Friday, January 02, 2009

#1 - A Hard Witching

Happily celebrating the new year, I read most of this book in between bewitching viewings of The Wire and during a sleepless night on the day before New Year's Eve. I enjoyed Jacqueline Baker's novel, The Horseman's Graves for my Canadian challenge last year, and when I was cleaning off my shelves (have you noticed the trend?) I found a copy of her book of short stories. We were at writer's group yesterday discussing the merits of short books, quick reads of under 200 pages -- books just like A Hard Witching.

Comprised of eight stories, surprisingly not-interlocking, the sharp edges and hard lives of the characters are softened only slightly by Baker's expert eye when it comes to detail and storytelling. While the easiest comp that one could make about Baker's writing would be to Annie Proulx, but A Hard Witching lacks the "gothic" edge that colours many of Proulx's stories (this is not a bad thing; I count Annie Proulx among one of my favourite writers). Set exclusively in or around Sand Hills, Saskatchewan, it's impossible for the people within not to be affected by the landscape. It's a popular, familiar Canadian theme, but Baker allows herself to take it a little further, to flush out the emotional lives of her characters in ways that feel fresh and not simply a reaction to their environment.

In terms of my "favourites," I'd have to say that I enjoyed the title story most of all, for its somewhat strange, utterly compelling main character, a widow caught between the idea of how to lead her life post-her husband's death and who she was while she was married, and for its stark, captivating ending. I loved this line to death: "Oh, trouble comes in threes all right, Edna would say generously, but it's the weak who let it stay." As Omar from The Wire would say, "Indeed." An echo of sadness runs through many of the stories as well, not that it becomes overwhelming and certainly not to the detriment of the writing. They're real honest people within these pages and Baker tells their stories without unnecessary frills. In a way, a nice compliment to A Hard Witching might be Tim Winton's The Turning and I'm so glad I found this little volume just waiting to be read on my newly organized bookshelves.

READING CHALLENGES: As Jacqueline Baker is Canadian and a lady, A Hard Witching counts toward my Canadian Book Challenge. I'm going to swap out Gil Adamson's Help Me, Jacques Cousteau because my copy is buried in our closet and my RRHB convinced me those books would be out in the open soon enough that they didn't need to all be pulled out for the sake of me finding it and Moby-Dick. I'm also going to count this as Canada for Around the World in 52 Books because it's so evocative of our prairie landscape.

COMPS AND OBSERVATIONS: Baker has a talent for writing adolescent characters and their stories, similar, I think, to Kate Sutherland's excellent All in Together Girls. Not exactly YA, they do capture the awkward and utterly alienating time one spends as a teenager and both explore how your teenage years stick with you well into adulthood.

OTHER REVIEWS: Melanie also read A Hard Witching for her Canadian challenge last year.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: I finished Bill Bryson's Shakespeare this morning and pulled Sometimes a Great Notion off the shelf to start this evening.

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