A Song for Nettie Johnson, by Gloria Sawai
Regina: Coteau Books, 2001. 296 pp.
This collection of literary short stories won the Governor General’s award for fiction in Canada in 2001. The stories are loosely connected by a sense of place – small towns on the Canadian prairies – and by recurring images of light and song. In every story, the characters quote from hymns and gospel songs. The first six stories take place in the fictional town of Stone Creek, and some of the characters overlap. The last three stories are set in other prairie towns.
Sawai’s characters have meagre and painful lives: there’s alcoholics, outcasts, poor people, children, single mothers; there’s death and loss. Yet, as the Governor
General’s Award Jury writes, “The power of grace illuminates her world.” Each story has a redemptive quality.
The title story is the first one in the collection, and it’s long – at 90 pages, almost a novella. Nettie, a woman in her early fifties, is still traumatized by her childhood experience of losing her mother and then being abused by her father. She lives as an outcast from town in a small trailer. She is befriended by Eli, an alcoholic and a musician who also does not “fit in” to small town life. The act of grace, and the turning point in this story, is a Christmas concert of the Messiah. Eli, as the conductor, transforms a ragtag choir and unites the townspeople under one roof. Nettie cannot bring herself to go inside the church, where people whispered about her last year, but stands outside and watches Eli’s baton through the glass. This might sound sad, but the story rises to the Hallelujah chorus while outside Nettie shouts her own song. It’s not the kind of grace that fixes; it’s grace in the midst of. This is honest writing.
On the other hand, I had to work at appreciating this story. I was unable to identify with the main characters, Nettie and Eli, and the narrator at times assumed an omniscient point of view through the artifice of looking down as an angel, which I found offputting. Over twenty minor characters – far too many – are named in the opening pages. As an editor, I would have suggested cutting the number of characters, and recasting the descriptive passages from an omniscient point of view to objective third person, or possibly to Eli’s point of view.
I kept reading because I wanted to see why this book had won one of the top awards in Canada. I wasn’t convinced after the first story, but the collection grew on me. More and more, I began to appreciate the narrative voice, the understated emotions, the skillful handling of structure, the evocative images, and the brilliant simplicity of style.
So I was disappointed when I read the last story, and it just sat on the surface. The title of the story is “The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts.” No kidding. It’s a humorous story that juxtaposes the Biblical images of the Second Coming with the untrumpeted arrival of Jesus on Gloria Johnson’s doorstep. (Is Gloria related to Nettie Johnson? Sawai doesn’t say.) The conversation that ensues is polite and banal. Jesus says things like “You have a nice view here.” When a gust of wind blows open Gloria’s kimono, Jesus says, “You have nice breasts.” Gloria proceeds to have a visionary experience, and can’t stop talking about breasts. The turning point of the story is when Jesus laughs. The obvious risk is that not all readers will find it funny.
For an editor, one of the main challenges posed by a story collection is what stories to include and in what order. Two problems stand out with this collection: the first story and the last one. The first story doesn’t draw readers in enough, and the last story differs in tone. What was shown as subtle grace in the earlier stories becomes divine comedy in the last one, but the comedy verges on farce.
As Sawai’s editor, I would have suggested replacing the last story, or simply dropping it. An alternative would be a two-part structure. I would suggest that the first part open with “Oh Wild Flock, Oh Crimson Sky,” which draws readers in, and end with “A Song for Nettie.” All the stories in the first part would be set in Stone Creek. But to balance the two parts, one story from Stone Creek would have to be dropped, and two stories would have to be added to the second part – one new one, and one to replace “The Day I Sat with Jesus.” I would offer these suggestions to the author for discussion, but go with her wishes. After all, the collection won the GG. Maybe I’m way off the mark.
This is the only book Sawai ever published. She died in 2011.