The Freedom in American Songs:Stories by Kathleen Winter

Freedom in American SongsI thoroughly enjoyed this collection of stories although I had no idea what to expect. I had read Winters’ novel Annabel and admired it but expected this would be very different. The imagery that opens the first story, A Plume of White Smoke, really got my attention:

“Frost on the kitchen window sparkled against the darkness. The Hallorans’ porch light shone through crystal patterns. Marianne got up to put small junks in her stove. In her hands the birch sticks twined around each other like lovers’ limbs. When she lifted the damper and threw sticks in, they cried like live lobsters. How she loved her black stove with its deer and trees on its doors.”

From the contemplation of beauty to the violence of crying live lobsters to the love of an inanimate object in five short sentences. I was awake for the next paragraph and it was equally intriguing. Yet to come, of course, was the title story.

The first three stories are grouped in Part One:  The Marianne Stories. After A Plume of White Smoke in which the reader learns the fine points of firewood i.e. what are junks and what are splits and how are they made. Marianne thought “everyone had the same kind of wood” but that is not the case. In the second story, The Christmas Room, we learn that Marianne has been there now for two years and she is starting to see the universality in the inhabitants of the cove and to realize that one day she “would resume the life she had left in the city for this borrowed bit of cove life.” The third Marianne story, Every Waking Moment is set in St. John’s where Marianne finds a flyer in a shop on Duckworth Street advertising a Pentacostal meeting in the newly opened Rubicon Hotel on Sunday evenings in January and February. The flyer opens with the words: “TO HEAR; TO ENJOY: TO CONSIDER: TO RECEIVE:” and Marianne wanted that experience. “She could do without the living testimonials, but she was hungry for the rest, because all her searching through sacred teachings of the east and the west had led her to this street, and to this orange poster.” This was during the time she lived with Lloyd and before she went off to the cove to get some writing done. Lloyd didn’t like Marianne’s homemade altar with its Bible and candles and flowers but he worked at tolerating it. Her experience at the gathering is both comedic and cinematic. “Marianne was all in favour of breaking into song.” She was also worried about the “divide” in Lloyd: hence the title (Every Waking Moment) of the story. Check it out.

Part Two offers eleven more stories and begins with the title story. The Freedom in American Songs is about Jennifer and Kerry and Kerry’s high school friend Xavier Boland whom Kerry hasn’t seen in thirty-five years. Xavier reappears in Kerry’s life because Kerry is selling an antique gate and Xaier has come to look at it. Kerry introduces himself as Keith so as not to jog Xavier’s memory about their previous relationship which included singing songs such as Down By the Riverside and When I Grow Too Old to Dream. One of my favourite stories was Madame Poirer’s Dog in which the narrator describes her daughter-in-law as “a woman who tries to legislate who tells what to whom.”

Another personal favourite was Flyaway in which the narrator, aged seventy-six, is assigned an evacuee child named Gracie during the second world war. “Having a child in your house when you’re elderly is a most trying exercise. A child constantly wants a fairground of some sort, a game, a lollipop, some entertainment. I had never considered my days uneventful or oppressive until that child came into them, but when she sat there in her one skirt, the only skirt in her little sack, day after day, staring at my chairs and carpets and curtains with a pathetic face, I was at my wits’ end thinking of something to get her out of my way.” This narrator makes an interesting observation about cats: “They have nine lives, yes, but the lives are not consecutive. They have one life with you but eight other lives going on at the same time, about which you know nothing.” This story has an unexpected and thought-provoking ending.

Several of the stories, in fact, have unexpected endings. Anhinga leaves the narrator lost or caught in a mangove tree, Knives leaves a question regarding what a woman will do next, Handsome Devil leaves us wondering what choice we might make and Darlings’ Kingdom also leaves us pondering especially when the narrator reveals this: “My problem is that even when I know things are really bad, and I should take a stand, I often do not take a stand. There is something gullible about me, something dangerously passive and stupid.”

Winters’ characters are flawed, recognizeable and likeable, even some of the “bad” ones. You might enjoy trying to figure out what you would have done had you been in the situations described in these stories. Like many readers, I am challenged by short stories but these were a fast easy read with a quiet but compelling style.