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A Song for Nettie Johnson by Gloria Sawai

A Song for Nettie Johnson (original 2001; edition 2003)

by Gloria Sawai

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561210,933 (3.59)8
Title:A Song for Nettie Johnson
Authors:Gloria Sawai
Info:Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd (2003), Hardcover, 308 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:TBR 2012 & PRIOR

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A Song for Nettie Johnson by Gloria Sawai (2001)



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I didn't realize when I picked up this book that it was a collection of nine short stories, six of which are what I would call 'connected stories' focused on the inhabitants of small Stone Creek, Saskatchewan.

The first story, A Song for Nettie Johnson, more of a novella at some 90 pages in length, was a fascinating story about small town opinions, self-righteousness, damaged souls and the ability to reach for something, even if it frightens you. It was also a great introduction to the inhabitants of Stone Creek and the next five connected stories. Half way through the book I was happily engrossed in the lives of both the children and the adults as they grappled with issues from alcoholism and religion to death and illness. The storytelling was fresh, war, and inviting.

The last three stories were not connected to the lives of the inhabitants of Stone Creek, and for me, that is where it all started to fall apart. I enjoyed the story Hosea's Children - a mother's journey to try and find the husband that left her years ago only to reconnect with the daughter that had left earlier that same year - found 'The Dolphins to be alright but nothing special and was left completely baffled by the last story in the collection.

I think the collection would have been better if the book had stopped with just the six stories connected to Stone Creek. The last three stories are almost tag ons or after thoughts that made it more difficult for me to relate to them with the same strength I did with the earlier stories. ( )
1 vote lkernagh | Oct 16, 2010 |
With its drug store, churches, café, 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.
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Look to the rock from with you were hewn,
the quarry from which you were dug.
---Isaiah 51:1
Grace is everywhere
---Georges Bernanos
For my parents, Gustav and Ragnhild,
my brothers, Donald and Robert,
my children, Naomi and Kenji
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From her chair at the edge of the quarry she looks down at the bottom of the pit--as wide and long as a garden, as big as a front yard with grass, or the sunny porch of a white mansion somewhere far away.
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Can you build a literary reputation on the title of one short story? Gloria Sawai has. In 1975, the Prairies-based author wrote "The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts," a story that makes good on its title's promise. Appearing in nine Canadian and American anthologies over the years, it introduced Sawai's strangely lyrical, humorous, and spiritual voice to small, discerning audiences. Twenty-five years later, she finally had enough stories (including a 90-page novella) to bring out her first book... at the age of 70. And that book won the 2002 Governor General's Award for fiction.

The Jesus-on-the-sundeck story is in this collection, and what a delightfully wry story it is. The first words between the two main characters are:

Jesus: You have a nice view here.
Gloria: Thank you. We like it.

The Gloria character then notes, "Everyone who comes to our house and stands on the deck says that. Everyone." From that laconic Prairie flatness, the story spirals into a Chagall-like magic realism before settling down again with a suburban bump. Not many writers could handle such tricks so successfully.

Most of her stories take place in the 1940s and '50s in the fictional Saskatchewan town of Stone Creek, and the cast that appears in A Song for Nettie Johnson, the long novella that opens the book, keeps reappearing. Sawai's creation of a sense of community is extraordinary, but she brings her individual characters fully to life, too. Certainly, the most memorable is Nettie Johnson herself, the wild woman who lives out of town by the quarry, ostracized by the townsfolk, spied on by the local kids, but so determined to live that she manages to find everything she needs: a man, great music, friendly stones and birds to talk to, and the joy of spelling words. Sawai's is a rare imagination backed up by an assured, steady craftsmanship. She is a wonderful addition to the Canadian writing fraternity.
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