Thanks to Caroline Woodward and B.C. Booklook for the following comments.
|Bill Stenson . . . means well||
Thanks to Caroline Woodward and B.C. Booklook for the following comments.
Fiction Review by Kyra Kristmanson
Bill Stenson, Ordinary Strangers (Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue, 2018). Paperbound, 274 pp., $23.95.
Most families are made, but some are found. For Sage and Della Howard, family begins with a child abduction in the woods outside Hope, B.C. Bill Stenson’s novel Ordinary Strangers explores family dynamics in uncharted territory after a childless couple seizes their opportunity to start a family when they happen across an abandoned toddler in searching for their lost dog. Della wants to be a mother, and names the girl Stacey Emerald Howard. Sage is apprehensive, but “once the Howards invested in a winter coat, they no longer mentioned finding the authorities and returning the girl to wherever she had come from.” This unusual dynamic weaves through a web of the mundane as the Howards’ lives unfold.
The narrative occupies a moral grey area almost entirely throughout. A child, taken with no one to notice, is raised in a loving home in the best way Della can manage. Sage’s brooding moods and erratic behaviour put the family in jeopardy several times over, but he provides for his family no matter what. Stark contrasts like these coexist so closely in character dynamics that the entire narrative contains an edge of discomfort. It becomes almost impossible to parse out despicable realities from moments of perfect tenderness, like a lovely family Christmas that ends with the image of a pearl necklace, meant for Sage’s mistress, sinking to the bottom of a river.
Stenson plays with irony, adding a dry side-glancing humour to offer respite from more morose or disturbing themes. A destroyed snow fort devastates young Stacey, and casts Sage and Della’s judgmental eyes on someone we might consider a realmother. When Stacey wanders home from kindergarten and her absence is unnoticed upon her marched return, a frantic Della catastrophizes the way any parent would: what if someone had taken her? These moments remind the reader of Della’s almost delusional commitment to her role, while also showing a genuine love and concern for her daughter, and further muddle our outsider perspective on the dynamic as a whole.
Stenson, born in Nelson, B.C., clearly knows the terrain of the story’s setting. The brutal honesty with which he writes about the area requires a level of deep intimacy. His delicately crafted descriptions give a sense of the small-town west known to many Canadians. Swaddled by rivers and mountains and isolated from the big world outside, Fernie feels much like my northern-B.C. hometown, the Howards’ life there accented by piling snow and icy roads that keep families sealed behind closed doors through the long winter months. In spring, the world comes alive; in summer you do anything to get out of town—away from the hot concrete—and autumn dies into winter again. We watch each other grow up and grow older, and eventually fade away. We admire those who get out.
A shift in focus occurs at the novel’s midpoint, away from family values to a series of tragedies and a blossoming of awareness in an adolescent Stacey. A traumatic misunderstanding reveals past transgressions in close quarters, and the family that Della worked so hard to fabricate is torn apart. The narrative comes full circle from one form of abandonment to another, leaving Stacey with a lifetime of hard lessons in her sixteen years, and some difficult choices regarding how to express her new-found agency. Here Stenson illustrates the line we draw for family—constantly moving it further back, little by little, each offence forgiven. At what point do we lay down the hard line?
Stenson’s novel asks us to consider one key question: who are we to judge what a family is? The answer is unclear, even at the last lines of a hopeful ending. One could say this was a family forced into existence by selfish and questionable actions. Whether our bonds are of blood or something else, individuals must define their own relationships. Stacey is left with this burden at the close, and we are left to wonder how we might begin to define things differently for ourselves.
As in The Malahat Review, 207, Summer 2019
When you meet Bill Stenson’s sharply rendered characters, you will see those people whom you know and maybe even catch a glimpse of yourself in the process. What you won’t expect are the highly unpredictable situations that he creates for them, and the diagonal humour Stenson employs to herald his approach to fiction. Life does look different from up in a tree, and the man who lives in the root cellar in his long johns has something to tell you. Maybe you will discover what it is like to be an out-of-control pacifist or determine the psychological value of a good pair of shoes. In "Translating Women", Stenson performs on the high wire between short story and tale, manipulating narratives while deftly abstracting them. Never far from archetypes, Stenson’s fiction is also never far from your own unconscious experiences. This debut collection is richly intelligent and vigorous fiction. --Saskbooks
Bill Stenson's novel deals with the issue of freedom. In fact the title of the book, Svoboda, is a Slavic word for freedom. The book is a thoughtful one set in the 1950s and 1960s and follows the course of Vasili Saprikin, who lives in the Doukhobor community of New Denver, British Columbia. The boy's father is dead and he lives with his mother, Anuta, and grandfather, Alexay. Vasili knows that others look upon him with different eyes because he is a Doukhobor, the clothes he wears are out of the ordinary, and his customs do not follow those of the rest of Canadian society.
The novel begins with Vasili building a bomb that brings frightful results. It is the time of the Sons of Freedom, of nude protests and fires and bombings. The Canadian government reacts with arrests, imprisonment and the wresting of children from their parents.
For two years Vasili is able to avoid the RCMP but when he is ten the authorities come and take him away to a residential school in Nelson at the foot of the Kootenay Mountains. Here the spoken language is English, not Russian, and separated from his family and without their support, Vasili enters a bewildering new world where Sunday is the only day families are allowed to visit. The Sundays prove to be traumatic for him: "Vasili was crying; he could not help it. Alexay seemed unable to speak and poked one of his long fingers through the fence." (81)
Though he is disconnected from his community, Vasili remains loyal to his family, and later, after his time at residential school, he joins his family, which by then has moved to Nelson.
What happens to Vasili during the time of his residential schooling? Slowly the boy begins to see what his life is about through each opportunity presented. He makes an effort to lift his eyes and see beyond his childhood. And what he sees is that the paths out of his loneliness are many. He meets Miss Hanks and Miss Nicholson, who introduce him to books. Miss Nicholson seems to know which books are suitable, and when she hands him a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, Vasili finds himself sympathizing with the protagonist and that he is not the only one embarrassed by his awkward age: "If Holden Caulfield was threatened with homemade underwear he would have jumped out the window on page one hundred and four instead of just thinking about it . . ." (139) Vasili does not forget his roots but understands through his new connections that he is part of a larger community, that of humankind.
There are many symbols of freedom in the novel and one of them is the horse. One night Alexay tells Vasili about the horse he had when he was a boy: "Liberty you'd say in English . . . That horse got me in trouble one time." (133) He and a neighbourhood girl, Elena, rode across the river and could not find their way back. Stenson hints here that there can be no turning back once the way of freedom is chosen so be careful of the path you take. Alexay goes on to speak poignantly of the losses in life and that freedom does not come without consequences: "People come in and out of your life, Vasili. Some of the people you know now will be part of your life forever and some will disappear. . . . Elena and Svoboda. I lost on both accounts." (135)
In another instance, Sam and Walter, boys from his boyhood, try to persuade Vasili that freedom can be attained only through violence, but Vasili learns that the violence the boys advocate will not bring the freedom desired. For him independence takes a different shape. Gradually he realizes that the ability to act freely comes at a cost and that sometimes sacrifices must be made. It is his grandfather who teaches him this meaning through the building of a model airplane and then later a real plane; that a person starts out small and builds, that freedom comes in increments until the whole is realized. The book carries with it a message of hope and inspiration. In the closing pages of the novel, Vasili learns in order to gain freedom you must learn to trust yourself. As he says; "he (Vasili) wanted to believe the plane had gone somewhere successfully and it had his grandfather for cargo." (272) — Mary Barnes, Prairie Fire
BC STUDIES, SPRING 2009
Bill Stenson's Svoboda is a coming-of-age novel set in the West Kootenay during the 1950$. Vasili Saprikin is a Doukhobor who spends most of his earliest years with his mother (a widow) and grandfather in a communal village in Shoreacres on the Kootenay River. A sweet-singing Freedomite bomber from the village, George Lazaroff, has charmed Vasili's mother Anuta. However, she breaks off the relationship when Vasili blows up a chicken coop (and nearly himself) with a gasoline bomb he had learned to make by watching Lazaroff construct his own bombs. This early turning point in the novel lets us know that these radical activities do not reflect the quiet Doukhobor faith of Anuta and her father Alexay.
Life for Vasili and his mother and grandfather takes another dramatic turn when RCMP officers remove Vasili from his family for not attending school. The provincial government sends him to the residential school at New Denver, which was established as part of its forced assimilation policy for Freedomite children. Vasili's three years in the school are lonely and unhappy ones, although a few teachers open up for him a world of books and learning. One young girl, Polly, escapes the harsh reality of life in the school by dreaming that a ship will come to Slocan Lake to take the Doukhobors back to Russia. Vasili, on the other hand, escapes through reading.
Stenson's descriptions evoke the sadness, regimentation, and brutality of life for the children at New Denver. As is well known, provincial officials allowed parents and relatives to visit the inmates for an hour every other Sunday. The sensitive Vasili is painfully aware of the children's anger and emotion on Mondays after visiting day. Through all of this, the novel points to the harshness of the forced assimilation policy. It also points out that RCMP officers and teachers at the school could be kind and decent to the children. When the school closes in 1956, for example, the teachers take great care to place Vasili in the proper grade in the high school in Nelson.
The latter part of Svoboda focuses on Vasili's and his mother's and grandfather's efforts to build a new life in Nelson in the 1950S. A local entrepreneur, Jim Sellers, recognizes Anuta's skills as a worker and eventually makes her manager of Hipperson's Hardware Store. As time goes on, Anuta and Sellers' business relationship blossoms into a romantic one. In the meantime, Vasili excels at Nelson High School. He enjoys his classes and works hard to fit in by dressing like everyone else, by drinking beer with his friend Kenny, and by dancing in a pub on Saturday nights in the nearby community of Proctor.
Vasili also becomes reacquainted with his childhood friend from Shoreacres, Lara Inikova. By the late 1950S, Lara and her family have almost entirely assimilated into the Anglo-Canadian society of Nelson. Her parents rarely speak Russian at home, and she wears the latest fashions and enjoys Betty Crocker cakes and Swanson TV Dinners. Although Vasili also works hard to fit in, he does not forget the Doukhobor heritage taught to him by his grandfather. We see this when Vasili organizes and leads a student delegation to a peace conference at the University of British Columbia. At the same time, Vasili's Doukhoborism takes the form of the quiet faith of his mother and grandfather rather than the radical beliefs of Walter and Sam, his fellow students from New Denver, who demand that he help them burn down the Nelson high school. Vasili refuses.
Svoboda brings together its themes of change and continuity in the concluding chapters. Anuta completes her journey from the Doukhobor communal village in Shoreacres to the broader world of Nelson with the academic success of her son, which she has done much to achieve, and her planned marriage to Jim Sellers. Vasili makes love to the very modern Lara on the floor of the dry cleaners in Nelson while her boyfriend Arnold spins in an industrial-sized dryer. Vasili also looks forward to journeying to the wider world of Vancouver and to attending university. Finally, Vasili's grandfather apparently completes the cycle of his life, which has taken him from Russia under the tsar to Doukhobor communal villages in Saskatchewan and British Columbia and on to Nelson, where he disappears on a trip to "heaven" in a plane of his own construction. Alexay's strange end somehow seems fitting as it reflects Stenson's broader interest in Doukhobor responses to modernity.
While didactic at times, Svoboda is clearly written and reflects a solid understanding of its subject matter. Stenson nicely evokes the atmosphere of Nelson in the ^o. Svoboda also makes an imaginative contribution to our understanding of Doukhobor families after the break-up of many communal villages in the late ^os and 1940s. Much has been written about the impact of government policy on the Doukhobor community and on its Freedomite radicals, but we know less about how individual families adapted to the changes brought by the collapse of the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood in 1938.
Svoboda's references to the bombing and burning of property by Freedomites and its description of the children's experience at the school in New Denver points to the obvious tensions and struggles many Doukhobor families experienced in the West Kootenay in the ^os. The widespread use by Anglo-Canadians of the disparaging term "Douk" for Doukhobors represented another challenge for Doukhobors trying to find their way in mainstream Canadian society. Strikingly, Vasili does not reflect much on the treatment he and his family received from the government and wider society. His eventual response to all that happens to him is simply that he is proud to be a Doukhobor. I enjoyed getting to know him in the pages of Svoboda
VANCOUVER SUN, AUGUST 2008
When someone mentions the Doukhobors, many Canadians think first of nude protests and the grisly results of low-tech but effective fire-bombings by the Sons of Freedom. That’s an unfair stereotype of the devout Russian immigrants who came to Canada in the early years of the 20th century with the financial support of Leo Tolstoy. As Bill Stenson writes in Svoboda, his impressive debut novel, “A Doukhobor was a Doukhobor was a Doukhobor.”
Svoboda is both an examination of Canadian Doukhobors in the waning days of their conflict with the federal government in the 1950s and an account of the effect that cultural shift had on three generations of a Doukhobor family: There’s Vasili Saprikin, a boy who comes of age in that tumultuous time; his mother, Anuta, and his deda (grandfather) Alexay, who emigrated to Canada.
Stenson (a writing teacher who lives in Victoria and is not a Doukhobor) has done a significant amount of research, and it shows on the page. Svoboda vividly depicts Doukhobor culture — its religious beliefs, rituals, lifestyle and history.
Occasionally, the rendering of that history is somewhat heavy-handed, with lengthy speeches detailing the movement of the Doukhobors, the nature of their leadership and the roots of their conflict with the Canadian government over taxation, education and military service. Normally, such info-dumps would be problematic, but here they are necessary to build the social backdrop against which the events of the novel play out.
These details are illuminated in the narrative by the human toll they take. Svoboda is a Russian word for freedom or liberty, and all three focal characters deal with freedom, its promises and its costs.
From Vasili, who spends much of his childhood in a residential school, being forced to learn English before being released into a world fundamentally changed; to Anuta, the single mother forced to turn away from her culture to provide a better life for her family; to Alexay, whose dreams of freedom are bound to his Doukhobor roots, liberty takes different forms and brings with it different issues.
It is testimony to the strength of Stenson’s writing that the reader only becomes aware in retrospect that the story of the gradual assimilation of Doukhobor culture into Canadian culture isn’t restricted to that group; it’s the story of every immigrant culture struggling to keep a sense of itself while functioning within a dominant alien culture. The prejudices faced by the Doukhobors — prejudices which Svoboda rightly depicts as feeble and small-minded — have not disappeared. They have merely shifted to the new immigrants who are trying to find a place in the Canadian cultural mosaic.
Stenson’s novel is an important work, a moving piece of fiction that not only casts light on a largely forgotten aspect of our history but also brings into focus our actions and attitudes today. — Robert Wiersema, author of Before I Wake
OWEN SOUND TIMES, DECEMBER 28, 2007
Bill Stenson writes and teaches in Victoria and is the co-founder of the Claremont Review. A short story writer whose fiction has been nominated for the Journey Prize, his exceptional debut novel, Svoboda (Thistledown Press, $18.95), is an exploration of the Doukhobor experience in western Canada.
Growing up in the 1950s, Vasili Saprikin knows that being a Doukhobor has altered how others see him. His father, Alexay, was five when he came to Saskatchewan from Russia in 1895. From him, Vasili learns the history of his people, telling his son, "I'm proud to be a Doukhobor myself. I have never set off a bomb or burned a house down."
Set against the backdrop of the Kootenay region in and around Nelson, B.C., Svoboda is not just about Doukhobors although the history of them resounds on nearly every page. Captured within its pages is a gentle, coming of age tale that stands very much on its own. This is a novel with a human touch that explores the vast gulf of misunderstanding that many Canadians have about the Doukhobors. It is both illuminating and entertaining. — Andrew Armitage
Hanne and Her Brother
Fiction Review by Norma LundbergBill Stenson, Hanne and her Brother (Saskatoon: Thistledown, 2016). Paperbound, 377 pp., $19.95
My encounter with Bill Stenson's character Hanne Lemmon in his new novel has been unforgettable. Initially struck by her solitary circumstances, I became increasingly curious about her resilient inner strength, and grew to admire her and fear for her as her tale unfolded. Her isolation growing up in strict obedience to a taciturn father who seemed more attentive to the clocks he repaired than to her need for companionship seemed as forlorn as the early situation of Jane Eyre, a book she admired for the lesson of independence she felt she needed to learn.
Hanne begins the story of her early life by describing it as a “confession” and alerts the reader to a secret in her past. When she was a child, her parents had left Belgium for Canada in the late 1950s. Her mother died on the voyage, and her father brought her to a small town called Tensor near the coast of British Columbia to resume his profession repairing broken timepieces. A stern, silent man with a penchant for seclusion, he kept Hanne apart from the life of the town. She entered her teens in the 1960s as someone “measuring her life by the clocks ticking in the constant solitude ruling the house she dreams of leaving.” Her initial description of the natural beauty of the countryside contrasts with her growing sense of a community where life seems stagnant. The future prospects of its young people seem at a dead end, with little incentive to leave. She feels far removed both from them and from the world she had grown curious about from reading books from the town library. Home-schooled and friendless, she gradually learns her father's skills repairing clocks and imagines having a brother to share adventures with, hoping for something dramatic to break the monotony of her existence. When a dramatic incident occurs, it shocks her into a violent response unlike any she might have imagined.
Her father’s sudden death when she is sixteen leaves her alone and feeling even more disconnected. Her growing beauty attracts the attention of a troubled and violent boy she barely knows: his attentions resisted, he overpowers and rapes her. She retaliates in panicked self-defense only to realize she has killed him and needs to conceal the act, and his body. The shock of her brutally terminated childhood drives her self-determination to keep the incident unrevealed. Hanne is now committed to a radical shift in her life, complicated by her fear of eventual discovery, and by an unwanted pregnancy resulting from the rape.
The rest of the novel concerns the path of her life stage by stage to avoid the discovery of her actions as she becomes a mother, assumes her father’s profession, and tries to create a life of her own. Her point of view is the dominant one in the novel with the exception of a visiting boy who also doesn’t fit in to the community’s closed structure and has not been part of her life, but witnessed the rape. His knowledge about the incident threads through the novel as a potential threat to her resolve to bury the crime and remain in the town. As a plot device it serves to underline the ongoing tension she experiences relating to other townsfolk. Her gradual sense of connection to them after the trauma she experienced belies her uneasiness and continuing sense of distance from their lives.
The tension between her desire to be part of a community by taking up her father’s profession and her anxiety about revealing her secret permeate her life despite a growing friendship with a frail old man who has also lived apart. Her sense of worth gradually restored she begins her own business repairing clocks while raising the child. These tenuous beginnings are thwarted when the young witness to her rape decides to inform police about it. The risk of an investigation spurs her flight with her child to Saskatchewan where her car breaks down at the small town of Eastend.
Her circumstances recall parallels with her favorite fictional heroine: Jane Eyre’s flight from her wedding to an unknown place, escaping from her past. As with Bronte’s heroine, Hanne finds herself in a completely different small community, is accepted into a kindly family and contends with an unwelcome courtship by a young man. The temptation to begin a new life is disrupted by hauntings from her past: she decides to return to her old home on the west coast.
Many aspects of Hanne’s story echo tropes of the classic romantic novel: sudden developments, underlying tensions, unexpected connections, hidden secrets, with a beleaguered and virtuous heroine battling prejudiced public opinion. Stenson’s Hanne follows in the tradition of Bronte’s heroine as a literary model of a young woman refusing to be victimized by circumstances. He has created an engaging character whose fate has the power to capture and sustain a reader’s interest.
A further strength of this novel is the author’s ability to create fully fleshed characters in two radically different small communities: one in the closed atmosphere of a declining hardscrabble town in a mountain valley, the other the more open atmosphere of a prairie farming village. In both, Stenson sensitively creates settings where neighbourly compassion conflicts with underlying awkwardness and suspicion between both long-term townsfolk and an independent-minded newcomer. Hannah’s quest to fit in and preserve her sense of self after coming through a difficult past creates an engaging reading experience.
As in The Malahat Review, 200, Autumn 2017