Review by Frank Moher
Hannah Holborn’s debut story collection, Fierce, mines one of the most pervasive memes in literature, the dysfunctional family. Whether that strikes you as good news or bad probably depends on your tolerance for the traditional — not to mention how dysfunctional your own family is, misery loving company and all.
Holborn, though, treats her haggard mothers and fathers, children and grandchildren with such originality and wit that she effectively reinvents the form. To paraphrase Tolstoy: All happy families are the same; some unhappy families are way more entertainingly screwed-up than others.
Take, for pathetic instance, the shattered clan in “If the World was Flat,” a story as tart and funny as it is brief. Judith Fellman is the fourth-born daughter of an avid outdoorsman who insists on marking his children’s 13th birthday with some sort of Outward Bound-like survival quest. Judith fails hers — a trek up the Pacific Coast Trail — miserably. “I’m a chicken,” she tells her father. “I shouldn’t even be a Fellman. If I’m adopted, send me back. Get a sports model instead.” A near-fall finally severs the slim bond between them.
Years later, when her father dies, Judith resolves to make the treacherous trip from Dawson to Tok, Alaska for the funeral, via the Top of the World Highway. But there’s no place for sentimentality in Holborn’s cold landscapes; 38 kilometres into her voyage of reconciliation, Judith’s truck gets stuck in the snow. Father, we are left to suppose, will just have to be buried without her.
The book’s freshness has a lot to do with those chilly scenes of winter – like Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air, Fierce benefits from its largely northern setting, a still underexplored backroad in Canadian fiction. (Holborn prefaces it with an unintentionally sardonic quote from Robert Service: “There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,/ And the rivers all run God knows where.”) In her best story, “The Indian Act,” a teenage boy whose father is in prison and whose mother has abandoned him connects with a tomboy whose dad has also skipped town. As Holborn gently kneads their friendship — complicated by a certain sultry 14-year old — she also expertly captures the mish-mash of First Nations culture, warmed-over New Age flummery, and fast-food franchise creep typical of communities on the last, disappearing frontier.
The novella that concludes the book, “River Rising,” is its weak spot. Like most of the women in Fierce, its protagonist, River Barker, is a rough beauty: tough, enterprising, alcoholic. “She felt a strong affinity for a bottle of five-year-old Canadian Spirit,” Holborn writes, “because of the name — she was, after all, both Canadian and, when the circumstances were right, spirited.” Her fiancé is, like many of the men, a brute. Their shotgun wedding is a riotous set-piece during which River’s water breaks at the altar and she ends up giving birth in the church aisle. But Holborn constructs such a myriad of relationships and backstories – a sort of North of 60 Peyton Place — that it really needs a longer telling. By the time the mystery of who fathered River’s baby is resolved readers may have lost track of the candidates, none of whom are, given Holborn’s headlong race through the plot, sufficiently fledged anyway.
But when it sticks to the sort of acute life studies that are short fiction’s specialty, Fierce is penetrating and smart, and a welcome antidote to the current vogue for alleged family values. It suggests that the only thing worse than being an orphan is not being one. If that sounds grim to you, then you must treat yourself to its unique mix of irreverence, compassion, and horse laughs. And then pass it along to one of your loved ones – if you have any.