I want to introduce my friend since grade 5 who is a wonderful story teller. Laurel Parry lives in Whitehorse, Yukon. She has published a smattering of stories and poems and has recently completed a novel. She illustrated two cookbooks, The Boreal Gourmet and the Boreal Feast by Michele Genest. Laurel tends to write about the interior of family life and most of her writing includes geology references. Her short stories are particularly marvelous.
Years ago at a writing workshop I learned about the creative non-fiction genre. We discovered that by using literary techniques of dialogue, scene and summary, writers could tell their own stories, or document events in history and they could calibrate their “involvement” in the story. One of the examples offered was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, an account of a murder in Kansas in 1959 of a farmer and three of his family members. Capote traveled to the small town, which was in the throes of an unsolved murder, and conducted his own investigation with the help of his friend, Harper Lee. I instantly pictured the book’s cover. The bold font with its bloodied graphics.
Growing up, I remembered seeing that book on the shelf no matter where we lived. My mother explained that her father, Albert, had been an English professor and retired in 1966, the year that the book came out. At the time he wrote her a letter, excited with this new “non fiction novel” form and how it would revolutionize the way people would read and write. He was teaching his last year before retiring and included it in that year’s class. Albert sent her the book that year.
When I read the book, so many years later, two yellowed newspaper clippings dropped out. A review from the New York Times and the other, a short article about the murder of the Clutter family. The letter is long gone. I read the book and got behind the plot, noticing the style that Capote employed and thought fondly of my grandfather who died when I was seven. He never got to enjoy his retirement, which lasted for less than a year. I remembered a kind, bespectacled man, driving us around in a big clean car, telling us things that he thought we should know. There was an importance to everything he said, and he told us that there was such a thing called philosophy and that we had to build our own versions of one.
In a country as big as Canada families typically spend a lot of time in the car. We traveled more than most, because we moved around a lot and each place seemed to be more remote and far-flung than the previous. We had to entertain ourselves for long stretches. My father, Cam, was a storyteller and he would tell us about someone he knew who was faced with a conundrum of one kind or another. The protagonists in these stories were fascinating. There were misunderstandings with shameful, heroic or heartbreaking consequences. I marvelled at how many interesting people he seemed to encounter.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized that he was merely describing plotlines from short stories he’d read. If you look at my family’s bookshelves you will see well-read O Henry, Somerset Maugham, and Saki books scattered among them. I read the stories now and recall the three of us spellbound in the backseat while Dad told us about the woman who sold her hair so she could buy her husband a watch chain only to discover that he had sold his watch to buy her tortoiseshell hair combs. I wondered at the sudden humility of the know-it-all on the ship who kept his mouth shut, losing a bet, and inviting disgrace to save the honour of the woman whose pearls were the real deal, jewelry far too expensive for her working-class husband to afford. And the chilling story about a man escalating an argument with his wife, who doesn’t answer him. He doesn’t know this, but the reader does: she’d been dead the whole afternoon.
I miss Albert and Cam, my grandfather and father. But all I have to do to bring them to mind is pick up a book.