________________ CM . . . . Volume IX Number 13 . . . . February 28, 2003


Fractures: Family Stories.

Budge Wilson.
Toronto, ON: Penguin Canada, 2002.
195 pp., pbk., $16.00.
ISBN 0-14-331201-4.

Subject Heading:
Family-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Darleen Golke.

**** / 4


At 23 Withrow Street, which is where we lived, my mother's rules were clear. I was to stay as clean as possible, make as little noise as I could, and keep out of the way. Crying was noise, so I learned very early that a skinned knee or a nasty friend or a nightmare was not sufficient cause for tears. They weren't tragic enough to qualify as roadblocks to her rigid agendas. A crying child could stretch an hour of meal preparation to an hour and a quarter. Grocery shopping wasn't as efficient and quick if I yelled when a can of Campbell's tomato soup (large size) fell on my toe. And I knew what not to do if she was engrossed in watching her favourite TV show. Still, in the very rare moments when my mother wasn't engaged in doing anything specific or planned, I might feel at liberty to cry. I remember her comforting me once or twice with hugs. I can recall those times, even now, at the age of forty. The feeling was warm, like the hot water bottle she used for her aching back. It was soft, like the small yellow blanket that I hugged at bedtime. It was also safe, in the way a best friend provides you with social safety.

When I was eight, my father gave me a dog. He didn't buy him, that's for sure. No one would be selling a dog that was so visibly a misfit, so clearly a mongrel. He was a mixture of a dozen breeds. His nose was blunt when it should have been sharp. His long hair was destined to be forever muddy, because it was too close to every puddle he waded through. Besides, he loved to roll in things - in piles of crisp leaves, in street gutters, in my mother's vegetable garden. His tail was too bushy, his legs were too short. But his eyes were large and eloquent; they told me without question that he adored me. And I loved him with a passion that even now can bring a lump to my throat. I called him Sherlock.

"A fracture is not always a break," asserts award-winning author, Wilson, in the introduction to this excellent collection of twelve stories. "Usually," she continues, "it's a crack, and sometimes a small one. The families in these stories are often fractured - seldom entirely broken, but flawed on several levels." Whether the story indulges memories of the past as in the selection above or reflects the immediate emotions of childhood, Wilson successfully evokes the minutiae of discomfort often attached to the process of growing up.

     Eight stories feature female voices, three male voices, and one, in diary format, dual voices; seven of the stories are first person accounts, five third person. Wilson's native Nova Scotia acts as the backdrop with beautifully detailed glimpses into the landscape and atmosphere of the area whether the setting is a city like Halifax, the seacoast, or the countryside. In some "parts of the province, winter can seem as forever as dying" complains the narrator of “Mr. Manuel Jenkins” while Sylvia, a sea-person, in “Brothers and Sisters” revels in the "turbulent sea" with whitecaps "which raced toward the northern point of land, crashing on granite rocks in an explosion of white breakers and spray" while the "waves pounded onto the sand, then inhaled into themselves" under a "dazzling blue" sky.

     Some of the stories focus on the "cracks" in relationships between mothers and their offspring. “Lida, Like a Water Lily,” deals with a joyless mother for whom, "somewhere along the way, all the softness had got sucked out" and "what rushed back to fill up the empty space was rage," an anger "so black and blinding that she can't see beyond it to anything else." In “Two Diaries,” Richard's mother, a journalist, is "crazed with curiosity," and so he acquires a strongbox to hide his diary from her prying eyes. The narrator of “Crybaby” observes that "trying hard enough" was his mother's philosophy, and her rules controlled all aspects of family life. Mother's "obsession with food and cleanliness and good behaviour" and her "refusal to listen to what I was or was not saying" irritates the narrator of “Mr. Manuel Jenkins.” In her diary, the narrator of “Mothers” complains about her mother's ambition but realizes her good fortune when she confronts the maternal physical abuse inflicted on her gymnastics' rival, Angela. Charlotte in “The Metaphor” describes her mother as:

a flawless modern building, created of glass and the smoothest of pale concrete. Inside are business offices furnished with beige carpets and gleaming chrome. In every room there are machines - recording devices, fax machines, copiers, computers. They are buzzing and clicking away, absorbing and spitting out information with a speed and skill that is not normal. Downstairs, at ground level, people walk in and out, tracking mud and dirt over the steel-grey tiles, marring the cool perfection of the building. There are no comfortable chairs in the lobby.

     While mothers may dominate, manipulate, perpetrate mindless cruelties, or be simply unaware, fathers also "are flawed on several levels." Lida's alcoholic father deters her from inviting friends home until she gets the courage to ask for his cooperation. Jeff needs to show his father (“Fathers”) "that he was a winner" because he was "so sick of being put down, of being told he was a sissy, of being mocked for being a klutz . . . of being made to feel like such a big nothing." From his successful Bay Street venue, the narrator of “Dreams” looks back at his youthful longing to be the "most talented fisherman in Mackerel Cove" and recalls how his father, who gutted fish all day and terrorized his family at night, insisted he accept "the biggest university scholarship for the region" and "pitch out [his] fancy dreams." Clara (“Confusion”) struggles with what she sees as her preacher father's hypocrisy railing against sin, yet sinning himself. The father, "an ambitious but unsuccessful man who wanted everything to go his way - or come his way," slams the narrator of “Crybaby” "across the side of [his] face with the back of his hand" to stop his crying about the loss of his dog.

     As well as providing love and care, fathers or mothers respectively, often assume protectionist roles, deflecting anger and criticism or explaining perceived contradictions or injustices. Mrs. Adams reminds Clara (“Confusion”) she can't expect her father to be perfect and explains, "he's aware of his short fuse and he's working on it" albeit "for twenty-five years." In trying to protect Carlotta from worrying about her mother's leukemia, the parents in “Carlotta's Search” fail her and she turns to a teacher who takes her to the school library and assists in her search for information.

     Not surprisingly, teachers appear in several stories. When Mrs. Jolliffe introduces Lida and her classmates to similes, Julie, a new student, fosters a change in Lida's self image with her comparison: "Lida is like a water lily, lying quietly on the surface of the lake, her petals pale and perfect. Her eyes are green, like the still waters of the pond, shining clear and deep in the sunlight." Mrs. Galaxy (“Fathers”) shares very personal experiences of "knowing yourself" as she sends her graduating class on its way thinking about self-knowledge that helps Jeff endure his father's expectations, and Fingers Delaney accept his "mark of esteem," the sixth finger on his left hand. Miss Cassidy introduces Carlotta to the library and the world of information, and she feels "free." Miss Hancock, a flamboyant and eccentric teacher of "literature and creative writing," “plump and . . . over-enthusiastic," introduces her junior high students to metaphor and expresses concern and offers personal help to Charlotte after hearing her "my mother" metaphor.

     Whether the stories focus on sibling rivalry, self-image, relationships, dysfunctional families, self-knowledge, or illness and death, Wilson incorporates tolerance and gentleness in her tales and permits each young person to find a measure of joy and comfort in his/her "fractured" family environment. Mr. Manuel Jenkins instills harmony in the Nickerson household; Julie encourages everyone to look at Lida through her eyes (“Like a Water Lily”); Sylvia's despair turns to joy when Marcus stumbles into her life (“Brothers and Sisters”); Carlotta, armed with information, can cope with her mother's illness; Richard and Erika of “Two Diaries” find each other through adversity; the narrator of “Crybaby,” "socially inept, emotionally fettered, and philosophically naive" finally releases "the band of steel" and cries "for every remembered grief and rage" and abuse he endured as a child.

     Wilson's family stories provide sensitive and insightful glimpses into the uncertainties, the discoveries, the agonies, and the joys of growing up. The stories will resonate with both young and old as the themes are universal and the prose is vital, compelling, and rich in imagery. Fractures joins Wilson's 1991 collection, The Leaving, in presenting memorable characters and thought-provoking stories.

Highly Recommended.

Darleen Golke is a librarian living in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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