Winter Road is the newest collection of Wayne Curtis’ fictional short stories and is a continuation of his 2017 collection, Homecoming: The Road Less Travelled. The classic Wayne Curtis is all here: reminiscences of glory days gone by, of a world that has changed, of growing older, though perhaps not all that much wiser.
I’m going to borrow a line from Physician/Poet/Critic/Essayist Shane Neilson who said of poet Alden Nowlan: “He will slay you. He will break your heart.” Those powerful statements duly apply to Wayne Curtis as a writer of prose. Time and again, I found myself getting very wrapped up in the time and place of each story and was even moved to tears at times.
Several of the stories in Winter Road are connected. Four of the thirteen concerns a couple, Mark and Pam, who move from Ontario to rural New Brunswick where Mark is from and Pam is initially enthusiastic about it all: “This is the most beautiful country I ever saw!” she exclaims. This is in the summer. They purchase the big Robertson house and it is Mark’s dream to renovate it, little by little. He doesn’t want to modernize it too quickly so that it loses its character. Mark is full of wistful nostalgia and love for his birthplace. So much so that he can live with, or overlook the discomforts of a long, harsh New Brunswick winter. Pam, however cannot: “This has to be the coldest goddamn house in Canada. Why didn’t you tell me the winters got so dangerously cold?” “Yes its cold, but I’ve seen colder,” Mark calmly tells her. Pam regrets leaving Ontario. In a later story, Mark is alone, living in an apartment in town, Pam and their young son Nathaniel have left, the old house has been sold. Mark could not make Pam understand his dream. Very sad, in a tragic and gut-wrenching way. Years later, Mark returns home and reflects:
Suddenly, I realize that the landscape from down-home can never live up to the images left by its absence. Time and distance have distorted a picture that, through familiarity, may have kept its grandeur, Still, as I walk, I can feel the presence of my brothers Toots and Sacker, now long dead, and Nathaniel, who has changed his name and sex, and is somewhere on the road. I can remember the old dog I buried in the grove, how he ran in circles as we went, Nathaniel and I, for an evening of trout fishing in that lonely stream. But there is no trace of the young woman I married in Niagara. The years of counselling have eliminated her and our disagreements and the scars from trying to cling to them. And I think that is why there is no classicist view left in this picture. You have to have a dream world and dream people to live in it. Otherwise the whole cognition is overtaken with realness, the not-so-spirited gray world of routine, the calamities and death of real life. For me, fact is not the sweetest dream that labour knows.
One cannot remain unmoved by the word-pictures conjured up by this passage: a dream broken and swept away, with no dream people left to inhabit his memories. There is simply no good left from what started out as a magical time for a young family. It is the fine details which Mr. Curtis inserts in the text, metaphors that, even if you haven’t lived in a rural setting, you understand. It is a great gift that Wayne Curtis has.
This is not to say that Winter Road is a collection of sad depressing stories. Not at all, for there are many happy reminiscences of sleigh rides, warm stoves, good friends and family, music (of the homemade kind) and oh, those Saturday nights:
But it was also fun to walk down the sidewalk with my chums on summer Saturday nights when the setting sun was in our faces and the heels of our polished leather boots made a clicking sound on the warm cement. In reflection, our long, high-stepping shadows stretched out behind us like so many ghosts, as if nature had taken a lesson from art. Cars, with their white-wall tires and yellow sponge dice that hung on rear-view mirrors, were parked, bumper to bumper, along the street as the country people came to the village to shop or to dance. From the entryway of the Public Dance Hall, I could hear the screech of the fiddle, the howls of country singers — “So, darlin’, save the last dance for me.” I could smell the cornmeal that had been sprinkled on the hardwood floor, the men’s Old Spice aftershave.
I so appreciate a writer like Wayne Curtis. He is undoubtedly a regional treasure and has been fully recognized by the province of New Brunswick. It is my sincere hope that Mr. Curtis has more good stories left to tell in these uncertain times. Perhaps these stories are not for everyone. They are written by a man who grew up in rural New Brunswick, left for a time, but always returned to the place his heart was.
I am putting Winter Road on the 2020 longlist for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Best Short Fiction. Five stars!
Paperback: 196 pages
Publisher: Pottersfield Press (March 31 2020)
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