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Edited by David Helwig and Sandra Martin. Ottawa, Oberon Press, c1984, 177pp, paper, ISBN 0-88750-544-9 (cloth) $23.95, 0-88750-545-7 (paper) $12.95, ISSN 0703-9476.

Grades 11 and up
Reviewed by Pamela Black

Volume 13 Number 2
1985 March

84 Best Canadian Stories is an anthology of twelve short stories that David Helwig and Sandra Martin deem to be Canada's best. This book is the latest in a series that has been published annually since 1971, although it has not always been edited by Helwig and Martin. The contributors range from relative unknowns, such as Bonnie Burnard and Nora Keeling, to writers as well-established as Mavis Gallant and Elizabeth Spencer. Five of the twelve stories have previously been unpublished, and nine of the twelve authors are female.

As to the stories themselves, Sandra Martin says in her introduction: "Our first priority was to publish stories to be read rather than merely admired, or even envied." Bearing this in mind, I was surprised to find that these stories, for the most part, are not particularly readable. They almost unanimously fall prey to what E.M. Forster called the only fault a story can have: "That of making the audience not want to know what happens next." This is most likely because in the majority of these stories there is no "next." It has already happened, or maybe "already" really never happened at all, or maybe the writer is just tired of the characters, so when "next" does occur, it occurs to new characters that we do not know and we do not care about either.

In the limited space and time we have, with which to infect students with a love for literature, it is the teacher's job to wage war against exactly the kind of despondency which is born of not-caring-about-what-happens-next. If loops and twists are to enrich story structure, they must occur in a world that the reader already cares about. Too many of these works are interior monologues, frozen moments in time and inert speculations on life, which offer no vantage point from which we might genuinely share the feelings that are perhaps intended to be imparted. Tom Marshall's story "T" is an exception to this and proves that structural innovation does not preclude character development and sustained reader interest. Nora Keeling's "Mine" is also interesting as a character study which builds on itself in a captivating fashion.

On the whole, I cannot recommend 84 Best Canadian Stories as a useful teaching aid, nor do I agree that this collection represents what is, in fact, Canada's best. The job of capturing the essence of Canadian literature in these anthologies, however, is no doubt a difficult one, and I hope attempts to do so only multiply in the future so that the true richness of the field will be made ever more accessible to the Canadian reader.

Pamela Black, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C.
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