Coming Home van CampComing Home: Stories from the Northwest Territories (Enfield & Wizenty, 2012)

In the foreword, Richard Van Camp writes that this collection is a “testament to the beauty of the land, the communities and the people who choose to live here” and he welcomes readers to the works. The same words might be used as plumpy jacket copy, but they are indeed an accurate reflection of the contents, and the spirit of the work as a whole does serve as an invitation.

Contributors are of varied ages and ethnicities and writing backgrounds (from emerging writers and passionate scribblers to lifelong journalists and established writers) and this is reflected in the breadth of styles and themes. In one moment, I felt like I was reading “Readers’ Digest” and, in the next, “The Malahat Review”. Read over several days, this diversity was a pleasure, and those readers who prefer to read collections all-in-a-burst could simply leaf ahead if a contrasting style doesn’t suit.

Personal favouites include Christine Raves’ story “Dirty Rascal” and Jamesie Fournier’s “Children of the Strike”. Each delivered facts that I hadn’t known within the vehicle of an engrossing narrative. Raves’ dialogue and theme is immediately engaging with a light-handed sadness to the tale, which strikes a chord with anyone who has been swept up in something untoward and simultaneously awed and horrified by the resulting devastation. Fournier captures the gentle humour simmering beneath an incident in a serious political conflict so that even though it’s the only piece with footnotes, it reads with the momentum of a story.

Contents, Fiction:
Colin Henderson’s The Points, Jordan Carpenter’s Finding Home, Richard Van Camp’s Born a Girl, Marcus Jackson’s Angatkuq, Annelies Pool’s Celia’s Inner Anorexic, Cathy Jewison’s Haunted Hill Mine, Rebecca Aylward’s My Epiphany, Patti-Kay Hamilton’s Homecoming, Christine Raves’ Dirty Rascal, Shawn McCann’s The Long Gun

Contents, Non-Fiction:
AmberLee Kolson’s Lost, Brian Penney’s Ts’ankui Theda, The Kindness of the Lake, Karen McColl’s Beauty of the Butte, January Go’s For Us, Jamesie Fournier’s Children of the Strike, Jessie C. MacKenzie’s Where They Belong

Ramshackle Tabernacle MartinSamuel Thomas Martin’s This Ramshackle Tabernacle (Breakwater Books, 2010)

A camp counsellor in “Rosary” muses: “I want to feel relieved that Jaz is gone and that I don’t have to worry about her cutting herself anymore. But I do worry. I remember. I can’t get her out of my head. It’s like she’s walking behind me, staring at me. But when I turn, there is no one there.”

That’s what it’s like reading the stories in This Ramshackle Tabernacle. I want to be relieved that these characters are gone, caught in the pages behind me.

I don’t want to worry about them anymore. Floating in the water. With their dog in their arms. Fired from a summer job. Busking in the subway tunnels.

But Samuel Thomas Martin brings his characters off the page. Content-wise, the stories remind me of Michael Winter’s and David Adams’ Richards fiction. But stylistically Martin uses dialogue and a sharper prose style to pull readers into these tableaux. Vivid scenes and sensory details drop an anchor for the readers, even when the plots makeyou long for a motor to aid escape.

“I take the sweater from his huge hand and pull it over my head. It hangs off my bony shoulders. It’s loose everywhere save around the neck. But it’s warm and it smells like Jim. It reeks of fish too but that’s Jim’s smell: the smell of his boat. It’s as if I’ve put his skin on, as if I’m inside him. But it’s so warm.”

Cliff Jumping, Adrift, Shaver, Up out of the Water, Rosary, The Hammer, Eight-Ball, Becoming Maria, Crafty Old Dragon, Roulette, The Killing Tree, Shekinah

Andrea Routley’s Jane and the Whales (Caitlin Press, 2013)

Jane Whales RoutleyWhen readers meet Ray in the collection’s opening story, “Habitat”, he has just rushed indoors to fetch some weiners for a fox that he discovered had been rooting through the trash.

There are a number of clues here for readers; compassion is definitely at the heart of these stories, and they are often inspired not only by the four-legged, but also the winged and flippered.

But Ray’s compassion for the fox is rooted in his belief that the world should behave in a certain manner; the world he imagines is perfectly ordered, but the real world frequently rubs that image the wrong way.

First, he claps his hands at the creature, shouting and rushing, urging it to save itself, before he decides that at least the fox should have something decent to eat and he returns indoors to fetch the weiners.

By then, however, the “fox had already started up the trail by the clay cliffs that rose up at the end of the cul-de-sac”.

The slight delay in Ray’s well-intentioned response meant the fox didn’t get its belly filled and although he was doing his best, Ray has misjudged and the appetite has been left unsatisfied.

All of this happens, from trash strewn to weiners offered, in the story’s first paragraph, but an echo of these events plays out in the next dozen pages, as Ray tries to demonstrate his usefulness and willingness to his daughter, Lana, fifteen years old, and now coming over less reliably than her standard every-weekend visit.

But even as Ray reaches out, well-intentioned, he pushes. And soon it’s not just the fox, but also the guinea Pig (BubbleGum), and Lana too, whose habitats are altered/threatened.

Many of the other stories in the collection, like “Habitat”, focus on the areas of the world in which the wild presses up against the domestic, the natural world and its inhabitants getting cozy (be it in a tent or a vision, mysticism or imagination).

Ultimately the works are preoccupied with relationships, of all sorts and with a close-up view, also suggested by the striking cover image by Sandy Tweed. Whether from the perspective of teacher or student, guide or follower, the characters in Jane and the Whales sometimes reach out and sometimes retract, sometimes recoil and sometimes connect. It is a very satisfying debut.

Habitat, The Gone Batty Interpretation, Dog, Other People’s Houses, Art, Reflection Journal, Monsters, The Sign, The Things I Would Say, Jane and the Whales