Several years back I was pouring through the archives of the Nakusp-based Arrow Lakes News, looking for some good yarns to add to the ‘This Week in History’ section. (I was editor then and am still managing editor of the ALN now.)
I found a story from the ‘20s or ‘30s recounting a dance on the west side of the Lower Arrow Lake. It was “well attended” and good times were had by all, the reporter wrote (however faithfully). Later on in the story he lets us know that while paddling back home from the party, a small boatload of poor souls capsized. Several were spilled into the icy lake; a few drowned.
In this business, that’s known as ‘burying the lede’ — failing to recognize the important part of the story and not putting it up front where it commands attention.
It also betrays a small-town journalism tendency that should make us all cautious about our ‘official’ histories as chronicled in the press: a constant pressure to rose-tint so as not to offend. Was everything “well attended?” Was every event fantastic and amazing? Were all our forebears a mob of Union Jack-waving Anglo-Saxons who rushed excitedly from ribbon cutting to ribbon cutting?
Gordon Sombrowski’s What Echo Heard is a great first collection by the Fernie-born author. The compilation of short stories explores the town’s varied history through vignettes with some re-occurring characters. The stories are interspersed over the past 60 years or so.
The main reason I enjoyed What Echo Heard is Fernie — for me — serves as a stand-in for Revelstoke. Substitute railroaders for coal miners and you can see the Revelstoke of the East Kootenay.
He opens with The Ride, a tale of an alchoholic logging truck driver told from the perspective of his young son. Business was done face-to-face back then, and the logging life could be haphazard, more so if a brown paper bag was nearby. The Ride introduces Sombrowski’s skill at telling stories from a broad variety of narrative perspectives, and he convincingly pulls off a young boy’s attempt to function in a potentially deadly and unreliable adult world.
Both Mary Assunta’s Miracles and Mittens highlight Sombrowski’s desire to portray the non-Anglo roots of his community, sharing the immigrant experience and, sometimes, the racism that blemished that existence for many. The author further displays his narrative repertoire, exploring a more psychological perspective of a woman forced into a bad marriage, and a child trying to sort out the complexities of the adult world.
Most of the rest of the stories are interconnected, focusing on the mucky mucks of the community – mayors, prominent business owners, clerics, mine executives and assorted do-gooders and busybodies. It’s often a pretty harsh satirical take on those who fill our newspaper pages — one that seems to question whether the lot constitutes a net positive or net negative. Maybe the filter of fiction is enough to separate the author from the still-present consequences of portraying your hometown in a sometimes harsh light — I’ll have to ask him.
He highlights the destructive nature of gossip — despite the misguided intentions of the do-gooders behind it.
PHOTO: Cover art, What Echo Heard
Sombrowski has fun portraying a failed seccessionist coup by local chamber of commerce types revolting against “that torpid pasha,” then-B.C.-premier Dave Barrett. The last straw was Fernie’s exclusion from a B.C. tourist map. They figure they’d be better off aligning themselves with Alberta, and assume its capital is Calgary.
Sombrowski also tackles the brutal consequences of youth coming out of the closet — especially in a small town. In our contemporary culture, portrayals of teenage homosexuality are mainstream, primetime TV fare. But in 2012 Revelstoke, have we as a community dealt with the issues in the local public sphere? Sombrowski reminds me maybe we should.
What Echo Heard ends with Hair, a vignette about old boys trading gossip at the barber shop. (“Don’t just get a hair cut — get ‘em all cut,” reads the sign in the window.) They’re distracted by a long-haired man’s arrival into town — one of the first skiers to explore the future resort town. “Sheeyt,” said character Lem. “Nothin’ scissors and a dark back alley wouldn’t fix,” said character Putzi. You might find a similar conversation in a barber shop here — if we still had an all-male bullpen. Oh well, you can hide your private opinion in public online these days.
In Sombrowki, we see an author finding his voice. He’s a skilled and diverse short-story writer who takes you on a familiar and honest journey through the recent past.
Sombrowski says he’s got a completed novel on the shelf he’s considering releasing, and is working on a second one. They’re something to look forward to — and he’s right when he says the first one is “daring” him to send it to the publisher.
Sombrowski’s got chops, but what’s lacking in any collection of short stories is the unity a novel brings. I’m looking forward to his first novel. He’s a skilled wordsmith with keen powers of observation and a knack for social dynamics. That’s great, but I’d like to see the collection unified, brought together by deeper philosophical themes that tell us what he really thinks. That’ll be his make or break work.
No pressure Gordon.
What Echo Heard