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Running the Whale’s Back: Stories of Faith and Doubt from Atlantic Canada

by Andrew Atkinson and Mark Harris, eds.

Running the Whale’s Back is an anthology of fiction (both short stories and novel excerpts) that tugs in two directions. The first is geographical: the authors all hail from Atlantic Canada (the lineup includes well-known names like Alistair MacLeod, David Adams Richards, Lynn Coady, Michael Crummey, and Michael and Kathleen Winter) and that is where most of the stories are set. But the volume also looks inward, as all of the pieces are concerned in some way with spiritual matters.

As with most regional fiction – especially from the East Coast – the first aspect nudges in the direction of realism, with Jessica Grant’s fantasy “My Husband’s Jump” being the only significant exception here. There’s no mistaking Atlantic Canada as a working-class place where, as Andrew Atkinson notes in his introduction, “spiritual musings are communicated through men with calloused hands and big hearts.”

But while their origins are grounded and specific, the spiritual musings themselves are diffuse. We visit Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals, though Catholics are more common than any of these. Atkinson’s introduction suggests a fitting metaphor for the enterprise: “Questions of faith, questions of doubt, of hope, depravity, dignity, death, respect, the stigma of religion, the enchantment of the land, these and many others are queries that live and move under the sacred canopy of Atlantic Canadian literature.”

Some stories, such as Kathleen Winter’s “French Doors,” have little to say about religion, while others (including the ghastly baptism/drowning episode from Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees) invoke it only for sensational effect. Even the book’s centrepiece, Alistair MacLeod’s “Vision,” is infused with a sort of folk spirituality that only obliquely addresses matters of faith.

In a time like our own, when religion is largely doctrine-free and the church as an institution has fragmented into serving various individual quests for meaning, one can’t expect a lot of coherence in this regard. In any event the book’s success – and it is a great read from cover to cover – comes down to the high quality of the stories themselves.