Before reading a book, I wonder what new landscapes (internal and external) I’ll explore, what characters and situations I’ll be introduced to. With short stories, I’ve often found that those furthest from what I believe to be the writer’s personal experience are the most successful.
So it was with A Rain of Dragonflies, by Saskatoon’s Regine Haensel, a collection of fourteen short stories. The two that most captivated were “The Cage,” about a dumpster-diving recluse who cages a canary that’s flown into her two-room rooftop suite, and “Winter,” about a flowerchild-turned-teacher who picks up an elderly female hitchhiker during a “near blizzard,” and has her perceptions challenged. Many (if not most) writers do use “seeds” from their lives as inspiration, even when writing fiction. I don’t know how much of these particular stories was fabricated – Haensel did work as a teacher and lived in remote communities like the ones described in the book – but I do know that they really work.
Several characters are unsettled re: the way their lives have turned out, but unlike the rest, Aggie (from “The Cage”) doesn’t question her lot. “She had always accepted everything that went on around her, accepted it as the way of the world” and she “found ways to live within its limitations”. This story succeeds because Haensel never allows it to get sentimental. She portrays loneliness by having Aggie spend most of her days “listening to the cracked radio that only got local stations or looking at pictures in the tattered magazines that she collected.”
Aggie’s home decoration consists of magazine photos, her own drawings, and newspaper-clipped images of birds. She has a cracked plate and label-less tins in the cupboard, collects beer bottles, and is familiar with back alleys, where “garbage cans [spill] over with crumpled paper and old rags, boxes [smell] of rotting vegetables or wilted flowers”. These visceral details make the story credible, and the objective reportage of events allows readers to emotionally connect: we’re not being told what to feel, we’re allowed to experience it ourselves.
“Winter” succeeds because the writer first establishes how challenging Saskatchewan winters truly can be, ie “one snowfall leads to another and has to be shoveled out in the morning and sometimes again when you get home at night.” It also lasts “six months if you’re lucky, closer to seven if you’re not.” There’s a quilt in the truck because its heater doesn’t work well. (Been there).The teacher\narrator is begrudging winter and “the settled life” she’s fallen into when the hitchhiking woman appears. The teacher remembers her own days of hitchhiking – and freedom – and experiences a rainbow of emotions, including pity, and incredulity that her aged guest is bound for Winnipeg, five hundred miles hence. Where do both women belong? Suddenly, the teacher’s life doesn’t seem so glum.
Parents … spouses … a werewolf. Many characters in these fine stories have their eyes opened in one way or another; my bet is that most readers will experience the same.
THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM THE SASKATCHEWAN PUBLISHERS GROUP WWW.SKBOOKS.COM