Globe & Mail Review - Song for Nettie Johnson

Parables of doubt, faith and love
Reviewed by: Globe & Mail

Edmonton writer Gloria Sawai attained a modest fame a few years ago with a story that uniquely probed religious faith. The Day I Sat With Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts has appeared in a dozen publications around the world. It's a gem. In a house on the edge of a small prairie town, Gloria is sitting on her sundeck gazing out over endless flat farmland and vaulting blue sky. It's 1972, a perfect balmy morning. Damp laundry awaits her in the house, but she has happily exchanged it for a glass of white wine and a few moments of calm. She sees an approaching bump on the horizon. 'Beauty and tranquility floated toward me at around 9:30.' The story's odd resonances must be discovered. Sawai avoids the lyrical, spinning her tale like an anecdote, something strange and captivating you'd hear in a neighbour's kitchen. The effect is understated, but revelatory.Other stories in this debut share a similar tone.

A Song for Nettie Johnson, at 90 pages, is a perfectly formed novella. Bill and Nettie are living in a peculiar kind of sin near Stone Creek, Sask. The parson of the local church is under pressure from tut-tutting parishioners to bar Eli from directing the annual Handel's Messiah. A perennial drunk, Eli is at the moment teetering on the lip of the wagon. When the parson grants the Christmas concert to someone else, Eli digs up a long-hidden bottle, then gets a brainstorm. The parson is made to change his mind. As rehearsals unfold, Eli employs all his charms to coerce the reclusive Nettie into attending the big night.Haunted by a tormenting childhood, Nettie seems doomed to consider herself an oddball, forever undeserving of joy. But in a dark and snowy churchyard, she at last comes close to it, or as close as she ever will, and we see that it's enough.

"Mother's Day" places a pubescent girl on a cold and barren country road, where in a fit of despairing rage she kills a sickly kitten after family and neighbours refuse to take it in. Risking the alienation of sensitive readers, Sawai goes to the heart of those pivotal moments that wrench naivet‚ from us and replace it with the hard knowledge of adulthood. These are parables of doubt, faith and love. Whatever debates you've had with yourself about God and belief, or however long it's been since you left them behind, this book will almost certainly stir those embers again. Sawai's subtext is clear: God or no God, the search for redemption begins deep inside each of us. Article by Jim Bartley.

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