When people ask me what this book is about, I’m always a little stumped. There’s a description you can read if you follow the above link, but still there’s the question – what’s the story? Truth is, when I wrote Always Brave, Sometimes Kind, I did it with the goal of writing a book about my home and about the people who live here. I wanted to write about Alberta. While we have no one narrative, we have many stories.
Let’s jump into Chapter Five: A Reason to Bend (1999)
By morning, autumn is swept into ditches and frost ends the pumpkins not yet ready for harvest. The day is bare and grey, quiet with its annual disappointment and a sky bloated with unshed snow. It is too quiet, strangely silent, as if not a single tree speaks.
Set in 1999, A Reason to Bend gets into the head of a women experiencing the onset of recurrent psychosis. Susan and her family – eleven year old homeschooled Iris, and Susan’s husband, Garrett – live on an organic cattle ranch. Due to expanding industry around the farm, the outfit is failing: cattle are getting sick and dying, new calves fail to thrive, tree clearing on nearby fields alters the watershed and removes their access to water. While Garrett struggles to keep the ranch afloat, Susan believes she is contributing to the wellbeing of farm, family, and earth by reading the mystical, prophetical lines found in wood grains, wallpaper, or even on her daughter’s skin. The problem is, she just isn’t tall enough to see the big picture clearly. According to Sue, this won’t be a problem for long: she’s turning into a tree, and then she’ll be very tall indeed.
This story explores a few themes. One of which is our relationship to the earth, what our rights or responsibilities are to it, and to one another. What rights do farmers, land owners, or stewards have to protect the land or water they own, use, or represent? If those with rights to neighbouring fields alter the land in such a way that it damages another’s livelihood or home, what protections or recourse are – or should be – in place?
Another theme is mental illness and mental illness in motherhood. I was asked about this theme after reading the story at a literary salon a couple of years ago. The audience member remarked on how sympathetic she was to Sue, who is obviously a warm and loving parent even if drastically ill and deep in psychosis. I was happy to hear that report, because in writing this story it was very important to me that Susan’s love for her daughter never be tarnished by a type of illness that’s often stereotyped through symptoms of violence or abuse. Is Susan healthy enough to care for herself and her young daughter? No. Susan needs medical treatment and knows herself that it is Garrett who must take care of the little girl. Does Susan show her daughter unending love, care, affection, and admiration? Yes, even up to and after “the end.”
A Reason to Bend is set in the year 1999 for a few reasons. The era leading up to Y2K was steeped in anxiety around the future, capitalism, and presented a new dawn for environmental activism. This combination of doom and brave hopefulness is perfectly reflective of Susan’s state of mind.
Another historical reference is the existence of the organic cattle ranch. At the time, organic farming outfits were rare but such cattle operations were becoming more popular after outbreaks of Mad Cow Disease in Britain the 1980’s and 1990’s. (Less-than-fun author fact: I was born in England in the mid-80’s and because of this, I am unable to give blood in Canada due to the possibility of Mad Cow Disease. I have the rare “universal donor” blood type and have tried to donate blood twice: the first time, I was seventeen and told to wait thirteen years and try again. Thirteen years later, I was told that individuals who may have been exposed to contaminated beef in the UK in the 80’s and 90’s will never be welcome to give blood in Canada).
Another historical nod is to the competing industries of agriculture and oil & gas – two major players on the Albertan landscape. A book that inspired and educated me around this topic is the novel Who By Fire by Fred Stenson, and acclaimed author and regular contributor to Alberta Views Magazine. Stenson’s book is a measured and profound look at the impacts Alberta’s prioritization pivot from Agriculture to Energy had on small communities and farming families. I can’t recommend his work enough.
Side note: Alberta Views Magazine published an earlier version of one of Always Brave, Sometimes Kind’s chapters, Northside Delacroix, in 2014.
Lines from songs are never directly quoted in Always Brave, Sometimes Kind. That said, while getting ready to begin the day Susan can hear music from the kitchen radio: “East coast voices sing about how it’s the end of the world.” Her husband asks her if she’s taking her medication, to which Sue replies, “I feel fine.”
I’ll let you imagine what fabulous Canadian song from the 1990’s this story is referring to 😉
Originally the story was a flash fiction, realist piece about a woman shifting through the cycles of mania to depression. I received advice in developing it from an acquaintance of mine, Gregory Koop – a writer I had met at the preschool our daughters attended together. Gregory’s keen eye suggested that the work had magical-realistic undertones. That the woman might not be suffering psychological disorder – at least, not in her point of view – but might be transforming into an animal or monster.
Him: “A werewolf, maybe?”
Me: “Too Stephanie Meyer.”
“Yes, it’s been done and overdone.”
“A tree perhaps.”
“Now that’s new!”
Like many (the majority?) of the chapters of this book, this story was influenced by a dream. In the middle of the night, I vividly dreamt there was a splinter of wood in my eye. I woke up in pain – my eyes very dry – and I thought I must have fallen asleep in my contact lenses. Blurry and confused at 3am, I struggled to remove my contact lenses for about 20 minutes – until I realized I wasn’t wearing contact lenses, and that the whole thing had been the mistake of a nightmare.
The dream had done (temporary) damage: my night-prying resulted in eyes that were puffy and red the next day, sore and stinging. It scared me that I had hurt myself with such intention while half asleep – what if I hadn’t of woken up properly for 10 more minutes? But, the experience gave me writing material. So there’s that!
To Gregory Koop, the story’s first reader, and Colin Meldrum of A Capella Zoo for first publishing it.
Set in the cities, reserves, and rural reaches of Alberta, Katie Bickell’s debut novel is told in a series of stories that span the years from 1990 to 2016, through cycles of boom and bust in the oil fields, government budget cuts and workers rights policies, the rising opioid crisis, and the intersecting lives of people whose communities sometimes stretch farther than they know.
We meet a teenage runaway who goes into labour at West Edmonton Mall, a doctor managing hospital overflow in a time of healthcare cutbacks, a broke dad making extra pay through a phone sex line, a young musician who dreams of fame beyond the reserve, and a dedicated hockey mom grappling with sense of self when she’s no longer needed―or welcome―at the rink.
Always Brave, Sometimes Kind captures a network of friends, caregivers, in-laws, and near misses, with each character’s life coming into greater focus as we learn more about the people around them. Tracing alliances and betrayals from different perspectives over decades, Bickell writes an ode to home and community that is both warm and gritty, well-defined and utterly complicated.