Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Three New Reviews: Sally Meadows, Rachel Wyatt, Deana J. Driver

“The Two Trees”

Written by Sally Meadows, Illustrated by Trudi Olfert

Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$14.95 ISBN 978-1-927756-43-0


     I love receiving new books to review, but sometimes I can’t get to them immediately. Before I had a chance to dive into The Two Trees, a children’s book by Saskatoon writer\illustrator team Sally Meadows and Trudi Olfert, myvisiting friend, Flo, picked the book off my kitchen counter and read it.

     “What did you think?” I asked.

     “Loved it,” Flo said. “It brought tears to my eyes.”

     Any children’s story that can move an adult to tears is one I don’t want to wait another moment to read. I took the softcover book to my deck and in the few minutes it took to engage with the sensitively-written and pastel-illustrated story – about the relationship between two brothers, and the younger’s difficulty with the elder’s inability to socially interact “normally” both at home and school – I too, experienced the proverbial lump-in-throat that signifies an emotional connection’s been made.

     “Wow,” I said, “what a strong metaphor for ‘otherness’”.

     “I know,” Flo said. “And that word at the end, ‘almost’ … that’s what got me.”

     This easy-to-read story begins with the side-by-side planting of two small evergreens by the young narrator, Jaxon. “One was for me. One was for my older brother,” Jaxon says. But brother Syd is nonplussed when asked about the tree, or most anything else. He is much more interested in sharing his gemstones, for example, and he can name them all. Time and again, Syd fails to interact with his family, neighbours and classmates. He is completely absorbed in his own world – a world which includes talking to himself, tearing paper “into tiny bits,” and having temper tantrums - and thus is ostracized by other children. Eventually even Jaxon stops trying to connect, opting instead to play with those who “played back”.

     Syd lives with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder, and kudos to Meadows for bringing this issue to light in a non-syrupy, full-circle story that will appeal to all ages. In her Author’s Note, Meadows - a singer\songwriter, educator and speaker, as well as a writer - explains that her book is “intended to raise awareness about the challenges of having an ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) child … and to be a springboard for important discussions with ASD families, educators, students, and the general public.”

     The book’s an excellent springboard indeed, complete with “Questions for Readers” and a “Recommended Reading List,” and I hope it reaches a broad audience, as it concerns one quality that can actually change societies. I’m talking about compassion, folks.

     This is a story to spread and discuss. And Flo was right about that word, ‘almost’. I encourage you to buy the book, and find out why.           




“Street Symphony”

Written by Rachel Wyatt

Published by Coteau Books

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$18.95 ISBN 9-781550-506181


     Rachel Wyatt’s short story collection, Street Symphony, opens with an epigraph from Emily Dickinson: “Hope’ is the thing with feathers –That perches in the soul-”. The epigraph is wisely chosen; in several of the 17 stories the protagonists are unhappy, and for good reason -  job losses, accidents, partners’ deaths – and thus hope for a brighter tomorrow is what they cling to. These are characters for whom “The universe had tilted.”

     There’s Jason, in the story “Salvage,” who lost his wife in a car accident after they’d had a fight about her desire to get a pet fish. In the aftermath of her death Jason empties much of his furniture into a dumpster, and accidently “bakes” some of his wife’s photographs in the oven with the lasagna. “But he sat on the floor and ate it as a penance, charred paper and all. He knew now that he had to suffer in order for the world to tilt back to its proper axis.” The story is a powerful examination of grief, which can certainly defy logic, and it’s also representative of how Wyatt laces her serious and often bizarre-situation stories with humour.

     In “Pandora’s Egg,” poor Dan, a soldier who’d served in Afghanistan, returns home with a man’s body and a child’s mind. His doctors recommend “creative work” to help aid his recovery, so he makes birdhouses. Wyatt writes that he “watched endless game shows in the afternoons and slept like a child in the spare room on a nest he’d made from blankets and pillows” while his wife, Erin, struggles with their new reality.

     I found Maura, the main character in “Falling Woman,” especially credible. The woman observes another woman falling – or perhaps being pushed – off a rooftop to her death, and Maura both suppresses the urge to “Facebook” the event (and take a “selfie” with the corpse), and lets the tragedy consume her to the point of paranoia.

     Eve from “It’s Christmas, Eve,” is a widow who lies to concerned family and friends about having plans for Christmas. What they don’t know is that Eve’s husband had been unfaithful to her, a fact she did not learn until after his death. “Posthumous betrayal could eat up your heart and soul and leave no place for life,” according to her counsellor.    

     The dark matter of these stories could make for an overly heavy book if it weren’t for Wyatt’s well-placed humour, like these lines regarding the writing course that seniors Roland and Ella enrolled in: “They spent an hour going over his little attempt at narrative and by the time they were done he was exhausted and wondered why he’d sign up for this form of torture” and “When he said goodbye, he’d hugged her and whispered into her hearing aid, ‘Thank you very much.”

     Wyatt has published numerous books and has had stage plays produced in Canada, the US and the UK. Dialogue is her strong point: to hear these characters talking is sheer entertainment.



“Cream Money: Stories of Prairie People”
Compiled and edited by Deana J. Driver
Published by DriverWorks
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95 ISBN 978-192757019-7
     I didn’t expect this. While reading Cream Money: Stories of Prairie People, I stopped several times and thought: we have no idea. “We” being anyone who did not live in rural SK in the early to mid-1900s, when even children worked hard to ensure that life ran smoothly on the farm. It was the era of large families and tight budgets, of rolling up one’s sleeves before the school bus even arrived, and of smothering foods of all kind in rich, delicious, straight-from-the-cow cream.
     Editor Deana J. Driver has collected 29 short and interesting anecdotes (plus several black and white photographs) from Saskatchewanians - from Abbey to Yorkton - who well recall how hard they worked and how different life was in earlier times, when cream was regularly sold to creameries. 
     It was not uncommon for farmers of that time to own at least one dairy cow, and the much-needed funds earned selling cream kept many families financially afloat during lean times. Within these pages we learn about specific animals, milking techniques, the cream-separating process and equipment used, the storing and transport of this precious cream, what earnings were used for, the various ways in which cream (and skim milk) were used, and about familial and community relationships.
     There are commonalities, ie: no one expressed joy at washing the separating discs, and several writers fondly remembered some of the candies they were treated with: Cracker Jacks, Lucky Elephant popcorn, Mojos, and jawbreakers (three for a penny). More than one writer expressed gratitude at receiving a dairy cow(s) as a wedding gift. Having a mouse fall into the cream can - or learning your cow got into stinkweed and cream quality was diminished- was also commonly bemoaned.
     Bryce Burnett, from Swift Current, presented his reminiscence in the form of a an ode called “Cream Can”: “At the country dance it served as a stool for the fiddler of the band,\Or was beat upon its bottom by the sticks of a drummer’s hand.” Weyburn writer Jean F. Fahlman poetically begins: “Thick farm cream ran through rural life, a river of richness and financial survival.” I chuckled about her Jersey cow that had learned to “[suck] herself dry before milking time.”
     This is an important book, both historically and culturally, as these plain-spoken reminiscences preserve the stories regarding a way of life that is now decades behind us. In many ways Cream Money is a cousin to “community books,” where people also include what family members got up to and where they are now, family photos, and even journal entries.
     Leroy-born Jerry Holfeld sums the experience up nicely: “In my young mind [dairy farming] seemed time-consuming and inconvenient when compared to the profit in the whole enterprise but in thinking about it now, it was rich in regards to the memories and the thinking process … in establishing values and character based on love … obedience … and honest work …”.
     Yes, a rich time. Rich as cream.