Hannah Holborn’s short stories, often set in the north or in rural Canada, depict bleak landscapes peopled by the emotionally dispossessed. These characters are, without exception, damaged goods: families ripped apart by alcohol, affairs, resentments, and jealousies. Unmoored children are often left to the care of strangers and foster families. And then there are the disasters: the fires, floods, and plane crashes whose wreckage mirrors the characters’ psyches.
The female protagonist in the book’s unsettling first story, forced to forgo holidays for summer school, must live with the fact that her flippant wish for her family’s plane to crash gets tragically realized. Guilt keeps her from cashing the hefty insurance cheque, one she desperately needs after her town is devastated by floods.
In another story, an 82-year-old female prospector who has retreated from civilization to escape her overbearing family is constantly harassed by visions of her fault-finding younger sister and the memory of her fierce Scottish father.
The book’s strongest piece, “The Indian Act,” portrays a teenage boy shuffled between foster homes every time his volatile mother goes off the rails. After finally finding a sense of place in a First Nations family that wants to adopt him, he reluctantly turns down the offer because he has fallen in love with his would-be sister.
Holborn’s focus and writing style is best suited to these shorter pieces, which work because of their fable-like economy and strangeness. The book’s final piece, the novella “River Rising,” about a young Yellowknife woman born into a legacy of scandal, struggling with her role as wife and mother, is its weakest. Holborn seems uncomfortable catering to the demands of plot in the longer format, even though the scenario she sets up calls out for it. There are bursts of inspiration here, but where the short stories often evoke poignancy, for the most part this one feels like a wallow.