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|The Weeping Chair|
SASKATOON StarPHOENIX, JUNE 9, 2012
In Saskatoon author and editor Donald Ward's second short story collection, The Weeping Chair, his characters, be they human, animal, possible spirit or alien, are all imbued with an intelligence remarkably like a smart human's. In fact, most of his characters spend their stories working out moral and ethical problems.
If this sounds like another variation on the Dialogues of Plato or some such riveting item on reserve at the University of Saskatchewan Library, be not afraid. The 16 stories here, including Badger, which won the CBC Literary Award, are witty, comical, bizarre, absurd and often quite spiritual, both by turns and often all at once.
In the opening story, Things You Can Do on a Train, an acutely intelligent and acerbic narrator - think the new Masterpiece Mystery Sherlock Holmes, but not so annoying - is accosted by a man who's obviously on the run, from the conductor as well as others. As our narrator simply tries to read his book, his friendly antagonist begs his attention, as do a parade of odd and banal fellow travellers. One man, a drunk, has a "head like a serving dish and it seem(s) to be serving raw beef."
In the very short story My Grandmother's Teeth, which begins "My grandmother's voice made me think of alligators calling out to one another across a swamp," a family fights over finding said teeth and getting them to the undertaker in time for her funeral. In another short one, Father Kennedy's Jubilee, a childless couple driving home is given such a scare that they break their celibate habit and get busy at the side of the highway. The story ends delightfully with, "Emmett was not an intuitive man, but he sensed there was something on her mind other than cats."
The place the couple is driving in from sounds remarkably like St. Peter's Abbey in Muenster, Sask., a place where Ward has worked in various capacities for the Prairie Messenger. So it's no surprise that some of his stories take this locale and its inhabitants for inspiration, just as many other writers' works have done.
The aforementioned Badger features the very animal, secretive and ferocious, engaging in nighttime dialogues with a hermit who lives on the grounds but away from the monastic community at a place like St. Peter's. What's engaging about the story is that once the hermit gets over his initial shock at a talking badger, the two simply discuss the vagaries and harsh realities of existence. For the badger one problem is a nuisance dog.
In The Ladies of His Flock, egg farmer Eli Frost, who lives within pecking distance of the nearby monastery, is one night beamed up by a spaceship. There he encounters a chicken farmer and a research scientist, all from different times, but all involved in finding ways to eat either eggs or chickens and all of them related. They've been brought to account by a race of highly evolved chickens who want to talk about the sins of the past. Yes, it's bizarre sci-fi on the one hand; on the other, historical revising is going on all the time and what was on the menu in ages past, so to speak, is often no longer acceptable.
In the collection's title story, a young woman shows up at the home of an elderly English professor just as he's about to eat his supper. She's in his honours seminar, though he doesn't remember her at first, and the bruises on her face, poorly covered with makeup, and her crying, cause him to remember his own mother and what a man like him can do in such a situation. It's a lovely story.
There's a story about a timetravelling female dwarf searching for her lover in his present incarnation, one about an almost spherical man who dresses in a completely different colour every day and, despite his outlandish appearance, is quite a successful London thief - our narrator is the man dragged into his latest few capers - and one called Epilogue about a man out at Wakaw and a woman who falls from an airplane onto the deck of his cabin. While the forensics team is doing its research it comes across the skeleton of a woman who's been lying beneath his cabin for many years. This confluence of deaths brings to the man a whole set of puzzles.
Ward's stories are amusing and thoroughly magnetic and you can feel him casting a baleful eye upon common human behaviour, sniggering at its absurdity and promptly writing it down.