Jonah's life as a chore-burdened Saskatchewan farm boy is hard enough without the black moods of his father, Abram, who considers himself an abject failure and humanity a plague of locusts. Worse, Jonah's Uncle Elias is a strong-ox "Samson" of a man whose God-fearing work ethic and bountiful fields have shamed Jonah's dad for decades.
Luna, the opener of Darcie Friesen Hossack's arresting story collection (short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for first fiction, canada and the Caribbean) offers characters fully integrated with their setting: defined by land, weather, hidebound family hierarchies and their success or failure at prospering under the yoke. Jonah's creeping bitterness, as he grows to become a young husband and father, gives the story a unnerving heat that you fear will become incendiary.
In Ashes, a mother and her pregnant daughter-in-law are found sparring over pie assembly in a prairie kitchen. Hossack courts our annoyance at the peevish asides and pettiness, then pulls us back sharply from the rush to judgment. We're shifted by degrees into the most gruelling of motherhood's hurts. As mother remembers the worst, daughter begins to hurt before our eyes. The drama is both bloody and admirably understated.
Ice House, probing the relationship between a pubescent girl and her bullying stepfather, is just about perfect. A fresh calf's heart still pumping on a butcher's block is the sort of symbol to defeat even veteran storytellers. Hossack sails through the metaphoric risk, placing the heart at her sleight-of-hand climax - the pulsing object gruesomely mesmerizing, then cascading with retrospective meanings.
Mennonites Don't Dance follows a young farm girl from her days as mother's perpetual kitchen aide to her stumbling years as a young wife with an infant child in the city. The simple arc of the story mixes humour with darkest tragedy, winding up with an understated finale: Lizbeth and her mother with flour to their elbows in her city kitchen, caught in a fragile moment of contentment.
Patriarchs rule many of these families. They might be newly married and test-driving fresh powers, or at death's door, flinging worn-out accusations. Mothers and kids endure the ill-tempered fallout from bosses who resent their burden of infallibility. "Take the Sears catalogue. It's Dad's until he gives it to Mom. She tears out pages … and saves them in case she's allowed to make an order. And when she isn't she uses them to line the kitchen drawers." This entry, Little Lamb, succinctly addresses the perils of a frugal Mennonite childhood. A geriatric deer accidentally hit by dad's truck means free dinner for a week. "I don't know what part we ate tonight, but I think there's a butthole stuck in my throat."
In Magpie, a young girl is trucked off to be raised on her grandparents' farm after her city parents split up. A few years later, Magda returns from school one day to find her mother's car in the farmhouse drive. She lingers in the tall grass near the house and, with her, we recall the conflict at home that led to a near-idyllic rural childhood with her loving grandma and grandpa. Linking to an earlier, open-ended story, this tale extends the generational drama while remaining itself open-ended. Magda's future rests in her own hands.
There's an unfussy purity of expression here, and of narrative control, that sometimes recalls the short fiction of Alistair MacLeod. Images come cleanly to the mind's eye while the prose itself recedes. The other MacLeodian element is Hossack's stealthy way with emotion. She never tells you how to feel. When you do find your heart opening to these characters, it rises from their authenticity, and a sure authorial hand with the interplay of surprise and inevitability.
A notable lapse: Some stories offer closing words that needlessly underscore what's already been more subtly expressed. Hossack needs only to trust her readers and her own instincts. She does it to fine effect with the story of a doomed lamb, the boy who loves it and the dad who holds the knife.
He best story of all is the last. Poor Nella Pea deftly absorbs third-person back story into a first-person narrative. Dovetailing a daughter's bitter grief with the chronicle, through diary entries, of her depressive mother's childhood, it's structurally bold, psychologically intricate and finally stunning in its emotional wallop.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.