Stories from the Happy Province
This anthology of short stories from seventeen authors based in Newfoundland has a fitting title: “hard ticket” is, as the cover attests, local slang meaning “a lively character, a tough or headstrong person, someone not easily controlled.” Edited by the award-winning novelist Lisa Moore, the collection will be a pleasant surprise for readers expecting small rural towns, eccentric country folk, and fish. Indeed, Moore has called upon a diverse cast of contributors, including some with connections to Jamaica, India, China, and Taiwan, along with writers from other provinces who’ve come to call Newfoundland and Labrador home. With stories that feature visible minorities, pet owners, and queer lovers, among others, the collection explores questions of gender, sexuality, and class.
Hard Ticket leads off with “Snowblower” by Michelle Porter. “I’d wanted to kill my father before my mother served dessert,” it begins. “Dad liked to think he was funny.” At first glance, this may sound like a good-natured familial grievance, but as the story progresses, we learn that an infantilized young woman’s frustrations with her father might, in fact, be more than just hyperbole.
The tone pivots with Carrie-Jane Williams’s “Past Tenses,” a meditation on the heartache following the end of a relationship. “It is a pointless exercise,” the narrator explains, “not grammatically, but perhaps emotionally, to impose conditions on something that is alive and unconditional despite what sets it in a composed, imperfect, more-than-perfect past.” The challenge, Williams suggests, is that the mind seeks a sense of closure that may not always be possible.
Xaiver Michael Campbell’s “Eight Months to a Year” shares the agonizing perspective of a man whose partner experiences unexpected brain damage and becomes like a different person. The narrator does his best to take care of his boyfriend, but it becomes increasingly clear that he may not be able to. “In the eight months since our last sunrise, we have laughed only five times,” he explains, as he catalogues the toll that illness has taken on their relationship. “A noise that used to echo through our walls and cause the neighbours to bang has vanished and left a hole inside me.” Campbell’s frank language is full of courageous vulnerability.
This collection isn’t just about sociopathic daughters, breakups, and grief. There are also moments of great levity — and, in this vein, William Ping’s “Lord Gushue’s Reign of Terror” is a real standout. Here a confused young boy tries to understand the province’s sudden infatuation with curling after Brad Gushue and his team win gold at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Gushue’s presence comes to dominate Newfoundland, as his image appears in schools and at land developments like the portrait of a conquering despot. “Then he seized the infrastructure,” Ping’s narrator describes in horror, “with a new megahighway interchange to be built bearing his name and the evergreen highway signs to be emblazoned with the sigil of the Dark Lord: a cartoon curling rock. And these are merely the facts. Rumours abound through the city that the crushing grasp of his reach is growing larger, unbridled.” The narrator struggles to understand the unexpected zeal for curling and is profoundly confused by the shifting expectations of masculinity. He is baffled when his principal chastises him for crying after squishing his fingers between two curling rocks: “Boys your age don’t cry.” Yet Gushue is celebrated for crying on the phone with his mom after winning gold. “The principal says nothing, doesn’t bother with my rebuttal, already moved on to try to mould another detention inmate to fit his narrow prescription of how a person should be.”
Sobia Shaheen Shaikh’s “You-Cee” brings even more unexpected flavour to these pages. While not as strong stylistically as the others, the story sets itself apart as a genre-bending thriller. A young woman of colour, who works in the student centre at Avalon U (Memorial University, thinly veiled), is preparing for campus to reopen following the pandemic when she receives a flower from an unknown admirer. “For the next four days, she was gifted a new flower every day — a hyacinth, which smelled divine. An iris. A chrysanthemum and then a larkspur.” The mystery surrounding these gifts —”all the same iridescent cranberry-red”— builds toward a climax that features a supernatural twist that’s both playful and poignant.
Stories in Hard Ticket often overlap in their dominant imagery, though the continuity feels more aesthetically intuitive than thematically logical. The first few, which range in subject matter from patricide to breakup blues, share descriptions of snow: “The snow was cracking, wailing, and catching her fall with every step,” Williams writes in “Past Tenses,” while Porter’s narrator opines about “these twisted drifts”: “Amazing enough in daylight, but in these mixed shadows of an early winter morning, on the edges of the reach of an electric bulb, they were otherworldly.” And just as “You-Cee” features red flowers, Matthew Hollett’s “The City Wears Thin” uses glass petals and jellyfish to explore the underlying sexual tension among a cast of characters. “I don’t know if you’d call it sex,” one of them explains about the mating habits of sea cucumbers. “They spurt clouds at each other.”
Other noteworthy entries include Terry Doyle’s unconventionally unsentimental “What Kind of Dog Is He?” After looking at an eclipse, a beloved pet named Sturdy appears to lose affection for his owner, who muses, distraught, “I think I could have handled disobedience, or stupidity. But a dog that’s not loyal? Why even have a dog? Do you know how, if you’re the kind of person who’s been lonely, if you’ve been rejected by those expected to love you, if you spent years crafting psychological walls for protection, do you know how it feels to have your dog stop adoring you?” Jim McEwen’s “Lost Villages” concludes Hard Ticket and serves as a microcosm of the entire book. This is an account of a young man stitching together stories of his life, from his childhood relationship with his father to his partying days in high school, and finally to his time as an English teacher in Korea, where he’s almost thrown in jail for possessing drugs. The thread between these evocative vignettes isn’t immediately clear, but the resonance they create forms a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.
In her introduction, Moore explains that a “story is, in part, a spontaneous combustion, a consummation, the result of the atmosphere it’s born into — it is order out of chaos and it holds forth until another story overtakes it.” These stories emerged from the chaotic atmosphere of the current socio-political milieu of Newfoundland as well as of last year’s “Freedom Convoy,” when anti-vaxxers converged on Parliament Hill with trucks, saunas, and air horns. “A story is the opposite of this,” Moore insists, referring specifically to the harassment of the Ottawa Shepherds of Good Hope shelter. “Because a story is full of nuance. A story listens while it speaks. A story is multifaceted, slips inside the cells of the reader’s imagination, attaches with an always adapting spike.”
If a successful story needs to be multi-faceted and able to adapt its “spike,” then an anthology certainly must be the same. In this regard, Hard Ticket is certainly successful.