Backwater Mystic Blues

19 July 2023

Backwater Mystic Blues
by Lloyd Ratzlaff
Shadowpaw Press Reprise
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$18.99 ISBN 9781989398609

I somehow missed Backwater Mystic Blues—the contemplative collection of essays by Saskatoon’s Lloyd Ratzlaff—when it was first published in 2006. Shame on me, for I greatly admired Ratzlaff’s earlier book, The Crow Who Tampered With Time, and bought several copies. And shame on me, as—disclaimer—I call this gracious writer a friend.

Fortunately, fate’s found a way to deliver Ratzlaff’s second essay collection into my hands these many years later, and like a song you’ve not heard in a long time but, upon listening again, remember how much you enjoyed, I’m so pleased to hear the distinguished yet down-home voice of my old Mennonite friend—a former minister, counsellor and educator—once again. Backwater Mystic Blues has been reborn with Shadowpaw Press Reprise, a press that publishes “New editions of notable, previously published books”. Hurray, that.

These cultivated essays are reminiscences of a life lived with intention, but also with abundant questioning (particularly spiritual) and grief (the dissolution of a marriage, career dissatisfaction, deaths). What you’ll also find here is gentleness, nature keenly observed, scholarship, and page-by-page evidence of a human who walks through this world with a generous heart. Disparate essays are tethered via consistently effective writing, ie: the ability to transport. Here Ratzlaff describes the cellar in his childhood home:

“The one naked light bulb scarcely lit the cellar’s dim edges, where other shelves stood, holding crocks and jars and bronze canning tubs, where potatoes mouldered in the bin in the northeast, darkest corner and the upright hulk of the metal bathtub brooded of Saturdays, when it was wrestled up through the passageway so we could take turns bathing for church on Sunday.”

As a child it was Ratzlaff’s responsibility to fetch water from the village well, two blocks from home, and he writes of the enamel cup he used to dip into the bucket upon its safe return to the cellar. Years later he “salvaged” this blue cup. “It holds the innocence of childhood, and the taste of clean cold tin straight to the gut slakes my soul and puts Time in its place.”

Ratzlaff was raised in a fundamentalist sect. “In my early teens, it was a big excursion to attend a Youth for Christ rally in Saskatoon,” he writes. Decades of wrestling with “The Old Man up there and his buggers here below” saw Ratzlaff leave a 10-year career in ministry, but he confesses that he’s been “married—for better, for worse, forever—to the Christian religion,” and these essays frequently allude to his faith. The writer also went to Switzerland to honour Carl Jung, gives great consideration to his dream-world, and set aside his King James Bible for the New English Bible (Oxford Study Edition); what falls from the pages of that good Book when it’s reopened years later is nothing short of holy.

Imaginative, educated, a dreamer, and the kind of guy who finds God in “a gaggle of geese on a sandbar”. I’m so glad this book found me.


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