Montreal author Kathleen Winter’s new short story collection, The Freedom in American Songs, explores the intricacies of human relationships. The characters in these stories struggle to connect with others, and when they do, their contact is often fleeting. And yet Winter shows that even the briefest of interactions between people can have profound effects that last a lifetime.
This new collection follows Winter’s acclaimed debut novel Annabel, a coming-of-age story about the life of an intersex child born in rural Labrador, which won a raft of awards and was a contender in this year’s Canada Reads competition. Along with The Freedom in American Songs, this fall Winter is also releasing Boundless, a non-fiction travelogue of her 2010 cruise through the changing landscape of the Canadian Arctic.
The Freedom in American Songs is the work of a mature writer, and Winter’s confidence is on display in the range of unique characters she creates. This collection is populated by a Zamboni mechanic turned funeral porteur, a Québécois seniors’ home resident, a sexually curious Pentecostal teen and a troubled older woman forced to care for a child for the first time. Set in locales as familiar as the Jean Talon Market and as distant as wartime England, these stories are tied together by their sensitive portrayal of the conditions in which people so often fail to find the human connection they long for.
The collection opens with a suite of three stories following Marianne, a young writer from St. John’s who has retreated to a remote fishing village in the hopes of producing a sellable story. Marianne clumsily navigates the social world of her neighbours, yearning for a way to connect with them. She doesn’t share the values or interests of the older women she encounters, and is greeted with their derision following her visit to the local hermit’s rundown shed. Nonetheless, the first of these stories ends on a hopeful note, when Marianne acquires some meaningful local knowledge and realizes that she is in a small way becoming a part of the community.
Most of the other stories in The Freedom in American Songs don’t end as optimistically. In “Of the Fountain,” a woman attempts to befriend a homeless man who shares her love of flamenco, only to realize that their lives are too different for it to last. Similarly, in “You Seem a Little Bit Sad,” the protagonist feels awkward whenever she encounters the friendly butcher at the Halal shop from whom she once tried to buy some pork. In the title story, the protagonist Keith remembers being a teenager and falling in love with an effeminate boy at his high school. Encountering his former lover years later, Keith, now with a wife and children, is forced to recall the painful moment when they were violently separated.
These short stories reach right into the heart of such moments of human connection, richly portraying the significance of both intimate and casual encounters. The Freedom in American Songs illuminates the interior landscape of its characters, examining the fragility of our relationships and the indelible traces they leave on us. ■
Kathleen Winter launches The Freedom in American Songs at Atwater Library (1200 Atwater) today, Monday, Sept. 22, 7 p.m., free
The Freedom in American Songs by Kathleen Winter, 2014, 192 pp. $18.95 paperback (Biblioasis)
Jeff Miller is the author of Ghost Pine: All Stories True