Anne Bishop Reviews Collection Set on the Wrong Side of Cape Breton Tracks
Through the Elephant Ears
I feel behind me on the seat, sticking my hand into the crack, desperate to find something I can use to defend myself if need be. My fingers slide into something gooey and then a nickel or maybe a penny. He turns around and catches me.
“What’cha lookin’for?” he asks. I pull my hand out. For some reason I feel the need to smell it. “Why don’t you clean your car once in awhile?” I ask and I can’t believe my boldness. But my courage doesn’t last long. Darren climbs back to the driver’s seat and his quick jerky movements scare me. He holds up what he got from the glove compartment. I’ve never seen one up close before, but I know what’s in the shiny, square package.
When I began taking creative writing classes, searching for help in making the leap from non-fiction to fiction, I was told, repeatedly, “show don’t tell.” I had trouble seeing exactly how to do that, until I met Marla Dominey.
We were in a writers’ course together and, watching her stories develop from draft to draft, I realized here was someone who knew how to build up a scene in layer upon layer of detail until I was there, seeing, hearing and smelling the location, responding to fictional people as if I were in their presence.
Now Marla has published 14 of her stories in a collection called Through the Elephant Ears. Each story stands alone, but all take place on the wrong side of the tracks in a small town in Cape Breton and all are narrated in the voice of observant, thoughtful young Kat.
We meet Kat as a child playing in the dirt and weeds of the family’s front yard, creating an imaginary world of “landscaped yards around pebble mansions and swimming pools dug with old spoons … snuck from the cutlery drawer.”
By the time we part with her, she is a mature woman, living elsewhere. She reconnects with a man she briefly flirted with across the town’s class divide when they were teens. “That old feeling of less-than came back as if it had never left.”
By then, we know exactly where Kat’s feeling of “less-than” was learned. It came from growing up in a family with a precarious livelihood, dependent on the income of a father who is repeatedly brought ashore from his trawler for his drinking, while her mother descends into mental illness. It came from figuring out her own sexuality and watching her friends explore theirs in a world of predatory males and an era before sex education or birth control.
It came from the assumed superiority of those who come “from away” and the experience of being relentlessly sucked into the wake of a defiant, rule breaking best friend. It came from having no support in navigating a world of adults made eccentric by whatever they must do to survive.
There is deprivation and despair here, sometimes violence or the ominous threat of it, but there is laughter too, because Kat has a keen eye for the comic and ironic. If you grew up in a small town, anywhere, but particularly in Cape Breton and on the wrong side of the tracks, Through the Elephant Ears will go straight to your heart.
If you grew up elsewhere, it will open your heart to the complicated path to adulthood travelled by young women living in poverty, and how it sticks to them for life.