Testing the limits of faith

Joan Sullivan
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Running the Whale’s Back:
Stories of Faith and Doubt From Atlantic Canada
Edited by Andrew Atkinson
and Mark Harris
Goose Lane
306 pages; $19.95

"Running the Whale's Back," a collection of works by 19 authors from Atlantic Canada.

This collection includes 19 authors from Atlantic Canada, with eight of them connected to Newfoundland and Labrador: Joan Clark, Michael Crummey, Jessica Grant, Michelle Butler Hallett, Kenneth J. Harvey, Samuel Thomas Martin, Kathleen Winter and Michael Winter.

And the others include David Adams Richards, Lynn Coady, Alistair MacLeod and Ann-Marie MacDonald. This is high-calibre stuff.

As the subtitle indicates, the narratives envelop a kernel of faith and doubt, which then sprouts into all kinds of directions.

“Things seem completely inevitable in retrospect,” Crummey writes in “Miracles,” the story of two brothers of Salvationist parents, who grew up in a mining town. They’ve become estranged, partly because of religion, and have come together for a fateful (and maybe last) supper.

In Clark’s “Salvation,” teenaged Mary Anne is packed hymnal-tight with Baptist judgment. “The tea, Mary Anne knew very well, was to cure a hangover and to keep her mother awake. Her mother thought she didn’t know about the hangover or why she was so tired. But Mary Anne knew all right.”

The writing throughout is very fine, but even in this company, Grant’s “My Husband’s Jump” is a standout.

The setup is striking and deliciously absurd: an Olympic ski jumper goes up and never comes down, leaving his wife, and everyone else, to ponder the implications.

In just five pages, Grant investigates the situation as only she can: was it drug-induced (as the IOC first believes)? Personal (as his parents seem to think)? Or an act of God?

As she explains to Sister Perpetua, her former principal: “Why not leap of faith? I told her I was sure of God’s existence now, as sure as if he were tied up in my backyard.”

Belief can provide answers, and refuge. But it can also leave the believers vulnerable. In Carol Bruneau’s “Doves”:

“Come with me,” I say softly. “Are you hungry?” Sister Marcetta would not approve, but I lead him to the kitchen, take a sandwich from the refrigerator. The bread is very white; everything about this place is so. He looks like he is eating snow, devouring it — a jackal that has not eaten in some time. The food soothes him. The dominion of God is suddenly vast and in the man’s calm I am a refugee, nation-less before God’s will. My life exists without borders. Sometimes it seems I will never comprehend the ways of this frozen place, but as Marcetta says, it is up to us to cast the seeds. Only the Lord can make them grow.

This kind, or a kind, of devotion, can limn an entire childhood, as in Macleod’s “Vision”:

During their week in Canna they noticed small differences in the way of doing things. The people of Canna tied their horses with ropes around their necks instead of halters. They laid out their gardens in beds instead of in rows and they grew a particular kind of strawberry whose fruit grew far from the original root. When they drew water from their wells they threw away the first dipperful and the water itself had a slightly different taste. They set their tables for breakfast before retiring for the night. They bowed or curtsied to the new moon, and In the church of St. Columba the women sat on one side of the aisle and the men on the other.

There are links of religious figures — St. Columba comes up often in the Maritime stories.

And themes recur, especially concerning families; nothing begs or requires or drains or restores faith quite like a family. As Coady writes in “Batter My Heart”:

Now about Daddy, different people have said different things. He is the kindest man you could ever know. Well — he’s got his own way. He’s got his own opinions and, goddamnit, he’s not afraid to express them. With his fists if it comes down to that. Quite the temper. Quite the mouth, if you get him going. A good man. The only honest man in town. A visionary. A saint. Would do anything for you, but if you disappoint him, I guess he’ll let you know it.

Deep Too

Stan Dragland

BookThug

80 pages; $12

Described as “a book of non-fiction stories,” this chapbook, composed with ampersands and idiosyncratic capitalization and punctuation, comprises a tri-part assemblage of such miscellany as spam email, a plot reprise of “Sling Blade” (the film also gives it its title), and a quote from Kevin O’Leary.

At times profanely focused on urinals and associated rituals, latte obscenities and limericks about a man from Nantucket, the writing is actually circling around and towards the ultimate profanity, the brutal treatment human beings can inflict on each other.

Battery Radio

An Interactive Adventure in Sound

Inside Outside Battery is launching a new short story, and it’s by Giller-nominated novelist Lisa Moore.

These “interactive adventures” are channeled through your mobile phone as you walk along Battery Road to the North Head Trail, and include poems, vintage wartime broadcasts, songs and the Battery’s own lore and social histories. You can see the promo video at http://youtu.be/ND-wj_NegEk.

Joan Sullivan is a St. John’s-based journalist and editor

of The Newfoundland Quarterly.  

Her column returns Nov. 23.

Organizations: IOC

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canna Nantucket Battery Road

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