Us, Now: Stories from The Quilted Collective. Breakwater Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
The Queer Evangelist: A Socialist Clergy’s Radically Honest Tale. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Mennonite Valley Girl: A Wayward Coming of Age. Greystone Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
These three works, all spearheaded by women, are worth picking up for different reasons. Mennonite Valley Girl offers a fresh coming-of-age narrative, The Queer Evangelist offers a radical look at politics, and Us, Now offers new voices in fiction.
Beautifully, lyrically written, Mennonite Valley Girl considers a 1980s childhood before computers and cellphones made everything mundane. The telephone itself, firmly bolted to the kitchen wall, brought in magic from the outside world—the voice of grandma, or the voice of a stranger in Hawai’i indulging teenage girls making random 1-800 calls from central British Columbia. That chapter—“Hello”—is by itself worth the price of the book.
Funk’s growing up hovers on the edge between Mennonite society and the mainstream, too worldly to be considered “a good Mennonite girl” and too Mennonite to be considered “normal.” Funk says that she originally
relished the blessing of being set apart from the secular realm where kids grew into teenagers who blasphemed and smoked and did not submit to authority, where they weren’t even being warned that the Mark of the Beast would soon be tattooed on every unbeliever’s forehead. I’d felt sorry for those public-school students abandoned to the kingdom of darkness, sorry for their ignorance. (104–05)
But as she grows older, like most teenagers, she also begins to find her small town—in this case, Vanderhoof—rather constraining. Not willing to settle for a life of marriage and babies, Funk decries this fate during a bra-shopping trip with her mother:
She pointed us toward a rack of huge cups and thick straps in a color called “nude,” the shade of beige assigned to females as they age. Beige shoes, beige pantyhose, beige underwear, beige purse, beige tuna casserole with a can of mushroom soup, beige wall-to-wall carpet hushing the footfall in a split-level house. A message from the future whispered beige, beige, beige, a soft, hypnotic syllable ushering me toward womanhood and boredom. (58)
In its marketing material, the publisher has tagged Mennonite Valley Girl as a book that will appeal to fans of Miriam Toews’ writing, but this seems unnecessary since Funk herself is such an excellent writer.
DiNovo is the Ontario MPP who has perhaps made the most individual difference in the legislation governing the province, sponsoring several private member’s bills that actually passed into law, not an easy feat for an opposition backbencher. Chapter 18, “How to Get Laws Passed with Little Power,” is worth reading for her account of innovating the tri-party (NDP, Liberal, Conservative) private member’s bill, a brilliant strategy that worked so well it is now against the rules.
But DiNovo found her way into politics via a circuitous route: an unconventional childhood, a Trotskyist youth, a lucrative flirtation with capitalism, and then an about-turn into the pulpit of the United Church of Canada. This last shift was courtesy of the 1990 recession, which tanked her corporate headhunting business. “Without the recession,” she muses, “would I ever have changed? I started going to church before the recession, but I never really immersed myself in church until after. Cocaine left the lives of everyone I knew, and direct involvement in capitalism left mine” (45).
As perhaps the most left-wing of mainstream churches in Canada, the United Church was not a bad segue into the NDP. But the ruthlessness of politics meant that DiNovo made the changes she could, and then got out again, returning to the pulpit, which she calls “the best job in the world” (172). Looking back on her political career, she says, “I used to joke with colleagues and friends that working in politics was like working in the Mafia. Every day was graft and corruption, and a good day was when no one got whacked” (107).
Overall, this is a very refreshing book in that vast, dense field of Canadian political memoir. Despite the fact that the publisher is an academic press, however, there is no index, making the book less useful than it could be. They also skimped on the copy-editing.
The Quilted Collective is a lucky group of new Canadians brought together for a six-week fiction-writing class coached by Lisa Moore. Keen to add new voices to the literature of Newfoundland and Labrador, Moore took up the challenge proposed by Remzi Cej of the Office of Immigration and Multiculturalism. It is delightful to see a government department acknowledge the power of the arts, and so appropriate in this case. As Moore writes in her introduction, “stories infamously, magically, slip through all kinds or borders, the imagination uncontainable” (xiv). Stories like “Water Buffalo Boys” by Zay Nova will resonate with farm kids everywhere who have won 4H prizes for animal care, while others like “softly, with niyyat” by Sobia Shaheen Shaikh will resonate with women of any background who are stuck in a bad marriage. While all the stories are interesting, one—“The Chinese Lady” by William Ping—reveals an already accomplished author at work.
Though Us, Now is meant to be fiction, almost every story reads as personal experience. Consequently, The Queer Evangelist, Mennonite Valley Girl, and Us, Now, make an interesting life-writing trilogy, weaving a line across the country from BC, running through Toronto, and tying off in Newfoundland and Labrador.
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