Welcome to the third in a series of blog posts about Always Brave, Sometimes Kind (now available for pre-order!).
When people ask me what this book is about, I’m always a little stumped. Sure, 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, and we have no one narrative.
So, to answer some questions about what it’s “about,” I’m introducing the many characters who make up the novel: including tidbits about the actual writing of their story and information that didn’t make it into the book.
Let’s jump into “But For the Streetlamps and the Moon and All the Stars.”
“They walk nowhere but forward, hoping their aimless steps take them someplace good.”
Set in 1991, But for the Streetlamps and the Moon and All the Stars introduces the reader to three teenage girls: Shannon, Lacey, and Patricia, and their English teacher. Bored with no place to go, the underage girls drink in an empty play park before wandering a dark neighbourhood and coming across Mrs. Simperson’s unlocked car, the ashes of her deceased son found inside.
“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”Carl Sagan
That’s science-y quote for someone who flunked every high school science class she took *cough*FailedToAttend*cough*, but in 2014 it so fascinated me that I wrote a story around it. “But for the Streetlamps and the Moon and All the Stars” was published by Tahoma Literary Review, won the Alberta Literary Award’s Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Story, and was then rewritten to serve as Always Brave, Sometime Kind’s first chapter.
In it, a teenage girl from an evangelical upbringing embraces the idea of being made from stardust as a way to separate herself from her mother’s increasingly fanatical beliefs. She finds comfort in the thought that we’re all all just “stardust: sparkly, but in the end, just dirt.” The chapter is an exploration between our human nature and our divine – and whether or not these competing thoughts are mutually exclusive. Can we be both god & animal, cosmos & space junk?
This story’s a little lighter on history lessons than most of the other chapters included in Always Brave, Sometimes Kind. However, there is reference to burgeoning evangelical purity movement which flourished in the 1990s and 2000s, but which has lost favour now that those of us exposed to it in adolescence have reached adulthood and have largely decided to spare our own daughters from its damaging consequences and shame-based sexual education.
This reference didn’t make it through the many round of edits the novel went through, but originally Bryan Adam’s song Summer of ‘69 appeared in the story.
This story was inspired by a news story in which an Albertan woman reported the vandalism of her son’s ashes by three teenage girls. From a 2014 personal journal entry:
My husband came home from day shift at 6pm, and we chatted about our day in front of the evening news before I went upstairs to dish supper. On the way out of the room, a news story made me stop: a woman on the television, crying, angry. The remains of her daughter vandalized, spilled into the street, by three malicious teens in the middle of the night.
My heart broke for this woman, but also for the girls. The news said the girls seemed unfeeling about what they did, and I wondered if that was true. It was chilling, how easily I could also have done such a thing in my teenage years, if spurred on by friends, alcohol, the bravery of a dark night. I rushed through dinner and set this story on the page.
But for the Streetlamps and the Moon and All the Stars won the Alberta Literary Award’s 2014 Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Story. You can read the speech I gave here.
Mrs. Simperson was partly inspired by a hippy professor I had in college who once mentioned during a lecture that she “wished she were a tree so she could pray all day.” At eighteen, I thought she was sooo strange. At thirty-four, I have a much deeper appreciate for her free spirited attitude.
Reading, you might notice Patty’s tendency to list three adjectives in a row: pretty, beautiful, ethereal. The last adjective – the one italicized – is a new word for Patty, pulled from the vocabulary sheets Mrs. Simperson had assigned them earlier that day.
This story introduces an important vehicle that reappears throughout the book. It’s a Dodge Spirit – homage to my first car.
I also took opportunity in this story to reference one of my favourite old #canlit reads, Wild Geese, by Margaret Ostenso:
“Patty peers in the windows and sees red velvet seats. Wild Geese sits on the backbench, the same novel the girls are supposed to be reading in class. Photocopy paper pokes from between its pages: Grade 9 Vocab Words, April 15-19.”
This story’s title was also originally the novel’s working title (until it was nixed because, of course, it was far too long).
To Margaret Macpherson, who was this story’s first reader, to whom I met for the first time upon submitting this story for her critique as Metro Edmonton’s Writer in Residence, to Howard O’Hagan sponsors, Wanna and Guy Tessier.
Listen or Read
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.