Parallel Stories

  • Kevin Major
    Land Beyond the Sea. Breakwater Books (purchase at
  • Sue Sinclair (Editor) and Shane Neilson (Editor)
    Parallel Universe: The Poetries of New Brunswick (Literary Criticism Monograph: number seven). Frog Hollow Press
  • Michael Crummey
    Most of What Follows is True: Places Imagined and Real. University of Alberta Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Tracy Whalen

Parallels are at their core relational: they occasion comparison and suggest resemblance, correlation, simultaneity, and a corresponding course. Between parallel stories lies the potential for resonance, a lively spark, a surprising insight. What might parallelism—in a spoken address, narrative plot structure, and critical anthology—teach us? Three recent publications from Atlantic Canadian writers offer insights on this score.

Michael Crummey’s Most of What Follows Is True is the written version of his 2018 Kreisel Lecture at the University of Alberta. In this talk, Crummey explores the “vexing relationship between fiction and truth.” What kinds of liberties can fiction take? What ends justify creative departures from the so-called real? The lecture progresses through parallels, examining works that navigate a similar course between fact and fiction: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Lisa Moore’s Open and Alligator, Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist, and Crummey’s own River Thieves. These parallels bring into relief the question of whether there is something greater to be served by deviations from the factual— whether, to quote Stan Dragland, fiction “thickens the real.” Crummey discusses, favourably, books that pursue truth over the real and, less favourably, those whose inaccuracies are self-serving, even insulting. The Bird Artist really gets things wrong: early-twentieth-century outport Newfoundlanders drink coffee and eat scones, dine on lobster, buy bottled milk, eat copious amounts of sea bass, and speak in a bookish, mid-Atlantic prose style. Crummey calls Norman out (and calls him an “arsehole”) for a self-serving appropriation of place and its people—most egregiously, the Beothuk people. In a self-reflective move, however, Crummey acknowledges that he, too, might be called out for creative licence. We learn that, for all Crummey’s metacritical acumen, River Thieves gets it wrong with the inclusion of honeybees. A reader later informed him that there are no honeybees in Newfoundland. Crummey argues, ultimately, that “the parallel reality” of a fictionalized world, as in The Shipping News and Paul Bowdring’s The Night Season, can enhance our understanding of the real. All creative writers appropriate the world to some extent—and might get things wrong—but sensitivity to an evocative, true, and aesthetically meaningful depiction is key. A couple of Crummey’s key insights owe much to the thinking of Stan Dragland, which he acknowledges, but the lecture offers all the same a well-illustrated and engaging commentary.

Kevin Major’s historical fiction Land Beyond the Sea chronicles the sinking of the passenger ship SS Caribou by a German U-boat on October 14, 1942. It traces the parallel storylines of the German commander, Ulrich Gräf, and those on the ill-fated ferry, most notably the steward Johnny Gilbert, who survives the disaster. This parallelism encourages identification with the enemy German lieutenant who launches the torpedo, his life uncannily similar to that of the young Newfoundlander who feels its blast. While different from each other in charisma and leadership skills—Gräf is much more confident and developed a character— both young men yearn for love, and eventually find it with nurses Elise and Eva; both are restless, sensitive souls who live on the sea; both are changed men when they return to their families for a short spell after the dangers of war; and both have devoted, anxious mothers and complicated relationships with father figures. Both also have connections to Newfoundland—one by birth, the other through some deep, inexplicable, and immediate attraction. Seeing the island for the first time, the German is captivated by its coastline and “lofty cliffs indomitable”; he wants to roam the island with a sketchbook, an appreciation that will likely endear him to Newfoundland readers. The narrative underscores the power of war over both men’s lives. Especially in the case of Gräf, the war defines him. He understands himself in terms of third-person, war-bestowed categories: “[a] submariner has his life aboard his U-boat and his life ashore, and when the two intersect, he is never anything but a misfit”; “[a] U-boatman aims to fill his nights with memories”; and “[a] commander worth his rank takes no satisfaction in human torment.” In the setting of a “goddamn” war, the two men meet (but not really) at two critical narrative moments that bookend what is an engrossing, if occasionally contrived, plot.

Shane Neilson and Sue Sinclair’s edited collection signals the theme of parallelism in its title, Parallel Universe. The book proves that poetry in New Brunswick— specifically, the poetry of women, Indigenous peoples, Latinx Canadians, chapbook writers, and those outside the academic world or privileged classes—is pulsatory and alive, but lives a quiet, underacknowledged parallel life in literary discourses that favour prose and, it seems, other provinces. Parallel Universe includes academic papers, interviews, reminiscences, and reviews to celebrate poets who have been “quietly respected instead of publicly praised,” or overlooked altogether. This is a universe where writers (too many to name individually) make things happen. They write—a lot. In this “least studied” province, poets publish chapbooks, gather in pubs and living rooms, produce long-running international literary journals like The Fiddlehead, host Poetry Weekends, and sustain through collective effort and love small presses like Frog Hollow. The book is a veritable celebration of life and language: it includes words like “locavore,” “cumulonimbic,” and “slumgullions,” and complete stanzas of poetry that might stop the reader, mid-breath, with their beauty. There are, as is unavoidable, gaps in the anthology— it doesn’t include French articles or poetry, for example—but it makes a strong and persuasive case for this parallel universe to intersect more often and more visibly with other literary circles in Canada.

This review “Parallel Stories” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 30 Nov. 2020. Web.

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