Quill & Quire Review - A Song for Nettie Johnson

Reviewed by: Maureen Garvie

With its drug store, churches, cafe, beerhall, and funeral parlour strung out along Main Street, Stone Creek, the setting for six of the nine stories collected in A Song for Nettie Johnson, could be any small town in Canada. But set out on the isolated, windy prairie, the small-town hominess seems oddly precarious and out of place. Gloria Sawai's characters - Sorensons, Campbells, Wongs, and Zaretskys, washed up in this dusty landscape over successive generations - sense this, some more acutely than others. Their alienation finds expression in drink, cycles of self-destructiveness, a mean-spiritedness that starts young.

Not that they're any different from the rest of us. They get on with it, finding humour, beauty, and occasional miracles in life, as in the much-anthologized "The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts." That story is uncharacteristically playful in relation to the others, but the collection does exhibit a considerable range of tone. Sawai's background in theatre and playwriting is reflected in a wonderful ear for dialogue and in her own strong, surprising voice. Sometimes, especially in the Stone Creek stories, Sawai goes for the easy targest of small-town rivalries to raise a smile. Elsewhere, as in a story of a child's haircut that is as devastating as a beating, the sense of loss and betrayal is palpable. 

But, Sawai attests, redemption is always possible - within limits. The long title story leaves us with the image of Nettie, "damaged in mind and in spirit," outside St. John's Lutheran Church in the snow, while inside the rest of the town and her new husband come together briefly, nondenominationally, in the singing of Handel's Messiah. Yet Nettie too is touched by the blessing - at a tolerable distance. Redemption in Sawai's stories is conditional, never sentimentalized, relieving but not wiping out pain. 

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