Edmonton Journal Review - A Song for Nettie Johnson

Spiritual comedy and terrible truth
Reviewed by: Curtis Gillespie

Although I will rave here about this marvellous book, I will confess up front that I can only describe in part the book's charms and strengths, since many more readings will be required to fully appreciate its moral depth and superb technique. And it will indeed receive many more readings.

Gloria Sawai, an Edmontonian who will be 70 this year, has long been a glittering yet somehow distant star in the Canadian literary community: glittering because of the mighty talent showcased in much-anthologized stories like The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts, (a story most famously included in the Margaret Atwood-edited Oxford Anthology of Canadian Short Fiction); distant only because she had yet to produce a full collection of stories for her readers to savour. The wait is over, and A Song for Nettie Johnson is the deeply satisfying result.

Though Kimono is the most well-known story in this collection, there are seven other stories and a novella that are as good, some even better. One or two stories are set in larger cities and towns, but the setting and sensibility of most of the material is decidedly prairie smalltown. Such is the case with the title novella, which is set in Stone Creek. A Song for Nettie Johnson is a 90-page examination of faith, in many senses of the word. Nettie and Eli are living by the quarry outside town, and their unmarried ways are the source of much gossip and raised eyebrows in town. Eli, who struggles with the bottle, and Nettie, who struggles with the world at large, form a kind of blissful union -- and a very funny one -- but the novella derives great tension from Eli's banishment as the town's director of the annual performance of Handel's Messiah. The sense of events closing in on them is heightened by Nettie's decision to attempt to attend the performance. Sawai takes our expectations of what might transpire and turns them into something altogether different, into a deeper understanding of commitment, of faith, of simple human togetherness.

Though Sawai is at her best when writing what we might call spiritual comedy (meaning that her characters are funny, human, real people who yet see life as a struggle to understand and accept faith and grace), she nevertheless is capable of creating stories of such terrible truth that they can leave a reader almost shaking with horror and recognition. Mother's Day is such a story. In this story, a young girl named Norma has to try to deal with a sickly kitten she's found, and after doing so in a way that will never leave the reader's mind, Norma, some years later, reflects on her actions. "You go to places, knowing all along it won't be just right or true. There'll be darkness there, and some damage. But you go just the same. There'll always be some light. Pieces of it anyway. And you can notice that."

There are so many other highlights one could point to, such as the story Haircut, which concerns the emotional damage inflicted upon a young girl by her mother, via the mother's misguided attempts to control the girl's unruly hair, or The Ground You Stand On, a poignant story about the relationship across the years between a brother and sister. Each and every story in this dignified, thrilling collection could justify a review in itself.

Canadian readers have for too long been unaware of Gloria Sawai, and this collection ought to address that state of affairs. Her understated realistic technique, coupled with her hugely empathetic sensibility, makes Nettie Johnson not just a book to enjoy as a reading, but a book to hold near, to put one's faith in when it comes to matters of human nature. In so many ways we are flawed, Sawai tells us, yet we are blessed in so many others. There is no more central truth than that, and Sawai has the courage and talent to open our eyes to it.

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