.  . . . And then the ice went back, shrank back towards the North Pole where it came from, and left its fingers of ice in the deep places it had gouged, and ice turned to lakes and there they were today.  They were new, as time went.  I try to see the plain before me, dinosaurs walking on it, but I am not able even to imagine the shore of the lake when the Indians were there, before Tuppertown.  The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquility.”

This excerpt draws attention to one of the themes of the story: time passing and the past.

Then the story gives us some background on the family.  The narrator explains how her father had to give up his fox farm because of the economic situation and become a peddler for the Walker Brothers, selling an eclectic range of products.  The story contrasts her mother’s attitude to their new situation with that of her father, who used to bring her for walks by the lake and on his rounds as a Walker peddler.

It is during one of these afternoons going from door to door that he brings her and her brother to visit Nora Cronin and her blind and aging mother.  We never really learn who Nora is, we just know that she grew up with the narrator’s father and has not seen him for a long time.  The reunion of the two characters seem to make them equally happy and bring back stories and images of their youth.  In her presence, the narrator discovers things she did not know about her father.  However, the interlude has to end and the father must go back to his present life:

“On the way home my father does not buy any ice cream or pop, but does go into a country store and get a package of licorice, which he shares with us.  She digs with the wrong foot, I think, and the words seem sad to me as never before, dark, perverse.  My father does not say anything to me about not mentioning things at home, but I know, just from the thoughtfulness, the pause when he passes the licorice, that there are things not to be mentioned.  The whisky, maybe the dancing.”

This story is successful at evoking a time passed without burdening us with long descriptions.  One can picture this rural Ontario of the depression Munro is alluding to.  Munro leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination, but gives us enough details to reconstruct this place where she grew up and its atmosphere.  I found this story profoundly touching and tender, especially because of the complicity between the narrator and her father.  It is a simple story dealing with life and how people get on in difficult situations and try to make the best of what they have.

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

There are so many more authors from Quebec I would like to read, but there will be more time for that at a later stage.  However, I could not leave Quebec without reading one of Clark Blaise’s Montreal Stories, which I bought in Canada last June.  Although Clark Blaise was born in North Dakota and raised in Pittsburgh, he spent thirteenth years, from 1966 to 1978, living in Montreal.  Montreal is thus a place he knows well and the story “North” reflects this.

“North” is a story of belonging, identity and culture.  The story’s narrator is thirteen and has just moved with his parents from Pittsburgh to Montreal where they are living with his uncle’s family.  Although Phil had always believed that he was born in Cincinnati and that is name was Porter, he dicovers that he was in fact born in Montreal and that his name is actually Carrier.  In Phil’s origins, we can feel the tension present in Quebec: Phil’s father is a French Québecois, while is mother comes from the West Coast.  This duality presents problems as Phil is beginning his Montreal education.

As soon as the story begins we can feel this tension expressed in the use of the French and English language.  Belonging is an important matter, even for school kids: you are either part of the French-speaking community or the English-speaking one.  Surnames also tell a lot about you and Carrier is a good Canadian name as Thérèse tells Phil.  However, Blaise is also ironical about this and seems to point to the fact a name is just that and not an essential representation of identity.  Indeed, names can be changed as Phil’s own experience reveals.  This irony is even more present in the remarks made by Phil’s tutor, Thérèse Aulérie:

Mon vrai nom.  Commences avec ‘o’, like this, eh? . . . C’est le vrai francais, mon nom, de la France, pas d’ici.’

. . .

‘O’Leary,’ she corrected.  ‘Ca c’est le nom de mon grandpère.”

At thirteen, Phil is torn between integrating a new culture and the culture represented by his mother who feels like a stranger in this French Québécois family.

I found this story interesting to read as it gives a clear perspective on the duality of Québec.  The sense of bi-culturalism and the tensions resulting from it are really palpable. 

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

This week I arrived in Quebec and read a short story by Mavis Gallant.  I would like to read some French Quebec short stories also, but the only ones I have at home are in English translation and I’d rather read them in the original language.

“Scarves, Beads, Sandals” is probably not the best choice to represent Quebec as it is set in Paris.  Although she was born in Montreal, in 1922, Mavis Gallant has been living in France since the 50s.  She is thus one of those expatriate Canadians who have made their name abroad, yet is an important reprentative of Canadian literature.

“Scarves, Beads, Sandals” is a difficult story to read and I believe a few more readings would be necessary to really grasp it.  The story focuses on three characters: Mathilde, her first husband, Theo, and her present husband, Alain.  The focalisation of the narrative alternates between each of the character very subtly and a short passage is even narrated in the first person.

Under its simplicity of plot, this story presents many complexities in its writing style and brings us to share the thoughts of its protagonists, Mathilde in particular.  Although she is now married to Alain, she still looks after her first husband Theo, a bohemian artist whose previous partners Mathilde attempted to imitate unsuccessfully in the past.  The unifying element of the narrative is the painting Theo offered to Mathilde and Alain for their wedding.  Through discussion of the painting we get a glimpse at Theo’s unconventional artistic life, which stands in stark contrast to the stability Alain seems to have brought in Mathilde’s life.  However, it is difficult to figure out how Mathilde feels about these two men and what they represent.  The narrative moves from past memories to present moments and we are left to reconstitute what we can from these exerpts of lives.

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

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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