Harbour Publishing, 2002
Softcover; 378 pages
First published in Books in Canada, 2003
Review by: Kerry Riley
West coast writer Anne Cameron has, in her new book Hardscratch Row, focused her clear and earthy gaze on the self-satisfied, middle-class Canadian mind set. She’s gone traipsing down its corridors, wrenching open old doorways long since papered over with complacency and surface politeness, to probe fusty interior cavities and shadowy compartments, unearthing hoary tribal taboos, lurking class prejudices, and recalcitrant social stigmas. These she has poked and prodded, blinking and skulking, out into the cold light of day – and then, quixotically, perversely, hilariously, transformed them into heart-warmingly real and likable characters in this gently pointed tale of survival, rejuvenation, and essential family values.
They are a rag tag lot for sure, the siblings who form the nucleus of the story, together with their assorted children, lovers, ex-lovers and loosely defined and extended family relations. There’s Kitty the female rodeo clown, her lesbian lover Christie, with newly orphaned Noel in tow, and the beautiful Savannah, who, as a teenaged runaway, took up, simultaneously, with three swarthy Sikh brothers, any one of whom may have fathered any one of her several racially- mixed children, the first arriving when she was fifteen. There’s Glen the gay brother dying of AIDS, Jim the crazy artist, his girlfriend Audrey, the town tramp, and Seely the single mother of two snarly teenagers. The assemblage seems tailor-made to leave any conservative-leaning, right-thinking mind, possessed of firm assumptions about just what’s normal and correct (the “shocked and appalled bunch” as Cameron calls them) well, shocked and appalled. Cameron turns assumptions on their head, however, by having the characters themselves simply refuse to inhabit their appointed clichés. However anarchic the exterior details of their lives, whatever damage their pasts may have wrought, Kitty, Jim, Savannah, Seely and entourage, are, it turns out, just decent people attempting to negotiate life and its many difficulties (relationships, aging, kids, work) with all the grace, dignity and above all, humour, that they can. What emerges is a gentle, low-key, slice-of- life portrait of some very human people who “on the whole, more or less, so to speak and all things considered, [had] done O.K.” It’s familiar territory for the author, who has made a career out of chronicling life on the fringe of society, and she is, in this case, clearly pushing buttons with considerable glee.
The story opens with the death of Glen, which provides the catalyst for a reunion of the principle characters. Although well into adulthood at the outset of the story, the siblings have, we come to understand, shared a hellish childhood, imposed upon them by a neglectful, alcoholic mother, and an absent father. Circumstances dictate that the temporary regrouping gradually becomes a more permanent arrangement, and this fractured, scattered family slowly begins to reconfigure itself around the one symbol of love and stability in their collective past – their late grandmother’s house. This rebuilding culminates in a tentative reconciliation with the estranged father.
It would be inaccurate to say that nothing much happens in this novel – with two deaths within the first thirty pages, a collective haunting, a matriarchal showdown, a fiery car crash and miraculous rescue, a wedding, and a reconciliation, of sorts – quite a bit, in fact, happens. These events are, however, not the main focus of the story. They function, instead, as landmarks, boulders in the stream, around which daily existence, with its relentless and untidy tumble of small decisions, immediate practical details, petty considerations, meals, and laundry, flows. The narrative arc is wide and leisurely – any heavy drama occurring far off-stage, while the minute-to-minute business of living is lovingly chronicled with, at times, almost documentary precision. Readers with a strong attachment to an action, or at least incident driven plot may find this problematic, the long passages chronicling the logistics of, for example, performing farm chores with a gimpy leg, tedious, the lack of a bold and definitive climax unsatisfying. Others, however, will appreciate the subtle way in which the quotidian gradually triumphs over old pain, how tragedy is slowly engulfed in the wash of time (for what is time but a collection of momentary details?) as this motley crew eat, and sleep, bicker, tease, and talk their way
back into a family.
What tension there is in the story arises primarily from two sources. Firstly, there is the conflict between expectations for the characters, and their actual behaviour, the strength of which will vary according to readers’ own attitudes towards race, sexual orientation, gender roles, mental illness, and the nuclear family. Through her characters, Cameron confronts some prickly social issues, head on. The relationship between Savannah and her three Sikh lovers is perhaps the most prominent case in point. From one perspective it might appear to be the final degradation of family and community values — and, indeed, there is opposition to the arrangement, not only from a disapproving community, but also from the families on both sides. Bindi, the formidable mother of Savannah’s partners, ignites a feud by contending that the children, born out of wedlock to a white mother, have no souls, while Jim, in particular, has, in the past, been critical of the inter-racial (as opposed to the supernumerary ) aspects of his sister’s arrangement. Over time, however, it becomes clear that “the Dads” as the three Sikh brothers are affectionately known, have conducted themselves with fastidious integrity – lovingly and unquestioningly providing for their children, even though no one is absolutely sure whose is whose, their dealings with Savannah and her family fair and generous. Savannah, for her part, has proved to be a responsible, attentive and talented mother.
A more subtle source of tension resides in the gradual realization that this is a family at a pivotal point in its development. There is a battle raging here, between what has been and what will be. The main characters are survivors of an awful past, who have, individually, managed to make their way in life, and maintain their humanity. The question very much in play throughout, is whether or not they can, now, collectively, progress beyond survival to rebuild for themselves a new sense of family, however unorthodox. The air is prickly with issues and history — anger boils and grumbles around the periphery of the narrative like a brewing summer storm. Old hurts and grievances linger and new irritations and frustrations arise. For all their folksy wisdom, homespun humour, and wry and teasing ways, Cameron’s characters are real people, not saints, and forgiveness and accommodation, when it comes at all, is neither easy nor absolute.
Although this family is still very much a work in progress the general movement (from death to a wedding, tentative reconciliation and acceptance) is positive, indicating that they are, if stumbling, at least stumbling in the right direction, and although one would be hard pressed to produce from amongst the entire lot, one external trapping of an orthodox family life, the essentials (mutual caring, cooperation, accommodation and loyalty) do seem to be in place. One can’t help but wish them well.