When literature explores the realms of people in gritty or unfortunate circumstances, there is a sense of something being documented that usually isn’t being discussed. Yes it is enlightening but for many of us, but it also reflects a circumstance or a reality that we are familiar with yet is rarely covered in ‘standard’ books. And that is what Cherie Dimaline has boldly done in her collection of short stories called A Gentle Habit.
Page 2 The Bead Fairy
By 1983, the year I was eight, Sault Ste. Marie was a greying place for steelworkers and their offspring, a fine town to raise a family, far from the dangerous multiculturalism of the city. I was a quiet kid with a mushroom cut and front teeth two times the size of the baby teeth around them. I lived with my parents, my older brother, and my maternal grandmother in a bungalow in what was known as the Halfbreed Projects, the neighbourhood that crept outward from the hockey arena like a brick scab around a high sticking wound.
For the most part, my life was routine. I took the bus into school where I got good grades, played road hockey with my brother and our friends and was madly in love with a boy. But not just any boy, Hugh McIvoy.
There is a frankness in the language of this collection of stories that would have frightened a lot of teachers back in my high-school days but is refreshing to see here. Dimaline has capture elements of the human condition not often documented. She explores feelings and emotions in a few simple, direct words that are vivid to anybody’s imagination.
Page 59 36 Holes
Mike was bored. His boredom was like a well-guarded itch on the bottom of a foot tucked into an intricately tied boot, rendered unreachable by lacings and latchings that would make a dominatrix weep with joy. It was a juvenile and sadistic boredom; a pinching, wriggling brat of a feeling that elbowed its way around. The other feelings he had – about his kids, his wife, his strained waistbands – they slide easily and in concert, like keys on a player piano, churning out the unremarkable tunes of “going to work” or ” picking up groceries.” But the boredom slammed its fists on the tinkling keys, spat in the mechanism, picked its nose and wiped the finding under the piano bench. In short, his boredom was fucking shit up.
While the writing may be direct here, it is certainly not a book to be considered a quick read. There are concepts and serious emotions at work here. Some of the stories leave a reader puzzled and asking why, and that is a good thing. Why is this protagonist upset or angry or disturbed? That empathy translates into our everyday thoughts about the people around us.
Page 112 The Memory of Bones
Mother seemed devastated by Grandma’s passing. So sudden and as undignified as it was, being found two days later on the toilet by a cleaning lady; so unlike Regina at all, who would never even admit to having a bowel movements. After receiving word, Mother spent two days in black gowns, draped on the furniture like an injured crow until the day of her transatlantic flight. She took three matched suitcases packed full of the most elegant clothes she owned.
And just like that, I was alone. My father was still there of course, bumbling about in the den and drinking beer in front of the TV Mother had stashed away in the rec room when she decided it was ‘unseemly. Mother’s sideshow troupe came by regularly to check in and take notes-Adelaide and Father Carol bringing dishes of food and Mrs. Grue and Marty eating them-but still, I was alone. For the first time, the only voice in my head was my own.
There may be gritty and harsh elements to Cherie Dimaline’s A Gentle Habit but it reflects some certain truths in our society in it. A brilliant read and a bold piece of literature.