Ursula's long awaited story collection After The Fires is on the Aurora Awards short list. She is also a journalist, produced playwright and creative writing instructor.
April, 2009 : Review:
Finding Creatures and Other Stories, by Casey June Wolf
I first ran across Casey June Wolf's work in the Canadian speculative anthology Tesseracts. The ninth volume in the series, edited by luminaries Geoff Ryman and Nalo Hopkinson, included a wonderful fantasy story of Wolf's called "The Coin," about Haitian street-children. Its sense of place was almost palpable, hence I wasn't surprised to find out Wolf has worked extensively as a volunteer in Haiti. The second time I ran across her writing was when she posted a rant on the SF Canada list-server. [See Comment Secion of this post for the full rant. CJW] The subject was feminism—
The same rich breadth of experience, passion, and compassion fires the nine stories herein, which includes the (previously mentioned) magical and thought provoking story, "The Coin." The titular "Finding Creatures" is about a dusty Winnipeg summer, during which eight year old Bernadette, an only child, wishes terribly for playmates, and if she can't have those, an animal will do. She has richly detailed fantasies, the kind only children and world-building fantasy and science fiction writers have. She brings home worms and leeches and dogs and things, all of which are disallowed. Then one day, seemingly in answer to her fervent prayers to baby Jesus, a horse appears in her yard. The horse is quickly named Angel, and takes the little girl for rides around the neighborhood, during which they are invisible, which is probably a good thing, as Bernadette and Angel wander farther and farther afield. One day all this changes. They visit a section of town they've never been to before, where a little boy plays alone. When he looks up he sees both the horse and the girl. Another day, the pair encounter a girl called Manjeet, who thinks Angel is her horse, and named Sita.
Over the rest of the summer, the list grew. Children who had played with Angel at lunchtime or on weekends. Lonely children seeing her for the first time. Children who'd spied her in their yards but never approached her. Children who had known her long ago, who thought they'd never see her again, and there she was, and there we were, too.
And when September comes, and Angel stops coming, those who had the luck to ride her around the dusty summer streets of Winnipeg form an ad hoc gang. There is a surprise ending to do with living breathing dinosaurs, but I won't spoil it by including it here.
In the story "Claude and the Henry Moores," a security guy (Claude) at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto (where Wolf has also worked) discovers that the Henry Moore sculptures are inhabited by beings, trapped within them in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the alien-in-the-tree in the second story, "Thunderbirds." Claude also discovers he is able to free them using a combination of empathy and what can only be called metaphysical faculties. But first he takes them (and himself) north to watch the Aurora. The deep and healing beauty of nature is wonderfully described in this passage as well as many others in the collection.
In the aforementioned "Thunderbirds," an indigenous back woods sort called Norman encounters a crashed alien ship. He buries the body, first wondering what the proper protocol for doing so is, finally deciding that all dead must be treated with respect, even if one doesn't know the customs by which they lived and died. Meanwhile the alien, who goes by the name Chitta and is capable of such things, isn't dead at all. She has however exited her body and entered the first living thing within easy reach, which happens to be a tree. Chitta spends days on end learning about her new body, and is only a little sad that she will no longer be ambulatory nor have an intellect with which to engage with others as before. Nevertheless, inhabiting a tree with one's spirit and mind intact is preferable to death. One day, Norman returns to the crash site, and something draws him to the tree. He sits there, and maybe he falls asleep for awhile, but in the end the alien in the tree and the man communicate somehow, and leave one another enriched, even though the meeting and the communication have both been so subtle as to be barely acknowledged by its participants.
What is curious about both stories is what happens to their protagonists when they encounter the alien Other, largely by the use of subtle skills which some might call psychic and others might say are the inevitable result of true compassion. Both Claude and Norman wish mainly for their strange friends to find freedom. Claude, in particular, leads an isolated life but both characters go largely unnoticed and, uncomplaining, try to find joy in their simple routines. These stories exemplify Wolf's central theme which is: what is one to do with one's loneliness? Her answer seems to be: reach out in any way you can, even if the reaching takes a form that many might tell you is simply not possible. And as such, of course, these stories about alien communication serve as metaphor for the eternal human problem of communication.
In both stories, what is at first momentous becomes small scale and human, and this, in the end, humanizes the impossible. Charles de Lint, in his lengthy introduction, makes much of Wolf's work for her combined rich imagination and rich reserves of empathy.
Wolf uses different genres, different voices, different cultures—
in short whatever she needs to make the story work. What ties it all together is her sure-handed prose and a depth she brings to her writing, that indefinable element that rises up from between the lines and gives a good story its resonance.
I might add that she creates characters whose human vulnerability readers will recognize and take joy in. Not only that, but fiction writers with serious intentions must be supported, or we as readers have all fallen victim to the censorship of the marketplace.
And I've always had a soft spot for bravely ranting women.
Copyright © 2009, Ursula Pflug. All Rights Reserved.
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