Winnipeg Free Press Review - Song for Nettie Johnson

Stories paint vivid picture
Reviewed by: Winnipeg Free Press

Born in 1932, Edmonton's Gloria Sawai has been publishing short fiction off and on, here and there, for many years, but A Song for Nettie Johnson is her first book-length collection. It vividly presents life on the Canadian Prairies, and questions of religious faith are never far away.

Sawai's characters are flawed but completely human -she has the knack of being able to sum up a character in a minimum of words. The collection is comprised of eight short stories and a novella that gives the book its title. This tale, like many of the stories, takes place in Stony Creek, Sask. While reclusive Nettie Johnson is central to the novella, it is really a portrait of the entire town, and how the townspeople react to her and her lover, Eli. Sawai even gives us the point of view of some of the children. In fact, two of the strongest stories are told in the first person by children. Elizabeth, in Oh Wild Flock, Oh Crimson Sky, explains how she prepared for a school debate on the existence of God. Norma, in Mother's Day, speaks of spring in Saskatchewan:' If I may speak candidly, it is quite lonesome,' she writes. 'The lonesome period is between the time the snow melts and the time the grass turns green. The lonesome period is usually filled with wind that picks up dust, dead thistles, mouldy scraps of paper, and whirls them across the alleys and down the streets, with no thought whatsoever to what pleases us.' Norma goes on to explain how the mundane events of one weekend precipitated her shocking treatment of a stray cat.

What is perhaps the best story is Hosea's Children, in which a mother of three sets out from Medicine Hat to track down her estranged husband in Edmonton. The odyssey takes her not to him but to her daughter, who had recently run off with a young man. The story successfully shows many facets -funny, painful -of the mother-daughter relationship.

No matter what other fine fiction she produces, though, Sawai will always be best remembered for a much anthologized story called The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts. It closes out this collection. For those who haven't read it, the good news is that it lives up to the playful promise of the title. While the narrator is in awe of Jesus, who actually does come to visit, she is critical of his too-frequent use of the word 'nice.' He even says, when her kimono blows open, 'You have nice breasts.' Article by Dave Williamson.

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