Families, friends & enemies
Bill Stenson's fifth book of fiction has at least one story about sibling rivalry that ends with dire consequences.
August 11th, 2021
Hard questions are also asked of the parents in Half Brothers. “Parenting remains the universal preserve of blundering amateurs,” writes reviewer Caroline Woodward.
Review by Caroline Woodward
In his fifth book of fiction, Half Brothers and Other Stories: a novella and four short fictions (Mother Tongue $19.95), Bill Stenson warns from the outset to expect at least one story that grapples with sibling rivalry. Furthermore, Stenson chooses a Jane Austen epigraph: The younger brother must help to pay for the pleasures of the elder.
The novella asks hard questions of the parents, one essentially passive, the other chronically belligerent. Parenting remains the universal preserve of blundering amateurs. When the plot takes a serious twist, Dora, the mother of both boys, finally speaks some home truths to her husband, a former amateur boxer with drinking and gambling issues: “‘You can see now where all this fighting has got this family. Don’t you? It’s the grand solution for everything around here. You don’t like the way life is treating you then you fight. Fight, fight, fight…Our kids deserved better than this, and they’re damn well going to get it.’
‘You’re right, Ennis said. ‘You’re right.’ His contribution to a decidedly one-sided discussion lacked conviction, but she could tell he was trying.”
Dora tends to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and Ennis is the main beneficiary of her wishful thinking. The not-so-subtle matter of transferring his own pugilist ambitions to his brawny son and the countless cruelties his boy inflicts on his younger half-brother seems to have escaped his fatherly notice.
The plot twists and takes a mighty turn, and the two half-brothers become young men and change, or don’t change much, and life goes on. It’s a gritty, acutely observed character study and account of the consequences of their actions.
Ball and Chain begins with what I’d like to nominate as a sub-category of North American fiction concerned with raccoons and the often-hapless human response to them. Originally published in the Nashwaak Review, this story is leavened with dry humour: “He couldn’t remember his stomach getting bigger, but it had – from size thirty-four to forty, and a tight forty at that. That was the way a lot of things happened in life. Some days he would drive the eight miles into town, pull in front of the hardware store and not be able to remember driving there. Suddenly your life was altered, they built a new subdivision, and no one asked your opinion.”
The story follows two sets of characters, the man with raccoon problems and a young thief, and a real estate agent who is also a prospective home buyer considering her return to Vancouver Island from Toronto and her thirteen-year-old son adjusting to island life. These parallel lives converge in a most satisfying way, the kind of fictional sleight of hand which will make readers and other (generous) writers applaud with hoots and cheers!
Bon is the story of three thirteen-year-old boys in Duncan who form a gang one summer. Bon, short for Bonnie, is a Grade 8 grifter and femme fatale who soon has the boys doing her bidding after she joins the gang.
“It was the middle of a useless summer and the world was hot. The three of them sprawled out on the bank of the Cowichan River, their bikes in the gravel behind them like dead horses on the battlefield. They were drinking bottled root beer they’d stolen from the back of a delivery truck that followed the same route through town on Mondays.”
Their young lives are about to change during this memorable summer in another nuanced revelation of character in a story, like all in this collection, in which nothing is predictable.
Dick and Jane, first published by event magazine, considers a brother and sister in their early teens. Jane is a very bright girl, destined to be an actuary for an insurance agency at the highest level of management. Her older brother, less gifted but a generous soul, is the first to give her full credit for her brains. Their father has gone missing after a messy extra-marital affair (not his) and after seven years, he is legally declared dead. What could possibly go wrong with this picture? Hang on for the ride!
The perfectly placed finale, Super Reader, is Bill Stenson at his playful peak. “My mother smokes cigarettes and my dad drinks whisky and I read books. We all have our burdens.” Chief among them are the boys who call him worm and whom he calls “the beat-you-to-a-pulp kids.” This portrait of a young ‘Super Reader’ is by turns funny, infuriating and profound because here we are, all ‘Children of the Book,’ reading this story at the end of this excellent collection, smiling and grimacing, in recognition of ourselves. 978-1-896949-85-7
Caroline Woodward, recently retired from the Lennard Island Lightstation, is the author of nine books in five genres.