Quill and Quire

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A Hard Witching and Other Stories

by Jacqueline Baker

Jacqueline Baker’s stories of the Sand Hills region of Saskatchewan seem at first to belong to the Dust Bowl era of drought and dwindling communities on land that gives back less than it takes. There’s precious little of the paraphernalia of modern life here, not a mobile phone or dishwasher. The linoleum is cracked, most machinery is on its last legs, and the spring has run dry. Baker’s Sand Hills is definitely a cappuccino-free zone.

This sounds like classic prairie grimness in the tradition of Sinclair Ross. Yet Baker’s stripped-down rural Saskatchewan has a post-industrial quality, an eerie sense that something happened here once. People stumble upon arrowheads and old wells, mute relics of previous civilization. It’s still grim, though there’s some relief in the cottonwood and caragana trees, the sloughs teeming with tadpoles, the long shadows. More often, however, nature turns on the survivors like a sow eating her young (Baker does include one of those in a story). Even a saskatoon berry can harbour a tiny worm that rears its head like a rattlesnake.

Baker knows this territory intimately. Saskatchewan born, a graduate of the University of Alberta’s creative writing program, Baker shows in this debut collection an impressive precision and control, building her narratives unerringly, sketching relationships and furnishing rooms with wonderful economy. Every word feels weighed.

Such acute attention to the nuances and power of language is something she shares with many of her characters. For the children in the story “Cherry,” that word is magic, calling up the name of a glamorous girl who long ago left their solemn, awkward Uncle Aloetius and the apartment beside the slaughterhouse. Cherry escaped to Thunder Bay, a place-name that to the children is pure romance: “waves spraying a black shore, great pointed pines, wolves.” Alas, “Cherry” turns out to be an immigrant’s mispronunciation of Gerri, short for Geraldine, and the runaway bride is now old with skin pouches on her elbows.

In “Redberry, Ministikwan, Buffalo Pound,” words draw a young woman back to the dust hole she left to go to the city. When Lavinia first meets Jack, his blue eyes remind her of prairie lakes with names like Jackfish, Witchekan, and Big Quill, names that fascinated her as a child. In that wind-scoured landscape, she feels trapped all over again. She broods over a neighbour’s troubles, his wife institutionalized, a story Jack sums up in two words: “She’s schizo.”

Lavinia tries to piece together the bare bones of what happened: the wife, blonde, possibly pretty, losing her sanity. It was Jack, Lavinia discovers, who found her wandering by the lake and took her to the hospital in North Battleford, Jack who may or may not have been the woman’s friend. But “schizo” is all Lavinia gets out of him, and two syllables is long-winded for a man more often monosyllabic. His wooing speech to lure Lavinia back to Sand Hills was, “Tell me you don’t miss it.” The longest words in this story are the evocative ones attached to the land.

After several stories full of such gnomic utterances, the reader begins to yearn for garrulousness, wishing someone would talk long and loud enough for important things to get said. Like many of Baker’s characters, I felt the frustration of not knowing enough. What happened to that strange boy in “Small Comfort,” for instance, who appeared one summer in the prairie heat and cut off Audrey’s hair? “He died,” Audrey’s mother tells her years later, with typical Sand Hills frugality of expression. “I told you.” That’s all. Maybe it’s better not to know. Then at least, Baker suggests, there’s still “potential,” still “possibility” – two words conspicuous for their multiple syllables. At least we’re not disappointed.

Even when people in these stories do talk, like the storytelling Correys and Mayhews in “Sand Hills,” the details are elusive, as shifting and changing as the hills. Carl Mayhew points out that his niece, Del, isn’t really a Correy, meaning that the girl must have a father and so a different last name. But like other fathers in these pages, Del’s is marked by his absence. Was he just some boy from Alberta? Or was he that eccentric wanderer who wrote out the Bible by hand and tried to sell it from door to door before being run out of town? Del’s mother dies without saying, and anyway, Del distrusts her “constant and impromptu revision to keep things interesting.”

Baker’s first book of stories keeps things very interesting and establishes her as a writer to watch. But I hope that in her next book she will allow her characters more latitude – let them get out to a movie or buy a latte, or maybe even visit Thunder Bay.