Family Stories

Reviewed by Diane McGifford

THESE TW O COLLECTIONS of short stor- ies by western Canadian women reveal that the locale need not be only local. As William Carlos Williams putit:”The local is the only universal, upon that all art builds.” Certainly Gertrude Story and, to a lesser extent, Rona Murray brew and distil local materials to create a heady universal substance. Their a r t grows from the ground of their commu- nities to elude the merely provincial and sectarian. A s well, these women dance deftly around the political conundrum, for though their perspectives and voices are female and though they refuse to shy away from women’s social and psycho- logical repression, they do not use their books for feminist grandstanding or, less pejoratively, for dissecting female vic- timization. The feminist touches are im- plicit and subtle.
Gertrude Story’s Black Swan is u n – equivocally a fine, impressive book, al- though I have reservations about its last two sections. Akin in structure to Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, the book can be read as a novel or a group ontextually related stories. It records the life, times, and death of a central protagonist, Gerda Schroeder Beckmann, as she at fifty, crazed by a life of stymied creativity and repressed emotion — both can be chalked up to her Papa’s ruthless tyranny — breaks forth in a mad kind of song. Gerda writes to heal her wounded spirit, to tell her family stories, to love with words those she has not loved in the flesh. Like the proverbial black swan, she tells some disturbing tales. In the superb “Das Engelein Kommt,” Gerda speaks of Elsa, who against the normal rules of fairytale devolves from an “Engelein” to an ugly duckling. Papa’s behind it all; just as he is the reason for the ten-year- old Elsa’s suicide. A need for paternal attention drives Elsa to the stall of her father’s verboten white stallion, but all he does is scrape his daughter’s body from the hooves of the stallion and keep riding — his horse and his family.
Elsa’s tale is the most dramatic; still, there are others. Story’s intuitive grasp of body metaphor houses the family in- side Gerda. Elsa is a voice haunting her sister, and demanding the liberation which depends on Gerda’s speaking, well, really writing. Poor Mama — who “knew how to work around trouble” — is an ache in Gerda’s throat. Murray, the son who “was always too good” and “loved too much,” another victim of Papa’s callous egocentricity, insists his tale be told. Gerda has survived because she has always looked the “sonofabitch, straight in the eye” and later willed his heart to burst — and it did. But the price of sur- vival is a steep one, imposing on Gerda a life of silence and loneliness, a mania for order — she begins breakfast between 6:00 and 6:05 A.M., because that was “the time.” Finally, at fifty she must learn to love — and, though Gerda fights them all the way, the stories she writes
(the book itself) are the love which re- deems her family and herself.
Story’s elaborate use of metaphor and symbol implies that Gerda’s circum- stances are not significantly different from those of all creators. True, Papa’s Prussian temperament drives his daugh- ter’s potential inward until it explodes as “voices” from the communal past and a set of “fantastic” images, a winged, silver horse transmuted to an elegant unicorn. True, Gerda’s isolation is com- plete and her craziness no joke, but how different is this from any writer who finally has to face blank pages and a typewriter, and to hear the “voices”? Creativity is painful, Story intimates, but she also believes process and product give a measure of redemption.
All this ignores Story’s fine craftsman- ship. Her elaborate imagery and her play with “swan” and “singing” reverberate through Black Swan, delineating her concept of the artist and his inability to escape the life to which many are called but few chosen. The tightness and econ- omy of her writing are impressive; it is filled with understatement and nuance; her use of rural German-Saskatchewan idiom is flawless. Point of view is won- derfully controlled. For example, all World War II, the time “that the Hitler war got into full swing,” means to Gerda is the end of “German” Church — thank God. The last two sections where Gerda, having run out of stories and slit her wrists, meets her doppelgänger and en- ters a kind of female heaven, trouble me. Maybe we are not to take this literally? But D. M. Thomas got away with some- thing similar in The White Hotel, so why not Gertrude Story? Perhaps this reader is being too “writerly.”
Gertrude Story combines the rigour of inspired story-telling with polished, clever writing. Rona Murray’s qualities are dif- ferent — her strengths are sensitivity to images and a mythopoeic consciousness. Her writing is quicker, yet more leisurely, and the best stories in The Indigo Dress unfold slowly, gracefully, compelling the
reader to read if only to savour the
beauty of phrasing and the freshness of
the images. N o t surprisingly, considering
her myth-making qualities a n d h e r home
in Victoria, Murray’s stories abound in
images of growth, flowers, a n d gardens.
In “Marina Island,” a young girl ac-
companies h e r great-grandmother o n a
pilgrimage to Marina Island where the
old lady remembers her passionate,
Edenic affair of sixty years earlier — a
love which h a s indelibly shaped h e r life.
Sadly, Marina Island is a ruined Eden,
and the knowing old woman cries in the
spoiled Garden as she gazes at a beauti-
ful emerald — a gift from her dead
lover. The tragic reality escapes the
grandmother, but not the reader. M ur-
ray’s compassion and respect for the
grandmother invoke reader sympathy
and understanding, some of which spills
over to the granddaughter who has con- bone, and speech?” (that is the whole
fronted death a n d human eccentricity, and w h o will soon suffer, o n e suspects, the pain of lost love.
Sympathy and respect for human in- firmity, even downright weakness, typify Murray’s response to her people: espe- cially the elderly (Emily in “Nana” who creates dreams of things past a n d dresses them up) ; especially the young and fragile (the narrator of “The Indigo Dress” who falls in love with the arche- typal older woman, his mother’s friend) ; especially t h e dispossessed ( t h e woman in “Blessed” whose married lover has left her to weep with her classical fa- vourite, Queen Dido). Unfortunately, charming as Murray’s writing is, her characters are relentlessly middle-class with the limited capacities and petty problems of the middle-class. Her myths attempt redemption, b u t these characters do not deserve it.

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