Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review of Alix Hawley's All True Not A Lie In It (and woohoo! ... the novel's shortlisted for the Giller!)

All True Not a Lie in It

Written by Alix Hawley

Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$29.95  ISBN 978-0-345-80855-4





     Being of the slightly suspicious sort, I will refrain from making predictions about chief juries’ receptions of All True Not A Lie In It, and simply state that if the acutely-etched portrait Alix Hawley paints of American pioneer Daniel Boone even faintly resembles the real man, a stronger spirit has rarely roamed this earth.

     Here is quintessential Boone: “I thin down to sinew, I feel strung like a bow … I fashion myself a real bow and some arrows with saplings and gut … I shoot a wildcat with it just as it considers tensing to spring at me … It falls, shot clean. Killing it so, without touching it or hurting it, is a beauty to me, there is no other like it. I love that bow sending its quick arrow to the heart just as if it is stopping time.” The unlikely combination of fierce wanderlust and waxing poetic squarely hits the mark.

     In her foreword to this ambitious and mesmerizing first novel, Hawley writes that she knew little of this “slippery character, a peculiar mix of famous and forgotten” before she began scoring his tale. To that I say this: holy research, and readers: Take Notice Now. The frighteningly talented Kelowna writer (and Okanagan College professor) seized this reader like a rider on a fly-past horse; it is indeed difficult to reconcile that Hawley herself has only graced this earth since 1975.

      “Your sister is a whore,” the fictional story begins. These five words set both the book’s elegiac tone and introduce us to one of Boone’s three families—his childhood, Quaker family; his own wife and progeny; and the Shawnee family he is adopted into. All figure prominently. Central to Boone’s character is the early death of his elder brother, Israel. “Dan” drags a litany of dead with him, as if on a leash. He is similarly haunted by familial misdeeds (his grandfather built the Quaker Meeting House in Exeter, Pennsylvania “as a penance” for his “whoring” in England before arriving in America), and by the wild reputation that precedes him (his “woodman’s prowess” and “nobility of character” are propelled by Will, who tails him from childhood on and widely publishes accounts of Boone’s life), but Boone’s greatest ghost is his burning lust for settling paradisiacal Kentucky. Folks, there’s a lot going on.

     Hawley writes in First Person: “I watch for anything to shoot. Anything. I watch for signs, for tracks, for moving shadows, for twitches in the trees and grass”. From his earliest days, the larger-than-life protagonist possesses a hyper-aware ability to “follow the animals’ thoughts”. His own poetic and philosophical thoughts are often revealed in short bursts, which serve to emulate the bursting dramas that define his legendary life.

      Perhaps the author’s greatest talent lies in her cinematic ability to manipulate the focus and pacing. She handily moves between the everyday (ie: young Boone “suck[s] in the kitchen-garden smell of onions and graves” at his grandfather’s stone house) and between Boone’s rich interior life, and between the landscapes and brutal battles he experiences as he restlessly crisscrosses the early map of America. There is no peace for this man: he was fired up early on by Israel’s admonition to do as he likes. Our hero feels “Forting up is rotten,” and he “hate[s] wagoning down to the pit of [his] gut,” thus he repeatedly takes off in various configurations: alone, with his adventurous counterparts, or dragging his family and fellow pioneers along behind him in their “clanking parade” of carts, livestock, and “children always falling out of their baskets”.   

     The detailing is spectacular: “Under the splintery red face on the sign for The Indian Queen tavern, a man pukes neatly and then deposits a backgammon piece in the puddle.” Hawley’s not one to avert a graphic scene. There is a scalping “How To,” and she writes of Boone and company’s hazing-like torture—which includes running a gauntlet, being dunked in icy river water, and having fistfuls of hair wrenched from their skulls by Shawnee women—with such credibility one veritably experiences the pain.

     Although Boone’s cleverly portrayed in all of his man’s-manliness, Hawley equally reveals his flipside. The portrayals of this complex man as beguiled suitor (especially the slow-motion scene of Boone’s future wife sitting in a tree picking cherries) and loving father (particularly when he cuddles with his “far too old for this” son before a campfire) are well worth owning the book for.    

     Daniel Boone, as both history and Hawley attest, possessed an innate aptitude for not getting killed … by the Shawnee, Iroquois and Cherokee, by British and French soldiers, by cold, starvation, wild animals, and by his own omnipresent grief. “I am an empty house where sounds echo and have nothing to catch upon,” he confesses, after being separated from his true family for far too long. They have become “like a set of knives stuck in me and pulled out again, leaving holes.”

     Here is a prediction I do feel safe in making: All True Not A Lie In It will make an indelible mark.      


Shelley A. Leedahl is a multi-genre writer in Ladysmith, BC. Her latest book is the essay collection I Wasn’t Always Like This (Signature Editions, Winnipeg).

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Four New Book Reviews: Butala, Besel, Haensel and Stehwien

“Wild Rose”

Written by Sharon Butala

Published by Coteau Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$21.95 ISBN 9-781550-506365

     After completing Sharon Butala’s epic new novel Wild Rose, I closed the book and thought: This is why she’s on CanLit’s “A” list. If you’re in the mood for getting completely swept up in a female pioneer’s adventure–and this means fully empathizing with the young Québécois idealist, Sophie, as she sets out in 1884 for the West and the freedom it signifies–then buckle up, because Butala assuredly leads readers back in time to a landscape where “the sun [pours] itself over everything: horses, the hats of the men, the few women’s entangling skirts, the children’s round eager faces, the …already weathered false-fronted buildings, piles of all kinds of goods on the ground from walking plows to stained sacks … to the teams of horses, the train itself …”.

     Butala has a masterly way with landscape, making it, too, feel like a character you enjoy spending time with. Given her many years of living on the Prairies-plus the fine craft she’s already demonstrated with sixteen highly-revered titles, including GG-nominated fiction and nonfiction-she comes by this gift honestly. This is a writer who’s experienced “a yellow wildflower quivering under the weight of a bee” and looked out to see “only grass and more grass, hills and more low, softly sloping hills repeating themselves until they reached the far, light-filled, wavering horizon.” I assume there were winters when she, like her realistic protagonist, felt that people “were nothing out here in the West … barely human beings here, just helpless animals in thrall to the unimaginable, implacable force that nature was showing itself to be.”

     Yes, the three big players in effective fiction - character, plot and setting – each get full marks in this cinematic book, set in “tiny, unprosperous Bone Pile,” but it’s Sophie’s rich interior life – the questioning of her Roman Catholic faith, her family, and what it is to be a woman; the reckoning with her unimagined challenges (including the shame of having her husband leave her, penniless and with a child); and the self-actualization she achieves in the story’s conclusion–that elevate this novel and should have it earning awards.   


     Butala’s capture of how an immigrant might feel upon arriving in a new land and culture – without language skills – seems both topical and, again, experienced. Sophie has the added challenge of coming from a privileged family–she was raised with a cook and housekeeper in the home–and thus has much to prove on the unforgiving prairie homestead, desperately breaking clumps of soil and carrying pails of water a mile so she might grow vegetables; and later, devising how she’ll provide for herself and her son after her husband abandons them.


    The distinct chapters, reeled out between past and present, offer clues to how forward-thinking Sophie came to make the choices she did, and the last paragraph is so fittingly wrought I cannot imagine it any other way.

     Wild Rose is a fully-realized and gloriously wild ride of a novel. It is a triumph, in every way.  




“Lessons from a Nude Man”
Written by Donna Besel
Published by Hagios Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$18.95 ISBN 9-781926-710303

     “I hadn’t seen a penis in ten years.” So begins the first and title story in Donna Besel’s diverse collection, deliciously titled Lessons from a Nude Man. The Manitoba author, who previously published many stories in the respected literary journal Prairie Fire, identifies as a “boreal writer,” and indeed several stories make reference to activities and items only those who’ve experienced boreal \ northern climes might be familiar with, ie: the danger of hitting moose on the highway, or slipping into Sorrel boots when the temperature drops into danger zones. My hometown is Meadow Lake, SK; I can relate, but I also recommend this book to anyone who enjoys well-written and entertaining stories, regardless of where they call home.
     The crown jewel (pardon the pun) here is the title story. It had me laughing aloud, and I can imagine this tale being a huge crowd-pleaser at public readings. A 50-something woman supplements her widow’s pension by operating a B and B from her rural home, and in her online listing she’s included that she welcomes “alternatives.” She had “intended to solicit gays, artists, organic food-eaters, pagans,” and what she got was Roland, from Yorkton, who wants to inspect the property for a prospective week-long stay with his “group”. A few minutes after he arrives he says: “Can I take off my pants? So you can get a sense of it …” He then “shucked off his jeans and launched into an explanation of naturist philosophy.”
     The hilarity in this story-and others in the book, including “Hawksley Workman and the Worst Motel in Canada,” seems entirely natural, not forced. One would think that comedy is Besel’s oeuvre, but she’s equally adept at revealing life’s darker side. Stories concerning physical and sexual abuse in the nine-story collection are juxtaposed against stories about teaching Hutterite children, and a woman’s summer spent as a carpenter’s helper: “I remember the smell of marijuana, the echoing rumble of dynamite, the heavy Mennonite lunches, and the long hours we spent pounding on unyielding cement.”
     In “Fare Well,” where we find an abused woman crying in bed, her face buried in the sheets, the author writes: “Her head bobbed into the thin material-silent, but violent movements, like a swimmer breast-stroking into the waves.” This is strong writing. In the same story the protagonist is “booted face-down into half-frozen compost. By a stupid deer.”
     The first-time author takes readers on various road trips, and her evocations of a changing world are bang on. A character states how at one time Ontario resorts “might have catered to weekend anglers and families who liked dinky cabins or trailer villages. But these tourists had disappeared. The new ones wanted hot tubs, hot showers, hot bars, water slides and zip lines.” True thing.  
     This work is fresh and exciting, and I can’t wait to read the “Motel Hell” (my words) story to a friend; Besel’s account of a family staying in the “Worst Motel in Canada” are alone worth buying this book for.          

“The Other Place”

Written by Regine Haensel

Published by Serimuse Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$12.00 ISBN 978-603-8919-58-3

     Regine Haensel’s first collection of stories, The Other Place, is so easy to read, one need only invest a few hours, yet the compelling linked stories and their credible protagonist – Greta, a young German immigrant – remain with the reader in the way one can still feel the warmth after a good friend has been to visit.

     Firstly, the book is physically enjoyable to read. The double-spaced lines are literally easy to see, and the paper used is noticeably whiter than in most books, so the black print stands out. This is rare and especially welcome. The attractive cover features multi-coloured circles (slightly reminiscent of a Spirograph design) against a lime green background, and offers no clue – not a bad thing! – as to what’s inside: nine stories about introspective Greta’s often difficult assimilation into a small prairie community. In her words, she “Wanted to get good at forgetting sad things.” 

     I believe Saskatoon-based Haensel has drawn deeply from her own personal experience, as a quick internet search reveals that she was born in Germany and moved to Canada in the 1950’s. Her work’s been recognized with several Saskatchewan literary awards, magazine and anthology publications, and CBC broadcasts: in short, she writes exceedingly well. Indeed, it would seem that as a child the author was taking notes on her experience, for these stories deliver images and events so convincingly they ring of memory.

     In this excerpt from “Goldenrod,” eight-year-old Greta is discovering her new rural landscape: “Land rushed away to meet sky, blue and dusty green undulating together in the distance, surging back, wind whipping my dress, then gone. Stillness like listening, like waiting.” This smacks of poetry, and may seem beyond the “voice” of a child, but in Greta’s case I believe it; the author has done such a fine job of characterization, I’m assured that the observant and mature-for-her-age main character would respond to the land in this way.

     The stories, all told in First Person, shed light on cultural challenges, ie: Greta’s shame about her long, braided hair (her female classmates sport short styles); her clothing (“dirndl skirts and aprons”; the other girls wear pants); and even the torte her mother makes, which is so unlike the apple pie her friend Susie’s mother serves. Greta emulates her classmates: “I practiced Susie’s laugh and the way Janet tossed her head.” So realistic.

     Greta’s father is the hired man for Mr. Bradley, and the immigrant family is at the mercy of the Bradleys for everything from accommodation to fresh chicken and Greta’s ride to school. The girl dreams of having her own room, and short hair. Some wishes materialize: in this passage Greta considers her shorn braid, which her mother’s stored in a dresser: “Sometimes I would take it out and look at it by myself, this piece of hair that had once been a part of me. How strange, I thought, it doesn’t look like it belongs to anyone or anything now.”            

     Lovely writing, fresh insights. A book very much-enjoyed.      



“Fritz Stehwien: A Retrospective”

Written by Barbara Stehwien

Published by Landscape Art Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$9.95 ISBN 9-780991-964918

      The softcover book Fritz Stehwien: A Retrospective, originally published in 1993 and later released with an updated biography, was a family affair. The book-not unlike a gallery catalogue produced to accompany a major artist’s show-is prefaced by introductions to the German-born artist’s life and work by daughter Barbara Stehwien and daughter-in-law Nancy Robinson-Stehwien. What follows is 20 attractive pages of black and white and colour images of the prolific artist’s work, including landscapes, portraits, and still-lifes.

    First, the man. In the introductions we learn that Stehwien was the quintessential artist, always ready to capture the spirit of what was around him, and as such he lived a full and interesting life. “I have not known him to go anywhere without his materials,” his daughter writes, adding that if he didn’t have everything that was required, he would “improvise using the back of painted or printed matter, even restaurant napkins.” She says he would use “any old pen rather than lose an important moment.”

     The use of “moment” here lends a clue to the value the subject of this book saw in those brief snatches of time, when perhaps the sun was only momentarily striking the leaves of a tree and making them golden, or brightening a distant field in a prairie scene, like he illustrated in his painting “Old Farmyard, 1984”.    

       The author speaks of her father’s vocation as “an inherent part” of him. “Even at family get-togethers he will not rest.” This passion is reiterated by his daughter-in-law, Nancy, who writes of the artist’s “zest for life,” the “unerring perspective evident in his rendering of buildings and cityscapes,” and “his ability to see the subject of a painting in something most of us would pass by without a second glance.”

      Now, the work. Through his spontaneous charcoal and pastel sketches;

his oil portraits; his pencil, pen, and ink drawings; woodcuts; and his acrylics-indeed it seems he covered all the media-I agree with his daughter that her father was a “versatile” and highly-skilled artist. Apparently the “powers that be” at Saskatoon City Hall believe the same, as Stehwien’s name has been added to the list of those who will one day have a city park named after them.

     I was particularly moved by the book’s front and back cover images. On the front, “Autumn at the Lake,” an atmospheric acrylic painted in 1989; and on the back, a Saskatoon winter scene, revealing children playing on a riverside hill, the Bessborough Hotel rising proudly in the background. Lovely. I also much enjoyed his precise pen and ink renderings in “Russian Peasants” (1942), “Warsaw” (1944), and my favourite (perhaps because I know the subject so well), “White Pelicans in Saskatoon” (1993). The latter made me homesick.

     The book concludes with an impressive biography. Clearly Stehwien was as generous as he was gifted: in his final year, 2008, several paintings were donated to organizations, including the Saskatoon Symphony, Open Door Society, Boys & Girl Club in Saskatoon, and to St. Paul’s Hospital Foundation.