Quill and Quire

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Outskirts: Women Writing from Small Places

by Emily Schultz,ed.

I began to worry while reading the introduction to Outskirts. Politely informed that “Outskirts is an anthology that gives rural women a voice,” I couldn’t help but think that if any single demographic has fully developed within the confines of CanLit, “women writing from small places” would have to be it.

The 16 stories in Outskirts span Canada but offer surprisingly similar glimpses of rural life. Small tragedies occur; bigotry and misunderstanding flow freely; predictable pastoral and/or gothic images thrive. Male characters are consistently two-dimensional, thinly disguised foils for the sensitive, inquisitive, unjustly burdened female protagonists.

In “Assumptions,” the most disturbing thing about a murder-suicide committed by a dull, abusive patriarch is how clumsily it is thrust upon the reader and how difficult it is to feel, well, anything. What plagues this and many stories in the collection is the atmosphere of a therapy session or a sewing circle – validating for the participants, maybe, but trying for an outside observer’s judgment and patience.

Emily Schultz’s “The Years of the Strawberry Circus” is the strongest story in the collection, allowing a rare glimpse of female friendship and its potential for self-realization. The protagonist is subtle and interesting; the antagonist, Miriam, is wild, strong, and believable, and their relationship hints at layers of complexity. Another strong entry is “To Dance in a Measured Space” by Sybil Shaw Hamm. Here, retired journalist Madge learns about her husband’s long-passed encounter with Marilyn Monroe. There’s nothing steamy here, though, just Madge’s struggle with her humdrum country life, simply and beautifully rendered.