Small Reckonings: A Novel

22 May 2020

Small Reckonings
by Karin Melberg Schwier
Published by Burton House Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00 ISBN 9-780994-866950

Time stopped as I read Saskatoon writer Karin Melberg Schwier’s Small Reckonings. Characters in this Watrous, SK-based historical novel – set between 1914 and 1936 – are exquisitely and sympathetically drawn, the plot moves, and the portrait of this small town and its multi-ethnic pioneers rings true and clear as windchimes in a prairie breeze. Melberg-Schwier earned the 2019 John V. Hicks Long Manuscript Award for Fiction with this story. If there be gods, she’ll be earning many more awards: Small Reckonings deserves a huge audience.

This book – inspired by true events – begins with a great dramatic hook. Who is this Nik, hanging from the barn rafters, looking “not wild-eyed [but] more as if he’d given it some consideration and just preferred to get it over and done with”? We soon meet William, an earnest homesteader from New Zealand, and his future wife, the enigmatic Louise, who uses food to quell what befell her while she worked “at an institution for the feeble-minded”. Melberg Schwier expertly creates individuated characters readers will care deeply about, including the central figure, Violet, who, at birth, looks like “a large pink spider,” and of whom the attending doctor says “‘There are places for these children.’” Equally well drawn are Violet’s doting brother, John; kind neighbour, Hank; and the Ukrainian Yuzik family. The characters struggle through the Depression years, and with the disparate lots they’ve been dealt in life.

I know Watrous well, so it was especially fun reading the descriptions of this “boomtown”. William tells Louise that “‘Watrous has wooden sidewalks now, and shops and a bakery. A very decent butcher. A poolroom and barbershop,’” and that the mineral springs possess “‘healing powers, so say the Indians’”. I can smell the “sweet scent of [Scandanavian] rosettes just pulled from hot oil,” and hear the “‘Uff da’” exclamations. I easily see the “green apron with yellow rickrack,” and I almost sneeze at the description of the schoolboy “banging erasers at arm’s length on the bottom step, a cloud of chalk dust drifting away lazily in the afternoon heat”. I transported as I read about caragana seed pods “snapping and cracking” in the sunshine, and as the lead siblings spoke of “anti-I-over” and “Simon Says”. The “forlorn autumn sound” of honking geese was like an echo.

This book succeeds so well because the writer’s learned the tricky art of literary balance, ie, as skilled as she is at penning descriptive scenes, they never slow the pacing of this taut novel. The book’s structure is nuanced, and seemingly minor details – like a fishhook caught in an eye – have resonance. The characters are people we know or can very easily imagine. Here’s Hanusia, the raw Ukrainian midwife, upon the birth of John: “‘So quick first baby! Much hair. Strong boy, good for farm work. Your husband, he will be happy.’”) And the plot? Movie potential.

“No one was ever purely good. Or purely evil,” Hank thinks. This sums up Melberg Schwier’s sensitive and riveting story. I cried. You might, too.


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