The Hemingway Tradition (2002), by Kristin Butcher

Burtcher-HemingwayI had the honour of spending the day with Kristin Butcher this past weekend (we’ve been Facebook “friends” but never met). She kindly gave me a copy of her first novel (The Runaways, 1997) and her first book for the Orca Soundings series, The Hemingway Tradition. I immediately began reading…

The Hemingway Tradition, like all Orca Soundings novels, is short, yet Butcher manages to pack a number of interwoven issues into it. We meet Shaw as he and his mother are driving from Vancouver to their new life in Winnipeg; Shaw’s mind is filled with the contemplation of various methods of suicide. “Well, that’s a bit of a downer,” a reader might think, “starting in medias res of a story of a suicidal teenager.” It doesn’t take long, though, for us to begin to feel for Shaw in his pain: his thoughts stem from his memory of finding his father, who had shot himself through the head. The rest of the story—not surprisingly—revolves around Shaw coming to terms with his father’s suicide, his apparent desertion of his family, but more importantly his betrayal of the image Shaw had of their relationship as father and son. For Shaw, that relationship had been ideal, almost idyllic. (This is, in fact, the only obvious flaw in the text: Shaw’s parents are too ideal, his mother too understanding and aware of his needs. It would be asking too much, though, to have all of the characters as fully developed as Shaw himself: he is, after all, the focal point.) The idealized Dylan Sebring, a well-respected Canadian mystery author, had supported and taken pride in Shaw’s a love of and ability in writing. They had shared moments of beauty and joy, shared with readers through Butcher’s powerful, poetic prose. A particularly poignant example is when the image of his dead father batters against Shaw’s mind…

the blood-soaked bedroom began to dissolve. It slid like down the walls of my mind as if it were being hosed into the storm sewer I watched with fascination. I felt the tension in my body drain away with the dirty water.

Gradually I became aware of a gentle rocking. And then the lapping of water on the hull of a small boat. My body melted deeper into the molded seat of the runabout and I squinted at the sunlight winking on the water. Dad … was stretched out on the seat across from me with his feet propped on the gunwale. His eyes were closed, and his long, lean body was swaying with the rhythm of the boat. (32-33)

Shaw’s confusion about the degree of honesty in his father’s—their—life is complicated by racial and homophobic slurs students at his new school hurl at his new locker-mate and friend, Jai Dhillon. Finally, Shaw can take no more: after a physical altercation with a group of racist bullies, he realizes that his power against such bigotry lies in his ability to communicate both the ills of prejudice and ways to overcome the ignorance that gives rise to it.

The parallel Shaw draws between the overt bigotry he battles against, and the inner complications of his own emotional situation, is carefully balanced. For Butcher to have successfully woven three important themes together in such a short novel is impressive; in only 107 pages, she gives us a meaningful explication of the anguish Shaw feels, and how exorcising his inner demons not only frees him but makes him powerful on behalf of others.

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2 comments on “The Hemingway Tradition (2002), by Kristin Butcher

  1. Thanks, Karyn. This is one of my personal favourites. One tiny correction: the novel is part of Soundings, not Currents.

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