Sunday, December 13, 2015

Four Book Reviews: Loewen, Bonny, Hart, Gereaux

“Sons and Mothers: Stories from Mennonite Men”
Edited by Mary Ann Loewen
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$21.95  ISBN 9-780889-774032

I’m a fourth generation Canadian, and unfortunately haven’t been privy to conversations about ancestors’ “old country” lives, which, in my case, would have included several European counties. I’ve always felt a kind of longing for such tales, for knowing where we come from helps make sense of who we are today. After reading Sons and Mothers, Stories from Mennonite Men - a collection of a dozen essays commissioned by Winnipeg writer and educator Mary Ann Loewen - I recognize that the disparate contributors’ common heritage bonds them in an almost familial way. Yes, these Mennonite men have shared so many similar experiences they’re like one large family: a family that sings, reads, tells stories, and worships together; values hard work; practices altruism; and celebrates one other - even when individual beliefs don’t align.

Two of the most obvious threads in this affecting anthology are the prominent role that music’s played – for the mothers and for their sons – and how several offspring strayed from the church’s traditional doctrines. What distinguishes the essays are the ways in which they are told, plus specific anecdotes that give us a real sense of who these devout women were\are.

Certain essays possess an academic tone, while others are more conversational. Two writers chose poetry to express their thoughts. Humour and light-heartedness permeate some of the mother-son relationships (writer Patrick Friesen refers to his mother’s “trickster” character, and even the title of his essay – “I Give a Rip” – is funny, as it’s what his 87-year-old mother sarcastically uttered while she and her son were discussing her move into a “home”).

Byron Rempel’s mother was image-obsessed; he recalls a photo of himself in a sailor’s outfit, the cap “tipped at a jaunty, seafaring angle.” He must’ve been “on shore leave.” Lloyd Ratzlaff’s essay about his mother’s decline is particularly eloquent and heartfelt. He doesn’t sugarcoat the toll it takes on those being left: “We all need palliation,” he writes.

There’s also remorse. Regarding his vibrant, storytelling mother, Paul Tiessen regrets being “too dull, too inexperienced, too seduced by the attractions of the immediate present to be interested in what she had to offer”. When he abandoned his notion of heaven and hell, Nathan Klippenstein also felt he was “not only abandoning the religion of [his] youth, but that [he] was also abandoning [his] mother”. 
Song is everywhere – choirs, family harmonies, even mother’s singing goodbyes – and gratitude’s paramount. Lukas Thiessen shares that his mother was the kind who “loves you even when you’re an aggravating, drugged-up sex fiend vagabond atheist raising a son born out of wedlock.” 

It’s difficult to write honestly about one’s mother. Howard Dyck says: “To analyze such a relationship is to venture into treacherous shoals.” Kudos to Loewen for pulling these essays together, and for choosing exactly the right end-note in Patrick Friesen’s resonant lines: “Mother says sometimes that she is shocked when she hears how old she is. As far as she knows she was ten or eleven just yesterday. And she was.”


“Yes, and Back Again”
by Sandy Marie Bonny
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-052-8

I didn’t know Yes, and Back Again was going to be that kind of book. I picked it up in the evening, intending to read only the first ten pages or so, then planned to devote the following day to it. Well, I finally put it down on page 110, and only because it was hours past my bedtime. This novel swept me up like the roaring South Saskatchewan River snatches debris off banks in the springtime.  

Saskatoon writer, artist, and educator, Sandy Marie Bonny, has crafted an ambitious story that melds history and the present, addresses cultures
(specifically the Métis), and makes friends of wildly disparate people. There’s also a strong Tim Horton’s presence, text messaging, online police bulletins, and Facebook: talk about keeping it real

Bonny unrolls two parallel stories: one concerns a young high school math and Life Skills teacher, Neil, and his writer\researcher wife, Tanis. They’re tired but excited. They’ve just purchased an old home on Saskatoon’s west side (Avenue L), and their daily life includes making the former rental house livable (ie: removing the wheelchair ramp, “odour-busting” the basement with a product called “Piss-off Pet Stain Remover,” using a borrowed Shop-Vac to suck up mouse droppings), and meeting the neighbours in the apartment building next door.

The other story centers on the Métis family who built and first lived in the character house. This story, presented in italics between the present-day chapters, includes a dangerous river crossing in a single-axel cart; premature deaths (TB, scarlet fever, Spanish flu); trapping; and a mysterious, blood-like stain in the attic.      

The contemporary story heats up when two students – friends Melissa Arthur and Jody Bear – go missing from the high school (which might be modelled upon Bedford Road Collegiate, if I’ve guessed the geography correctly). Both are Neil’s students, and he takes some major and unconventional risks in helping to locate them. Were they abducted? Are they runaways? Is it all a hoax? While Neil’s busy being both suspected by and working with police, Tanis dives head-long into a research project and a relationship with a descendant from the home’s original family.

This could all become quite convoluted, but Bonny’s got it under control. She keeps the plot moving forward, the pacing tight, and it doesn’t hurt at all that she has both a keen ear for teenaged diction and understands the dynamics of married life. Plus, she includes several west side “landmarks” that ground this story, ie: the Farmers’ Market, the skate park by the river, the highway Esso. This compelling novel works so well because it pits mundane every-day-ness against a very real and topical danger (“Six in ten years is a lot of murdered women [mostly First Nations] for a city their size”).

Deep into the book there’s an interesting husband\wife discussion concerning
teenaged boys and where the line’s drawn between respect for \ objectification of women. Although not specifically billed as YA, this well-written novel would make a smart addition to high school reading lists.


“Queen of the Godforsaken”
by Mix Hart
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-063-4
I took a plethora of notes while reading Mix Hart’s SK-based young adult novel, Queen of the Godforsaken, because there’s a lot going on across the 293 pages it encompasses. The fictional driver of this story, Lydia, is a veritable storm-cloud of teenage hormones – part girl who still plays with Barbies, part woman who feels responsible for her entire family’s welfare – and she might do or say just about anything.  

Feisty Lydia; her year-younger and equally sarcastic sister, Victoria (Lydia alternately considers Victoria her best and only friend and also gives her the moniker “Prissy Tits”); their pot-smoking and under-employed professor father; and their dangerously-depressed mother move from Vancouver to the paternal homestead on the Carlton Trail near Batoche, and the adjustment’s hard on everyone.

First, there’s the weather. Hart ably details the brutal prairie winters, where eyelids have to be pried apart, snowstorms make prisons of homes, and even the family dog tries to avoid being outdoors. The physical cold parallels Lydia’s temperament as she navigates trials at home and school in nearby “Hicksville”. Lydia, the “ice queen,” warms to few people. Case in point: both she and Victoria refer to their parents by their first names, and teachers – when the girls do go to school - are ridiculed.  

The cold and imprisonment are prominent themes. Lydia’s father keeps the house at ridiculously low temperatures, and the characters are constantly trying to warm via toques, dressing in layers, and building wood fires in the basement furnace, where six mummified woodpeckers explain the home’s “smell of death”. Through Lydia’s lens we see “urine-coloured walls,” and easily imagine the lingering smell in her bedroom - formerly used as a chicken coop.

Lydia feels school “is a prison encased in barbed wire”. The sky is “prison grey”. Back-to-school shopping is done at Saskatoon’s Army and Navy – an iconic store, now closed - where the girls select their “prison uniforms”. A smoke ring “hovers, like a noose,” over her father’s head.
The sisters are both outsiders and originals: they collect bottled shrew and mouse skeletons, Victoria veritably lives in an old pink housecoat, and the pair often hide out in their frigid home’s unfinished basement. But despite herself, Lydia also starts to appreciate things about the prairie: she learns that the first coyote yip “means it’s almost eleven,” and her iciness begins to melt when she connects with a local hockey player. Love, however, also proves another storm front: “If this is love, I hate it,” she says.  

There’s plenty of humour here to help balance the tone, ie: when Lydia’s nominated as a school Snow Queen finalist, she says “… it is sort of flattering, I guess – like winning best pig at the country fair.”

The novel and its mercurial central character are best summed up by Lydia herself. “No one could possibly understand what I am going through,” she thinks. Any teenager who has felt the same – and show me one who hasn’t! - might be well served by reading this.


“Size of a Fist”
by Tara Gereaux
Published by Thistledown Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.95  ISBN 978-1-77187-059-7
I recognized the anonymous town in first-time author Tara Gereaux’s teen novella, Size of a Fist. The mill’s closed, there are “many boarded-up shops,” and abandoned homes. I know this town because I was raised in a number of small towns that echo it and I’m familiar with many more, and because I could relate not only to the physical aspects of the town’s decline, but also to the disreputable activities of the youth who inhabit it - including Addy, the protagonist of this New Leaf Editions’ book – and the tangible desire to get away.

Drinking, drugs, driving while impaired, “colourful” language, bullying, adolescent sex, and generations of familial dysfunction: this is no Disney story, but Gereaux does shed light on the underbelly of small-town life that some might argue is the norm, rather than the exception. There’s value in holding up that mirror: it presents a truth. The Regina writer portrays a community where the only chance of upward mobility is to be outward bound.

This book is more documentary than commentary, and I like that, too: there’s no sense of authorial judgement here, and if after a near fatality Addy utters “Everything is always so hard,” her life is proof that she’s earned that pronouncement.    

The night before Addy and her boyfriend, Craig, are about to “escape” for “the city,” they go on a final bender with friends. There’s much alcohol, and roughhousing, and because Craig’s inebriated, Addy has to drive. Imagine seven people squashed into a vehicle. Imagine a party in a cemetery (same place Addy’s mother used to party). Imagine one couple partying with a baby in tow.

It’s the reality of the scenes that struck the strongest chord with me, ie: Craig, anxious to exit, tells Addy: “Look, the tank’s full, I downloaded tons of music. I called my cousin this morning, too, and he said they just got a fridge and stove for the basement. For us.’”

There’s a heartbreaking image concerning Jonas – a bullied boy who lives with his abusive and alcoholic father. The boy’s mother is dead, and at one point he smooths her long dress on the floor, “crawls on top of it,” and curls into a fetal position. Jonas plays a major role in the novella, and I encourage you to read it to learn how the plot surprisingly twists.  

Addy’s mother is another mean character: she says things like “Get outta my face,” drinks too much, and is having an affair with the local RCMP officer. It’s abundantly clear that Addy never really had a chance.

It’s a sorrow that this is real life for some people. Like those I know who refuse to watch the news (because it’s “depressing”), some folks would scan the back cover text and put Size of a Fist back on the shelf. Then there’s the rest of us, who prefer not to go through life wearing blinders. If you’re in the latter camp, good on you: you’ll appreciate what Gereaux has accomplished here.