Event Magazine Review - A Song for Nettie Johnson

Reviewed by: Bill Schermbrucker

Gloria Sawai's collection A Song for Nettie Johnson consists of the title novella and a series of interconnected short stories which could have been presented as a novel (except for the difficulty of locating events at the West Edmonton Mall in Saskatchewan). Novels are supposed to sell better than story collections, and it's easy to imagine editorial discussions of this issue between Sawai and her publisher. But in the end, the book works perfectly well as a collection, in which different parts of the story of a prairie community are told through different and appropriate narrators. It's a patchwork quilt of narrative points of view, revealing, for the most part, the inhabitants of the fictional town of Stone Creek. Sawai overtly refers to point of view as a narrative element, especially in the title story: 'If you were a bird, a large bird say, or better yet an angel, a young angel sent from the north of heaven,' etc. The book reminds me of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, both for the similarity of its patchwork construction, and for the fine quality of the writing.

Sawai is 70 years old, and this is her first published book, but her stories have been widely published, especially the irresistibly titled 'The Day I Sat With Jesus On The Sun Deck And A Wind Came Up And Blew My Kimono Open And He Saw My Breasts,' which has appeared in two magazines and seven anthologies and been translated into Danish, Spanish and Japanese. This alluring tale has you guessing throughout exactly how to take it, what genre to put it in, what conventions are being assumed. In the last line, Sawai expertly fixes it for you: it's a brilliant and realistic 'dreams-of-a-mad-housewife' tale evoking the loneliness of prairie life. 'Mother's Day' is another story revealing the bleakness of the prairie. Here, Sawai chooses the point of view of a polite schoolgirl, an only child, who is obsessed with the theological significance of wind, which she sees as a hostile force, and wonders how a good God could possibly have made it: later, this lonely, puzzled child discovers in herself a surprising propensity for killing. Her father, meanwhile, is so lacking in company that he plays immensely protracted games of chess with postcard correspondents in Yugoslavia and South Africa.

Not all the images of prairie life are bleak, however. The title novella is a moving and dramatic tale of stubbornness, survival, love and triumph over difficult physical and social obstacles. 'The Ground You Stand On' is a charming picture of a brother-sister relationship which lasts through time and distance, and is infused with loving memories of religion and small town life. 'Memorial' celebrates life, loyalty and the heartwarming and tearjerking individualism of a small town, as each of the people whom the doctor has touched finds a way to honour his memory. Through all of the stories run steady themes of home, self and religion. Perhaps the most unifying point of view in the collection is that of Elizabeth, the preacher's daughter, who appears to have the template of the author's mind. This is powerful, good writing in which different perspectives and voices create a vivid community.

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