2002 Governor General's Literary Award Winner for Fiction
In her stunning debut collection of short stories, Gloria Sawai examines the heartbreaking lives of people on the margins. A group of young school students prepares a memorial for the town’s deceased doctor, at the inadvertent risk of deeply offending his widow. A young girl learns important things about herself – some of them extremely unpleasant – on a storm-ravaged Mother’s Day weekend. A woman on a road trip in search of her erstwhile husband finds instead the one thing she never expected to see again in her lifetime. A woman sitting on the deck outside her Moose Jaw home receives an unusual and unexpected gentleman caller. And, in the title story, an outcast and misunderstood woman and her disgraced lover struggle toward what may be their last chance at redemption These and other vividly drawn characters populate the stories collected for the first time in A Song for Nettie Johnson. With insight and passion, Sawai throws light into dark corners and reveals dark truths. Some stories are linked by common characters and settings; others are worlds unto themselves. But all are told in a rich yet spare style that imbues them with understated foreboding and unease. As Sawai deftly turns over the stones of these people’s lives and finds the squalor, fear and unhappiness that lie beneath, she also uncovers that most precious of gems: hope. Hope that things will not always remain the way they are. The realization remains, however, that there’s a lot more to changing things than simply wanting them to change.
Edmonton writer Gloria Sawai attained a modest fame a few years ago with a story that uniquely probed religious faith. The Day I Sat With Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts has appeared in a dozen publications around the world. It’s a gem.
In a house on the edge of a small prairie town, Gloria is sitting on her sundeck gazing out over endless flat farmland and vaulting blue sky. It’s 1972, a perfect balmy morning. Damp laundry awaits her in the house, but she has happily exchanged it for a glass of white wine and a few moments of calm. She sees an approaching bump on the horizon. “Beauty and tranquility floated toward me…at around 9:30.”
The story’s odd resonances must be discovered. Sawai avoids the lyrical, spinning her tale like an anecdote, something strange and captivating you’d hear in a neighbour’s kitchen. The effect is understated, but revelatory.
Other stories in this debut share a similar tone. A Song for Nettie Johnson, at 90 pages, is a perfectly formed novella. Bill and Nettie are living in a peculiar kind of sin near Stone Creek, Sask. The parson of the local church is under pressure from tut-tutting parishioners to bar Eli from directing the annual Handel’s Messiah. A perennial drunk, Eli is at the moment teetering on the lip of the wagon. When the parson grants the Christmas concert to someone else, Eli digs up a long-hidden bottle, then gets a brainstorm. The parson is made to change his mind. As rehearsals unfold, Eli employs all his charms to coerce the reclusive Nettie into attending the big night. Haunted by a tormenting childhood, Nettie seems doomed to consider herself an oddball, forever undeserving of joy.
But in a dark and snowy churchyard, she at last comes close to it, or as close as she ever will, and we see that it’s enough.
Mother’s Day places a pubescent girl on a cold and barren country road, where in a fit of despairing rage she kills a sickly kitten after family and neighbours refuse to take it in.
Risking the alienation of sensitive readers, Sawai goes to the heart of those pivotal moments that wrench naiveté from us and replace it with the hard knowledge of adulthood.
These are parables of doubt, faith and love. Whatever debates you’ve had with yourself about God and belief, or however long it’s been since you left them behind, this book will almost certainly stir those embers again. Sawai’s subtext is clear: God or no God, the search for redemption begins deep inside each of us.