Allan Brown - Issue 101

An Underlying Reverence: Stories of Cape Breton Edited and with an Introduction by James 0. Taylor. Sydney, Nova Scotia: UCCB Press, 1994. 137 pp. $17.95.

The ten stories collected in An Underlying Reverence vary considerably in tone and point of view, though they all move in one way or another into and out of the Cape Breton life experience. They also move across a spectrum that extends from the subtle and sophisticated character analysis of "The Burnt Forest", by the late R.J. MacSween, to the raw satiric bite of Sheldon Currie's "The Glace Bay Miner's Museum". The French Acadian sensibility is represented here as well by Beatrice MacNeil's impressionistic "Events".

The tales are, by and large, fairly conservative in technique. The easily flowing, naturalistic dialogue of Tessie Gillis's "The Innocent" moves to a familiar Joycean epiphany. D.R. MacDonald presents two firmly drawn characters in "Green Grow The Grasses O" Kenneth Munro, a rather neurotic young man "from away," and the solid Scotswoman Fiona Cameron - by means of key words (hers in Gaelic, of course) that both of them favour and that clearly establish their relationship to each other as well as to Cape Breton. Joan Clark's two linked stories "God's Country" and "HerFather's Daughter" carefully (if somewhat predictably) trace the reactions of a woman who returns to "the Harbour Mines" after a 20-year absence.

What these pieces may lack in formal inventiveness, however, they well make up in flexibility and vigour of expression. The style of many of the authors is simple, even to the point of plainness, yet in its own way quietly effective, as with Angus MacDougall's casual reference in the title story to the simple dignity of "people ... digging into the hilly, watery face of Cape Breton." The landscape can also be more complex and more dangerous. Alistair MacLeod recreates the uncertain appearance of drift ice in "Winter Dog": "Sometimes you could see the hard ice clearly beneath the water but at other times a sort of floating slush was formed mingling with snow and "slob" ice which was not yet solid ... thick and dense and soupy." A solemn resonance appears in the complex, incantatory final sentence of Ellison Robertson's Prayers, capturing the end of a young boy's dream:

 In the upper hall the bag of marbles
 fell unheeded from his hand as it
 brushed the wall, the glittering glass
 spheres, each with its fluted twist of
 a different color, spilling onto the
 floor with a clatter (like a fist full
 of gravel shattering the smug blank
 windows of the nearby mine office),
 spread in a kinetic flood along the
 wom, pine wood floor, its narrow strip
 of oil cloth, and down the stairway
 carrying their light, a hard, pale
 fire, into the dark below where they
 winked out one by one.

Of course there is humour in the collection as well. The sound of bagpipes has often been parodied, but never as deftly, I think, than with Sheldon Currie's claim that "it sounded like a cat jumping from table to table and screaming like a tiger."

There is a character in "Events" called Aunt Zabeth, a fey-like creature who drifts in and out of the story and finally points to its resolution. The narrator observes that Zabeth's voice "had an urgent, intimate quality, as if she spoke only to reveal secrets."'ne same could be said aptly, in their various ways, for all the stories in An Underlying Reverence.