Responsibility for the Other

Reviewed by Beverley Haun

Brenda Hasiuk’s short story collection Boy Lost in Wild is set in Winnipeg. Kate Cayley’s How You Were Born is set mostly in Toronto. Each book brackets its narratives with antiphonal stories and each takes its title from one of those echoing tales. Both sets of stories also explore the consequences of taking responsibility for others or of not taking such responsibility.

In Boy Lost in Wild, every story is from the point of view of a teen narrator, although some of the “teens” are looking back on their youthful experience from adulthood. This allows the narratives to span generations and historical experiences in Winnipeg and not just reflect the contemporary place even though all the stories are set at the same time. While all the stories are self-contained, characters in one sometimes refer to characters in another and a large black dog wends its way through several, helping to bind the whole. The collection is very deliberate. The teen protagonists each represent a different ethnic element of the Winnipeg mosaic: Aboriginal, Ukrainian, Icelandic, Métis, Indian, British, Muslim Iranian and a visiting Chinese student. The encompassing narrative comes full circle when the final elderly protagonist wanders into the alley behind her building to comfort a small boy lost in the opening story. Back in her room she lives inside the daydream of her past, coming as a teen from rural Manitoba to work in the city at the time of the 1919 general strike.

A decision to begin each story with a series of numbered facts makes the collection read like a textbook. Perhaps that is the intent. For the adult reader, these fact-lists jar, suggesting a lack of trust in an ability to decode the text, and detracting from the reading.

As with Hasiuk’s collection, about half the stories in Cayley’s How You Were Born unfold in real time while the other half look back, often to childhood incidents, as adults acquire insight into pivotal, character-shaping moments from their past. “The Fetch” is the most delightful of these real time stories. It stands out for the inability of its protagonist, a retired philosophy professor, to know himself or learn from his experiences. With wonderful irony, his life work was on the teachings of Levinas whose central tenet is that others cannot be made an object of the self, but must be encountered ethically as themselves. As the professor recounts his past and remembers his six wives, we wince at his own lack of self-recognition. Seeing his new neighbour, for the first time he sees himself in the other, but is mistaken. He sees the man as his fetch: a double who appears as a harbinger of death. What follows is a comic attempt to claim power from the fetch during which the professor inevitably plants the seeds of his own demise.

The stories of Hasiuk and Cayley evoke our evolving social contract, exploring the need for increased acceptance across a variety of diversities—cultural, temporal, gendered, physical, and mental.

This review “Responsibility for the Other” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 118.

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