Sunday, 21 December 2014

"Who by Fire": a Novel by Fred Stenson—a Biased Review


I like the bon mot and the turn of phrase that's just so. There are always some tasty ones in Fred Stenson's books. Who By Fire is no exception. I've read them all. I still remember his grass baked to a "thirsty tan" in The Trade (I know exactly what that looks like, that's exactly what it's baked to in Medicine Hat by mid summer). Here are some of my Who by Fire favourites, with some biased-by-friendship thoughts and memories attached, in a bit of a stream of consciousness review.

A work dynamics expert dropped by weekly with a box of doughnuts, from which they fed like a peewee hockey team. (p30—page numbers from the Kindle version)
Fred and I began our friendship while feeding at Denny’s on 16th near Calgary's Foothills Hospital in the August of 1980. We’d just been hired by ACCESS Television—he as a writer, me as a Producer/Director—a bit of a peewee production team of two at the time. Our boss was on holiday for the month so we had nothing much to do except enjoy long lunches and conversations together over Pattie Melts. Those conversations included stories of his childhood on the Stenson family farm near Pincher Creek. I could hear the echoes in Who by Fire. 

Fred also fed on pancakes at Phil's for his writing at the time—longhand in black ink from fibre tipped pens in school exercise books. I don't know where and how he does it now but I'm pretty sure keys are involved.

To earn his daily bread, in addition to his television and fiction writing, Fred also did a fair amount of work for the oil patch. I remember being impressed that he would abandon his more casual, television writer attire to suit-up, tie and all, for his meetings with those clients. I can see the grist those days provided for the Who by Fire oil and gas industry story mill.

The engine kicked off easily but he sat for a while in sympathy for the engine parts, beating in their taffy. 33
Fred and I had a taffy moment or two in our collaborations. Times when clients weren't as impressed by our capabilities as we were. Times when making television programs felt like running through molasses.

I ached for Who by Fire characters Ella and Tom and their children as their relationships beat in the taffy of the circumstances Fred describes so well.

Behind the bar, a guy with a face like an open wrench was yelling. 36 
On the street outside, the air was so cold it breathed like metal. 38
Who by Fire is about what happens to ordinary people and their relationships when they are subjected to an open wrench faced industry producing air that breathed like metal.

I happened to read Who by Fire during Advent. The Daily Office readings of the season can be dark and full of the cries of prophets with the Biblical version of open-wrench faces and metal-breathed judgement. This verse caught my eye one morning:
For a burning place has long been prepared; indeed, for the king it is made ready, its pyre made deep and wide, with fire and wood in abundance; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of sulfur, kindles it. (Is 30.33)
Sulphur features heavily Who by Fire. Not that I'm suggesting that sour gas plants are necessarily an expression of God's judgement, but when humans, including oil and gas people, break bad the breaking can be very bad indeed. The Bible calls that kind of breaking "sin." We moderns don't much like the word any more, but acknowledging sin and putting it right is what makes guilt that leads to reconciliation a good thing.
Speaking of guilt and reconciliation, I appreciate the way Fred portrayed the Catholic Church in this book. As an almost Catholic cleric (we Anglicans are Catholic but just not Roman) I am somewhat sensitive to how she is portrayed. Many writers, both print and media, succumb to the temptation to take the cheap shot. Fred's treatment is fair, realistic and respectful.

The stream sluiced along below him, brown with its burdens. 325
Any novel or work of art comes brown with the burdens of history and the life of the artist. Who by Fire is its own such tea. There was even a reference to Moby Dick in thereBill's sister, Donna, appears at his door unexpectedly and tells him he looks like Queequeg. That made me smile because way upstream and many years ago I can remember Fred announcing he'd read somewhere that a writer can learn deep things from reading a particular classic over and over again giving it a chance to get into his bones. At one time Moby Dick was the classic for Fred. I wondered if the reference is because of it.

The wind started up in the night and blew fiercely. Morning arrived with a bend in it. On days like this along the mountain flanks, things blew down and things blew up. School buses fell over sideways. Roofs de-shingled themselves like a card trick. Sometimes people went crazy and did things they would never have done otherwise. 330
Fred grew up in that wind. It blows him along still. Who by Fire is evidence of that and a good read.

UPDATE: my calendar has just reminded me that it's Fred's birthday today!!