Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

84: Best Canadian Stories (Edited by David Helwig and Sandra Martin)

These stories were chosen “to be read rather than merely admired, or even envied”, including five previously unpublished stories. Thirty years later, the list of contents conjures up echoes of the Giller Prize, Canada Reads, and even a Pulitzer.

Frances Itani’s “Grandmother”
“And she has long known what the rest of us take the better part of our lives to learn. That there is an element of self that can never be reached or touched by any other.”

Originally published in Queen’s Quarterly, I wonder if this story would eventually become part of Deafening. A family attends a funeral, and the narrative slips back into the past, memories bracketed by the present, perfectly recreating the strangeness of those moments between time in which we struggle to reconcile ourselves with a loss, particularly a loss which belongs more to someone near to us than to our own selves. The occasional bit of dialogue contributes vastly to characterization, but mostly this is a solid expository piece (fitting for a character who could neither hear nor speak) which vividly creates a familiar scene.

Carol Shields’ “Home” (Unpublished)
“This luminous transformation, needless to say, went unnoticed by those in the aircraft, so busy was each of them with his or her private vision of transcendence.”

While each character might be busied with a personal vision of transcendence, the storyteller is slipping from traveller to traveller. Each has a different reason for travelling and a different experience of travelling, and this short exploration of strangers sharing a confined space allows readers’ imaginations to wander. Playful, though not always uplifting, “Home” ends most delightfully, with a sense of endless stories yet to be told. It would later be published in Various Miracles.

Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Letters to Josef in Jerusalem”
“Do you still take walks through the graveyard where we sat? Twenty years have passed and we’re still sitting there, Josef, younger and older than death, looking out over the vivid darkness of No Man’s Land….”

Lyrical and mythic, GM’s story contrasts dramatically with the stories on either side of it. Talk of an “unholy wound we carved in God” and “cylindrical coffins of words” requires a relaxed reading muscle, a space in which the writing can simply settle across the reader’s consciousness.  Broadcast on CBC’s “Anthology” and published in “Canadian Forum”, this appeared long before Rosemary Sullivan’s outstanding biography, Shadowmaker. If I had read this story in the anthology when it was freshly published, I wouldn’t have recognized its author’s name, nor did I have a copy of Noman’s Land which would be published later the same year.

David Lewis Stein’s “The Working Class”
“The important thing is that Janis hasn’t gone into a coma. He begins to withdraw his honesty from them like a man closing up a zipper. A few days’ rest, he says, and Janis will be as good as new.”

Originally published in “Canadian Forum”, readers slip into this story out of Gwendolyn MacEwen’s strange near-real just when Ellie is half-asleep and awakened by a call from a student who has attempted suicide. Just as suddenly as Ellie finds herself in a car, racing to Janis’ home, readers are swept into a complex reevaluation of a woman’s working, mothering, loving and fracturing.

Tom Marshall’s “T” (Unpublished)
“The future is always imaginary. So thought the professor, as he developed the fantasy sketched in above. He fancied a melodramatic death for himself.”

Whether a single sentence or a couple of pages, Tom Marshall’s story is separated into thirty segments which play with the idea of Professor T’s life and death and a neighbour boy also named T. With MacEwen’s story, this is one of the collection’s less conventional works, questioning the narrator’s capacity to access and present his reality to readers who can only dumbly follow along, line by line.

Bonnie Burnard’s “Moon Watcher” (Unpublished)
“When grief and rage began to overtake the decency, like weeds through the cracks of a sidewalk, she signed up with a psychiatrist.”

Perhaps this originally appeared in Women of Influence; it is not in Casino, one of my favourite collections, but it would have fit, stylistically and thematically. The ending of this story is quietly revolutionary. A few years later, Bonnie Burnard would have another story published in the 1989 anthology, so other readers, too, must have responded well to this passions-cooled story of a middle-aged woman on the other side of leaving.

Elizabeth Spencer’s “Madonna”
“Did I say that before? The memory has done all it can; it has taken me back to the beginning of itself, to that day at the secretary’s desk, to a vision’s fleetingness and its power to remain.”

Many of these collected stories are preoccupied with the past and with memories, but Madonna is wholly absorbed by remembering. What is forgotten, too, is central to this Montreal-soaked story. The narrator attempts a fabrication to conceal her obsession with what has been lost, but she stumbles relentlessly into what-was-once-and-is-no-longer.

Nora Keeling’s “Mine” (Unpublished)
“She was too engrossed in absorbing her own loss. Nobody and nothing stays with me she would think, as she retraced her steps back to her reading-chair.”

A solitary and lonely narrator, Sadie’s perspective is inherently limited, but readers have a front-row seat to her loss and grief. The prose is weighted by the accumulation of details shared about her daily routine, but that suits the character’s development. She, too, is often pulled into the past, but an unexpected connection forces her to leave room for the present, and perhaps even the future.

Helene Holden’s “The Arsonist’s Dream” (Unpublished)
“A fire always jolts me – I don’t know what it is about burning: I smell it first, I taste it first, I’m much too avid a fire watcher.”

This story of two sisters in Montreal reminds me of Saleema Nawaz’s sisters in Bone and Bread, perhaps partly because it is a story which is comfortable with unanswered questions and, as such, it feels more contemporary than many of these works. Punctuated with dialogue, this story is sensorily rich, though it is also one of the collection’s shorter tales.

Robin Mathews’ “Florentine Letourneau”
“Florentine looked down at her coffee cup, her fingers still entwined with Emmanuel’s. She wondered what the men had said about her, what Jean Lévesque had told Boisvert.”

Because I watched the mini-series as a teenager, I have been waiting to read Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute (at first I was waiting to forget the details, so I could discover the story afresh, but then the years slipped past). So I can’t tell how much of Florentine and Emmanuel and Jean’s story here differs from the original, but I do love it when fictions inspire other fictions, so I appreciated this one all the same.
It was originally published in Queen’s Quarterly and Roy’s novel was originally published in 1945.

Audrey Thomas’ “Elevation”
“There had been several of these boy-men at the ice-cream social: charming, interesting to sit next to. But perhaps scary to spend your life with.”

Originally published in Saturday Night, Audrey Thomas is one of three eventual winners of the Marian Engel Award included herein (along with Carol Shields and Bonnie Burnard). Incisive observations and vivid scenes bolster the story’s impact. I am reminded how much I enjoyed the stories in The Wild Blue Yonder.

Mavis Gallant’s “Lena”
“In her prime, by which I mean in her beauty, my first wife, Magdalena, had no use for other women.”

Arguably the best-known short story writer in the collection, , given this story’s original publication in “The New Yorker”, the style here is quintessential Gallant. The story spirals backwards, inspired by a series of visits made to Lena – now nearly 80 and bedridden – by her husband. Elegant and measured, this is a class act.

I’ve said before that I wanted to make a project of more methodically reading her short stories, and this confirms my desire.

Oberon Press is one-of-a-kind; it is always a pleasure to dip into their collections.

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