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Grasslands

by Michael Hetherton

A woman named Sunny in one of Michael Hetherton’s stories calls a man “iceberg head,” but it’s not an insult. She means – or hopes – there’s more beneath the surface than meets the eye. In these 11 stories, with terse titles like “Faith” or “Abandonment,” Hetherton evokes unseen sides of these men of few words. Just as deftly he conveys the barely controlled panic beneath a cheerful garrulousness – usually a woman’s.

This is a first book for Hetherton, who lives in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Many of these stories, set on the near-deserted prairie north of the U.S. border, have appeared in magazines, and there’s a sense he’s been writing around this literary territory for some time. It’s a world in decline, peopled with the descendants of European settlers. They have little rapport with the few native people around.

The land continues to be hard on those who try to wring a living from it, working in the oil business or on highways that speed travellers through to somewhere else. But Hetherton’s quiet men are drawn back to this desolate country. Attuned to its regular rhythms, they honour it in their own way, hunting, fishing, or just sitting in a doorway looking out on the landscape of stunted cottonwoods and caraganas.

The characters’ inarticulateness can be frustrating if you read too much of Grasslands in one sitting. There’s also an inevitable monotony to the sounds of the wind blowing, old cars rusting, and hearts breaking over and over. But Hetherton can be mordantly funny, too, and there’s something endearing about these gentle, stolid men, trying to respond to women desperate for a way out of a corner. Redemption comes in many forms – in the brief comfort of sex, a silver flash of a trout in a stream, the grace of a favour passed on to the next generation. And even in the most broken-down of towns, a sense of community persists, if only with its ghosts.