Small Things Like These

In 2013, I had the happy privilege of a week at The Banff Centre in a short story course with Alexander MacLeod, whose collection Light Lifting had been shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize. I applied for the class specifically because he was the instructor and was thrilled to be accepted.

Besides our sessions as a group of eight, we met with MacLeod individually. I recall asking him in my turn about how to carry what I might call the “burden” of religion in my stories, since they are often set in the Mennonite history and environment I know best. This felt complicated, and I worried, in addition, that they would be too alien to publishers perhaps, the Church being so pervasive, demanding to be critiqued or defended but most of all explained. The gist of the answer, in terms of what he may have said and what I’ve figured out myself, was that you simply let the story swim in its own ocean. Let it unfold, that is, with whatever the story requires, which probably isn’t a history lesson on Menno Simons or doctrines or the schism that accounts for the group to which the protagonist belongs or may be fleeing.

contentHe also gave me a good piece of advice, and that was to read Irish writers, for if there’s a place that’s religion-soaked, it’s theirs. So I’ve watched for them since, and read quite a few. Which brings me to Claire Keegan, whom he praised and whose work I’ve followed, and her newest book, Small Things Like These. It’s a short book, only 114 pages, but perfectly realized in my opinion, just oh so good! I felt I’d held my breath to the end, and then, exhaling, I began again from the beginning. I think that the main character, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant, a tender man, both brave and probably foolish, will stay with me a long time. The story is about who he is and about something he discovers when delivering coal to the local convent, which runs one of those Magdalen laundries for so-called “fallen women,” such as featured in the movie Philomena. This isn’t much of a review, I know, but it’s a definite recommendation. I also recommend Eleanor Wachtel’s conversation with Keegan at Writers and Company, where they talk about the writing of short stories (their difference from novels), and about this book and some of Keegan’s earlier work.

Incidentally, I’ve begun Alexander MacLeod’s newest collection, Animal People. Like his father Alistair, he’s not a prolific writer, but he’s worth waiting for.

Also incidentally, a story of mine, Her Own Self, has just been posted at the online Journal of Mennonite Writing. It’s longish, though not as longish as Keegan’s, and I would be honoured if you put your feet up with a cuppa something at your side and give it a read!

Seven in one blow: Mierau, Toews, and other recommends

We’ve  just spent several days at Hecla Island, probably our last camping trip of the year. The routines and menus of these outings are virtually identical–one leaves the routines of home only to fall with pleasure into the routines of away–but there’s always something interesting that differentiates each from the other. This time it was the garter snake, and next the skunk ambling toward me on the path (diverging to another path before it reached me, which as Robert Frost would say, made all the difference), and then the full body plant in the lake when I stumbled on a slippery rock at the shoreline. And a particular book.

image.phpI’d attended, on Friday evening, the launch of Maurice Mierau’s Detachment, subtitled An Adoption Memoir (Freehand Books), which tells the story of Mierau and his wife Betsy adopting two young brothers from Ukraine. It seemed a good book to read aloud, as we sometimes do when on the road or away, and so we did, beginning on the drive to Hecla and continuing at various interludes–by the fire, over our morning maté or in the evening after H. had dealt with the flies drawn out of the cool autumn evening into the warmth of the trailer (though he never managed seven in one blow like the valiant little tailor of Grimm’s fairy tales fame). We finished the book on the return drive. Continue reading