Sisters of Grass

by Theresa Kishkan

Published by Goose Lane Editions

260 pages, 2000

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Without Flesh

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson


Sisters of Grass recounts the young life of Margaret, a half-Indian young woman who lives on her parents' farm in British Columbia's Nicola Valley in the late 1800's. The region is one that has been seldom explored in fiction and the natural topography becomes the central character in the novel.

Margaret has grown up knowledgeable in the traditions of her grandmother, a British Columbian First Nations woman of the Thompson Band. From the cradle Margaret has learned about the routines of life on the farm and animal tending and the secrets of the land. She is understandably naïve about life outside her family's reach until a handsome young stranger, Nicholas, comes to the valley to research Native culture. The young outsider introduces Margaret to photography and the pair subsequently fall in love. Only then does she give thought to her future, debates the concept of leaving her beloved valley and finds her calling in photography.

Weaved into this central storyline is the brief tale of Anna, a modern day museum curator who finds herself introduced to Margaret via a small exhibit box and finds herself entranced with Margaret's life a century before. Anna takes journeys to the Nicola Valley and soon finds herself dreaming of Margaret. It is through Anna that Margaret's story, imagined, dreamed or otherwise, is unveiled.

Theresa Kishkan's debut novel fully invokes her poetic background. The prose, especially when describing the lush land, is rich with lyricism and visceral imagery. She takes the reader from the damp west coast of Astoria, Oregon all the way to the dry British Columbian interior of Spence's Bridge, Kamloops and the Shulus Reserve, all the while employing all of the five senses.

From her eastern window under the gable, muslin curtain drawn back by the breeze, Margaret could see morning opening upon the home fields, mauve, pale pink, a faint orange like the opened belly of a trout, gold and dove grey. A few tendrils of honeysuckle ventured in the open window, and a blackbird's piercing whistle. It was too lovely to stay in bed and too early for anyone else to be out and about. She left her bed, pulling up the warm sheets and her quilt with its border of wild geese, and quickly put on her clothing.

Out the door, out to the barn to change into her blessed trousers in the tack-room graced by a coyote skull over the lintel, grabbing a bridle and a tin of oats. Daisy was standing under a cottonwood with the blue roan gelding, and Margaret gave them each a handful of oats, leading Daisy away to be saddled by the barn. She wanted to be up on the ridge before the sun came over, wanted to see the darkened windows flare. It was a Sunday, and everyone was taking an hour or two of extra rest, even the ranch dogs lying on the porch. One of them barked a little as Margaret led Daisy through the gate and then returned to sleep.

Kishkan leaves no stone, buried bone, or wildflower undiscovered in this novel; indeed, the author and characters seem captivated by the land they inhabit and are implicitly drawn to it.

She introduces us to the complicated world of the Thompson Natives whose relationship with the land is intense and intimate; it is by rediscovering her Thompson ancestry that Margaret finds herself interacting with the land in a meaningful way.

While the natural imagery is beautiful and quite tangible, the rest of Sisters of Grass falls short. Margaret's life is uncomplicated, strife-free and completely static. Even when debating issues that should loom large in a young woman's life -- where she will live, what career path she will choose, whom she will love -- answers come effortlessly to Margaret. She is never perplexed or unnerved at the choices before her. Nor does she ever encounter conflict, or have to make a particularly difficult choice; Margaret makes all the correct, simple choices and as such, her life unfolds as easily as a cast off book.

Dialogue, as well, is somewhat troublesome in Sisters of Grass. Often, it is unnatural and stilted, simply serving the reader needed information instead of revealing anything about the speaker or the subject at hand

"What did your own father do?" Nicholas asked, enjoying the conversation more than he could say. How right it seemed to be sitting by this fire with a girl he had kissed and her father, wanting to be nowhere else on earth.

"He had been a bar pilot on the Columbia River. There were two channels at the mouth, separated by a sand bar called Middle Sands, which kept changing as the sand shoaled in the storms and currents. He'd guide boats into the Columbia and out again, he knew the river like his own hands, knew about all the sandbars, which were navigable during particular tides, what conditions were likely to be through particular weathers. He never lost a boat and became something of a legend. Someone even composed a song in his honour, a sea-shanty that glorified one of his adventures in a Pacific squall."

Margaret exclaimed, "You've never told me that, Father! Can you remember the song?"

"Oh, not really. There was a refrain, let me see if I can get it right.

Captain Stuart brought her in, the limping broken beauty

No man died, though she'd a list to her side

And her sails hung all a-streaming

Perhaps not so much of a song after all."

"Could a man make a good living doing what your father did?"

"Well, he did very well financially , and my mother was left a considerable sum when her father died. My parents had a big house built on the slope overlooking the river, among the merchants and cannery owners. My sister and I were somewhat isolated in Astoria, however."

Sisters of Grass gives life to a beautiful, undiscovered area of western Canada, but, unfortunately, fails to do the same with its characters. Margaret, Nicholas, Margaret's parents and the community in Nicola Valley never truly come to life, nor do they touch the reader in any memorable manner. As such, the reader is left with a specific, haunting image of a foxglove and deer prints and bones buried with young girls, without ever connecting to the flesh inhabitants of this land. | October 2000


Andrea MacPherson is a Vancouver-based writer who recently completed her first novel. Her work has appeared in The Antigonish Review, The Glow Within, Chameleon and Descant. She is the poetry editor for Prism International.