Small-Town Fiction or Something (un)like It

  • Wayne Curtis
    In the Country. Pottersfield Press (purchase at
  • Elaine McCluskey
    The Most Heartless Town in Canada. Anvil Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Liza Bolen

What comes to mind when thinking of narratives set in Canada’s small towns or big cities? In what ways are these (very) arbitrary literary categories represented? Questions pertaining to “small towns” and “big cities” have generated vast critical discussions, as the divide between city and country remains an ongoing theme in the field of Canadian studies. Since the early 2000s in particular, many have investigated the urbanization of Canadian literature and attempted to define the semantics of “urban” and “rural” within the Canadian context: works such as Downtown Canada: Writing Canadian Cities (2005), edited by Justin D. Edwards and Douglas Ivison, provide a critical guide to the matter. But, as is often the case, mapping the subject can lead to its morphing into unexpected forms—take, for example, this divide from the perspectives of immigration, gender, family and tradition, or stylistics. These questions have been further problematized by the growing scholarly interest in transnationality, subsidiarity, and translocality, allowing for heterodox representations of what had been traditionally confined to the roles of the good, simple country and the bad, tough city.

How, therefore, can we consider this dichotomy in contemporary literature? In recent years, Quebec literature has seen a resurgence of rural-centric fiction as part of a movement often referred to by critics as néo-terroir (Raymond Bock, William S. Messier, Samuel Archibald), which plays with the codes and mythologies of pastoral traditions. And, although they have perhaps not yet been labelled within such niche categories, many contemporary writers throughout other parts of Canada demonstrate a similar desire to engage with rural themes through the optic of hybridity and identity (Michelle Berry, Dionne Brand, Derek McCormack, Fred Wah). The two books reviewed here, Wayne Curtis’s In the Country and Elaine McCluskey’s The Most Heartless Town in Canada, offer an additional layer to the depths within small-town fiction.

At first glance, you may think In the Country proposes a series of short stories that come together as an ode to the tranquil beauty and nature of rural New Brunswick. This impression is not entirely false, but with his precise, intimate prose, Curtis—who counts Robert Frost among his influences—is able to accompany the reader into progressively darker portraits of his hometown of Keenan, New Brunswick, in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Thus, without ever falling into the trap of parody or caricature, he exposes the hardships of farm life and discusses the difficult, self-conscious relationship with larger towns and cities. Curtis touches upon this issue in his excellent introduction to the collection of short stories: “A country youth, however deep-rooted, is always curious about the urban lifestyle and feels deep down in his or her heart of hearts that they are buried alive from the modern world and its amenities.” The tension—or temptation—with city life is also noted in a few of the stories, exposing the struggles of both rural and urban spheres.

Also set in the Maritimes, McCluskey’s The Most Heartless Town in Canada is a very honest, unfiltered, and refreshing take on small-town fiction. The “heartless town” in question is Myrtle, Nova Scotia, an otherwise unmemorable part of what the author calls “dying Canada” (there is, indeed, a fair dose of well-placed, self-deprecating humour in this novel). There, we are taken into the quotidian life of Rita Van Loon, who spends most of her free time as part of the rather average Otters Swimming Club, and Hubert Hansen, who came from Newfoundland after the death of his father and spends most of his free time disappearing into the night with his dog. Through their stories, we are taken back to the moment that changed everything: the mysterious deaths of eight bald eagles, captured in a viral photo also depicting Van Loon and Hansen. With this intriguing and poignant plot line, McCluskey offers a rare take on small communities, the media, and the commodification of small-town people and stories (a theme embodied through the character of Toronto journalist Maggie Delaney).

With these books, Curtis and McCluskey demonstrate captivating styles and energy. They provide rich, complex illustrations of the daily realities of the worlds they chose to depict, interlaced with sensitive, honest reminders of the remaining tensions and misconstructions surrounding the notions of city and country.

This review “Small-Town Fiction or Something (un)like It” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 143-144.

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