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Fractures: Family Stories

by Budge Wilson

For many years, Nova Scotia writer Budge Wilson’s short story collection The Leaving has been my standard gift for two groups, thoughtful teenagers and visitors to Canada. With no stylistic fireworks, Wilson deftly captures the inner life of adolescents – toe-curling embarrassment, the sledgehammer blow of a new idea, the sweetness and disorientation of desire, blinding joy. Her dramas are frequently played out against a maritime background. Her portrait of Nova Scotia, both its natural and human landscape, can make you nostalgic for the place even if you’ve never been there.

So I was naturally delighted to see a new Wilson collection, Fractures: Family Stories, a dozen stories new and old, which showcases her unique strengths. In the world of short fiction, Wilson has claimed a territory all her own. It lies somewhere north of teenager and south of adult, east of small literary journals and west of newsstand women’s magazines. Such an overlap of potential audience likely drives publicists and cover designers crazy. But readers both young and old will enjoy her vast reach.

Wilson’s readers will recognize the dynamics between a squelching joyless mother and a passionate daughter, who recounts in the opening of “Mr. Manuel Jenkins”:

[T]hat morning I had said to her, “Mom, it’s such a divine day. I’m going to take the boat out to Crab Island and just sit on a rock and be me all day long.” To which she replied, “You can be you right here in the kitchen this very minute and help me defrost the fridge.”

In other hands, we might remain trapped in the head of the discontented teenager, the mother banished to the world of cardboard adults. But everybody in Wilson’s world is real, so we end up seeing not only the future of the girl but, equally poignantly, the past of the mother.

Another of Wilson’s strengths lies in her appreciation of male beauty. She de-Harlequinizes the snapshot moment. One of her female characters, Erika, muses: “I just want to be able to look at him and think about touching his big bony hands.” Sylvia embarrasses Marcus: “He blushed. His skin turned a dark anguished red from the top of his forehead to the neck of his white sweatshirt. She had never before seen a boy or a man blush, and she couldn’t have been more surprised (or strangely delighted) if he’d burst into tears.” A teenage girl describes the arrival of a boarder: “He picked up his suitcase and walked in, filling the kitchen with his beauty; blessing the walls, casting light and gladness upon stove, table, electric clock.”

In every story Wilson illuminates and celebrates kindness, not as some flaccid greeting card virtue but as the sustaining, creative bedrock of human possibility. A depressed, out-of-work drinking father manages to say just the right thing to his lonely daughter. A teacher directs a grieving student to what she really needs, not consolation but information.

Budge Wilson turned 75 this year. The years show. There is a mellowness, a large tolerance, and a sideways humour to her stories. If you’re a noticer, you get to know a lot about people in 75 years. Wilson sees to the heart of the Toronto businessman who remembers his boyhood ambition to be the “most talented fisherman in Mackerel Cove.” Likewise the schoolteacher Miss Hancock (“plump and unmarried and overenthusiastic”) and nine-year-old Carlotta (who has “two uncles and three aunts, a bedroom with mauve ruffled curtains, a six-speed bike, a best friend called Eleanor, and an orange cat called Marmalade” – and also a mom with leukemia.)

These are the inhabitants of Wilson’s territory, and all of them are created and defined in the context of families. At the opening of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy famously declares “All happy families are alike, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” What might have been true for Tolstoy’s Russia is not true for Wilson’s Nova Scotia. Her families achieve happiness that is hardscrabble, fragile, and provisional, but it is happiness nonetheless, and unique to each narrative. Clara squirms at the hypocrisy of her imperfect minister father preaching virtue, only to discover that her mother shares some of her feeling and would like to “kick down a door occasionally without the sky falling.” Clara shifts her view of marital success and we are optimistic for her as she heads off into the world. We are similarly optimistic for the abused boy who grows up and finds himself at university, saying, “I was as happy as a person can be who is socially inept, emotionally fettered, and philosophically naive.”

This is rich, ironic self-deprecating territory to explore, wise about growing up and very Canadian. Fractures might become my next standard gift for mopey teens and overseas visitors who want to know what we’re about.


Reviewer: Sarah Ellis

Publisher: Viking/Penguin Canada


Price: $16

Page Count: 198 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-14-331201-4

Released: Aug.

Issue Date: 2002-8


Age Range: ages 12+