Regine Haensel’s first collection of stories, The Other Place, is so easy to read, one need only invest a few hours, yet the compelling linked stories and their credible protagonist – Greta, a young German immigrant – remain with the reader in the way one can still feel the warmth after a good friend has been to visit.
Firstly, the book is physically enjoyable to read. The double-spaced lines are literally easy to see, and the paper used is noticeably whiter than in most books, so the black print stands out. This is rare and especially welcome. The attractive cover features multi-coloured circles (slightly reminiscent of a Spirograph design) against a lime green background, and offers no clue – not a bad thing! – as to what’s inside: nine stories about introspective Greta’s often difficult assimilation into a small prairie community. In her words, she “Wanted to get good at forgetting sad things.”
I believe Saskatoon-based Haensel has drawn deeply from her own personal experience, as a quick internet search reveals that she was born in Germany and moved to Canada in the 1950’s. Her work’s been recognized with several Saskatchewan literary awards, magazine and anthology publications, and CBC broadcasts: in short, she writes exceedingly well. Indeed, it would seem that as a child the author was taking notes on her experience, for these stories deliver images and events so convincingly they ring of memory.
In this excerpt from “Goldenrod,” eight-year-old Greta is discovering her new rural landscape: “Land rushed away to meet sky, blue and dusty green undulating together in the distance, surging back, wind whipping my dress, then gone. Stillness like listening, like waiting.” This smacks of poetry, and may seem beyond the “voice” of a child, but in Greta’s case I believe it; the author has done such a fine job of characterization, I’m assured that the observant and mature-for-her-age main character would respond to the land in this way.
The stories, all told in First Person, shed light on cultural challenges, ie: Greta’s shame about her long, braided hair (her female classmates sport short styles); her clothing (“dirndl skirts and aprons”; the other girls wear pants); and even the torte her mother makes, which is so unlike the apple pie her friend Susie’s mother serves. Greta emulates her classmates: “I practiced Susie’s laugh and the way Janet tossed her head.” So realistic.
Greta’s father is the hired man for Mr. Bradley, and the immigrant family is at the mercy of the Bradleys for everything from accommodation to fresh chicken and Greta’s ride to school. The girl dreams of having her own room, and short hair. Some wishes materialize: in this passage Greta considers her shorn braid, which her mother’s stored in a dresser: “Sometimes I would take it out and look at it by myself, this piece of hair that had once been a part of me. How strange, I thought, it doesn’t look like it belongs to anyone or anything now.”
Lovely writing, fresh insights. A book very much-enjoyed.
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