The FOLD (The Festival of Literary Diversity) is an annual event, in Brampton (Ontario, Canada) dedicated to telling more stories, to having audiences connect with a wider variety of storytellers. You can check out their lineup of terrific writers and storytellers who were a part of the debut festival in May this year, here.

Alexis PastoralEarlier in 2016, they posted a reading challenge, which I printed and dutifully began to read towards. (I’ve misplaced the link: sorry!)

  1. A book you’ve had for more than a year.
  2. A book outside of your ‘favourite genre’.
  3. A book you buy at an indie bookstore.
  4. A book by a person of a faith.
  5. A book by an aboriginal author.
  6. A book by a Canadian LGBTQ author.
  7. A book by a Canadian person of colour.
  8. A book by a FOLD 2016 author.

I’ve already discussed the first and last categories: Ernest J. Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men (1983) and Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive (2015).

Today I’m discussing the fourth, focussing on the perspective of a character immersed in a life of faith, Father Christopher Pennant, assigned to the parish of Barrow, Ontario.

One could legitimately misread the back cover of Pastoral, which describes Barrow as not “sleepily bucolic” but “sheepily bucolic”. But while the four-legged do play a prominent role in André Alexis’ drama, flora and fauna are important in general, so one needn’t see Father Pennant as the simple shepherd.

“The lives of shepherds in pastoral literature are not depicted realistically, and pastoral literature doesn’t have the swift forward movement of conventional fiction: what shapes such literature is absence. In pastorals of past centuries, what’s absent is often the city; the country (unrealistically) is cleaner; safer; more innocent.”

Whether destiny or divinity, this passage appeared in Alice Mattison’s The Kite and the String, which was rubbing covers with André Alexis’ novel in my stack.

Perfect timing. Which, although he had anticipated a city-assignment, is how Father Pennant appears to feel about Barrow upon arriving.

“Just outside of Barrow – and all around it – there were fields, silos, barns and farmhouses. Coming in by bus, Father Pennant was so enchanted by the land, by the thistles and yellowish reeds at the side of the road, that he asked the driver to let him off at the sign that said ‘Welcome to Barrow’ so he could walk into town, suitcase and all, on the warm April day that was his first in his new parish.”

Moments later, he is offered a loaf of freshly baked bread, directly from the hands of the town baker; he doesn’t hesitate to inform him of the cost, however, tugging both walker and reader back to reality. (Yes, you are probably supposed to be thinking ‘loaves and fishes’ here, too.)

Although one could argue for the role of one certain sheep as central, or for Father Pennant himself, the community of Barrow is at the heart of this novel.

“The farmhouse looked to be sturdy, though it smelled of wood that had rotted. The barn was ready to collapse on itself, as if a great hand had pressed down on it and burst its roof. Decades previously, the Stephenses had planted apple trees in a modest, ordered grove: thirty trees in tight rows, five by six. At a distance from the apple trees there were other trees (willows, birches and maples), tall, yellowed grasses, thistles, buttercups and an unexpected clump of purple lilac bushes that intoxicated with their perfume. A brook, a tributary of the Thames, ran across the property: narrow, four feet across, its waters clear as glass, its banks low and rounded to an overhang in places. In and around the brook: turtles, frogs and small fish that swam like living slivers of birch bark. Beyond the brook, a wide, open field, alive with grasshoppers, crickets and mice.”

This excerpt is long but serves to illustrate that some of Barrow and its environs is more idealistic than realistic, but André Alexis also observes the rot and the disrepair. The terms used are often note-worthy (consider that “great hand” pressing “down” from above) and the details matter.

How much they matter remains to be seen, however, for Pastoral is only the first work in the author’s Quincunx, a cycle of five stories. (The second, Fifteen Dogs, is an apologue. The third, Hidden Keys, will be published in the autumn of 2016.) One suspects that the themes in Pastoral will resonate in later works in the cycle, just as is the case across this single novel of five parts.

Alice Mattison’s assertion, that the significant absence in a pastoral is the city, is correct in Pastoral. But there are other absences as well, including a significant loss for Father Barrow himself and the community at large. At least one other character also experiences a significant loss, which leaves a space where faith once resided. (This is true of one character literally and of another character metaphorically.)

In many ways, Barrow does seem cleaner and safer, even more innocent than other communities. But Father Pennant observes not only miracles in Barrow, but sins too. Yes, real miracles. And real transgressions.  So Pastoral might well lack conventional forward movement, but there are archetypal battles too.

“The town of Barrow, which she knew as well as she knew her lover’s body, was vivid in the sunlight, like a bauble of itself.”

How we root ourselves (also, how we rot): it matters. What is genuine and what is mere decoration: it matters, too.

And sometimes we find more warmth and strength outdoors than in a pew. Father Pennant shares the page with a devoted atheist and perhaps the spontaneous eruption of the river is meant to evoke pagan springs on mythic islands. “For a moment, the outside smelled of toast and honey, while inside there was the odour of bleach and coffee.”

Readers might find themselves longing for a slice of untoasted Barrow bread with their cup of coffee. Not the bread handed to Father Pennant upon his arrival. Loaves shaped by women in the community. In the shape of a red-letter (but, this time, not an ‘A’, although A’s and Z’s matter here, too).

“The centre of Barrow bread was where the coconut and raisins (dyed red) were baked in the form of an X above which there was a circle. That is, when one cut a slice of the loaf, it was meant to look as if a red skull and crossbones were in the slice’s centre. Though this required some skill to do well, virtually every woman in Barrow could make Barrow bread and make it very well indeed.”

For in the meantime, André Alexis’ leaves readers to imagine that ‘X’. Each point potentially a story. The nexus in the middle a fifth point. A quincunx.

But if Pastoral is only a single tip of that ‘X’, there is a circle above: a continuum of stories within which all arms of the X can join.

In this context, Pastoral is merely chapter and verse. The faithful will test the binding.