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"Just girls allowed...um, no."

Review of All In Together Girls 

(Thistledown Press, Saskatoon, CANADA)

By Kate Sutherland

Reviewed by John Stiles

It's weird when you see short stories alone in anthologies, they seem like weedy fifteen year-old girls at school dances, awkward, lonely and a little bashful. Are we guilty of overlooking these stories in favour of a buff photospread or a tantalizing expose? I dunno, exactly. If this is the case then Kate Sutherland's second collection of short stories (in twelve years) is comprised of a family of long lost sisters, aunts and grandmothers, finally reunited.
Sutherland writes in clean spare prose that is light in touch and touching to read. As the sisterhood has been re-connected, characters and relationships appear and re-appear in different stories. Lorrie and Denise, childhood girlfriends face different challenges in growing up: they compete for boys, wonder about Larry Zucks 'thing' while jumping rope, find a cure for hickeys (vinegar) or ponder why a grown man likes a plastic rat. Other characters such as Eva or Rhonda pop up in ballet class or after graduation, fingering 'fire engine lipstick' or perhaps pondering a return to diary writing. Whether or not this book is a portrait of a family and friends from childhood to middle age is difficult to say but it is surely no lighthearted male romp through rites of passing. Dance Me Outside, similar in terms of coming of age in rural Canada and peopled with likeable but luckless dudes like Frank Fencepost and Silas Crow (we must never forget those characters despite what the movies have done to banish them to movie-of-the-week infamy) is a male book by a male writer and this is a collection of canny and honest women of all ages sizing up the boys (husbands, boyfriends) and getting on with seeking purpose in life. It is finely written. Twelve years is a long time, no?  
Although the men are mainly secondary cops, security guards and cheating husbands or cat-killers, there is an honesty about the writing and an appreciation of the female point of view. After all women can be just as hard on themselves as they are on the silly men. In MEASURING UP, Doris nearing forty (Lorrie in later life, perhaps?) is shoppiing for bras at Filene's and talking about singles dances. She announces to Jayne who grudgingly 'gets her pick of the men': "those dances ma(de)...(me)... feel like Rhoda from Mary Tyler Moore, except without the witty comebacks..."  

The best story of the lot, and they are all very good, is NOTES FOR A DOCUMENTARY. A young filmmaker returns to Scotland to see her grandmother, who can't quite place her grandaughter from a string of cousins called 'Betty'. However Kate soon discovers that the old dear is still as sharp as a tack and won't let her granddaughter near her eternity ring, which was given to her by her late husband. As the story unfolds and Kate visits the rugged coastline and taps each 'rickety bench once' she confronts her own (imagined?) history of gothic retribution, abandoned fisheries and a tragic tale of drowned witches. When back with her old gran, Kate marvels at the old ladies quiet wisdom and cunning; by the end of this encounter Kate is pinning rhinestone broaches to her chest, lost in blissful wonder and reverie.

In other stories such as COOL, OPEN ALL NIGHT, ARIAL VIEW OF A DINNER PARTY, putdowns and comic observations such as 'doofus' are used to full effect. Also to set the tone and setting 'Bata' Shoes, 'Eatons Cafeteria', 'Crown Royal', and that guilty rock pleasure 'Streetheart' are all carefully chosen to indicate era and location. Saskatoon gets a special precise billing in many of the stories. SHE'S A ROCKER doesn't quite quite have the same emotional intensity of the earlier stories but this is not to point at its weakness rather to the strength of the others. The story does showcase Sutherlands spare style. When the annoying security guard at the concert is won over by a girls 'inner cheerleader' the rest of the girls try to prove their mettle as rockers. Their interest in the rock concert is enough to keep you reading.  

This book is exactly why people fall in love with books. You could easily overlook it - it is a short story collection, a genre which is even more forgotten and derided than poetry. But why is this so? It is really hard to fathom. Twelve years in the making and so well-crafted and enjoyable. Don't forget it is the quiet, anonymous observers of the world with their deep rooted passions that are the ones who tell us what is going on in it.

John Stiles

Bio: John Stiles is writing this review after responding to an email which wondered what all the fuss was about Scouts are Cancelled being translated into Italian. If you were there in the Imperial Library Pub in about 1998, you'd know. Its a big deal for me, you see. John's second full collection is Creamsicle Stick Shivs.