Welcome to the fifth 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, sometimes I’m a little stumped. 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 singular 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 “Tell Me What You Want.”
She doesn’t know the column pays fuck-all. She doesn’t know that despite the eight hours Al spends in his office each night, the column only takes an hour to write, and no, he’s not actually working on the next great Canadian Novel. She doesn’t know he keeps a roll of throat lozenges on hand, or that in his real work, Al’s pseudonym is Patricia. She also doesn’t know how many men know about the beauty mark on her left thigh.
Set in 2002, Tell Me What You Want introduces Al, a former teacher who’s recently made a career change following unfair treatment from the Alberta government. While Al’s beautiful wife Patty (whom readers will remember from But for the Streetlamps and the Moon and All the Stars) puts their small children to bed, he retreats to his basement office and prepares to complete the work his family must never learn he does.
Tell Me What You Want involves themes of masculinity and identity. As Al faces increasing pressure to provide for his family — and finds success doing so outside of traditional means — the chapter asks what it is to be considered a provider. I suppose in some part this chapter also poses questions around “manhood;” in accordance with the rigid gender stereotypes and standards society imposes upon straight, cis males, is it considered worse for a man to be seen as weak, or as feminine?
This chapter explores the 2002 Alberta Teacher’s strike in great detail. An excerpt:
They just had to hang on until 2001, Al promised Patricia. The government promised by then teachers would be recognized for the pay cuts they’d taken ’93. Livable wages, manageable class sizes, paid planning hours, and material allowances: all meager wants were within reach. Still, Patty wasn’t happy. She got so snarly every time she found Al hunched over lesson planning at the kitchen table that he started working after hours in his classroom instead.
He definitely wasn’t the only teacher with the idea; with janitorial services cut and material allowances basically nonexistent, it seemed like the whole faculty spent their off-hours wiping desks and mopping floors, cutting and pasting images from magazines to the posters they’d handmade to teach kids fractions, the periodic table, human anatomy. In January, the government banned the use of furnaces after five pm as part of Education Alberta’s “green movement” guise. Teachers shivered as temperatures dipped on winter evenings, and they returned in the mornings to find the ink in their pens frozen. Al would race other good-faith lesson planners/classroom cleaners out the front doors just before the late-night security alarms kicked on, and they’d bitterly congratulate one another if Simperson managed to make it without forgetting her keys.
It was tough. Al wasn’t the only one in the staffroom complaining of marital trouble while chugging weak coffee. Many started calling in sick. Al tried it once—taking the day off to catch up on sleep—but when administration couldn’t afford a substitute for his classes, he sucked it up and went in anyway. The mix of sleep-deprived teachers and surly teenagers was brutal, and more than once Al found himself walking away from their whiny attitudes, slamming the door behind him, tears blurring the hallway. Nerves were raw, but there was still hope. The teachers held tight to what was promised. Better was yet to come.
Until it wasn’t.
Fall 2001 heralded the arrival of a new budget the government was calling “The Alberta Advantage.” Patricia entered the third trimester of her pregnancy with their third child, and little Zoe got sick around the same time—weird blisters all over her face anytime the poor kid stepped outside. Strung out, Patty and Al listened to the budget announcement together but separate: she grabbing bits and pieces of the news between laundry, morning sickness, and the tantrum cries of their youngest, he through the speakers of his desktop radio while students silently scribbled answers on a pop quiz. The “Advantage” was cutting corporate taxes to the lowest rates in Canada and approving a 17.3 percent raise for provincial politicians. The province reported it had created a surplus of funds, but none would go to Alberta Education.
And Patricia fuckin’ raged.
She and Al fought at the table over dinner when he got home that night, the kids covering their ears with their hands.
“Daddy, don’t yell! You’ll make Mommy cry!”
“They said teachers could take an extra 3 percent pay if they wanted it,” Pat argued, pointing her fork as if she were the teacher, lecturing and disciplining and grading Al’s response. Her other hand rested on top of her belly, the baby inside a ticking time bomb of increased expense.
Al shook his head. “They’ll only give us that money if we take it from school improvement funds, and no one’s going to do that. I mean, come on. What’s 3 percent? You want me to be the guy who takes a raise when the fricken’ gym roof is about to cave in?”
Pat pushed away from the table, chair legs scraping the linoleum floor.
“Jesus Christ, the damage deposit, Pat!”
She ignored him and waddled to the kitchen counter, holding an opened envelope above her head before slamming it back down. The landlord had raised the rent again.
“Let’s worry about our own fricken’ roof, eh?”
Through the faculty body, shock led to anger. A vote was held and the result decided that teachers would go on strike. Simperson, the school district’s union representative, insisted the walkout not happen until after Grade 12 diploma exams. Al thought it was dumb, waiting until after tests to strike. Shouldn’t they make the biggest splash possible? But Simperson was adamant; the teachers would still have clout, she argued, and students shouldn’t suffer the faults of their parents’ government. So the teachers waited and taught and facilitated tests and then, unified, they walked out on February 4, 2002.
The very next day, teachers were ordered back to work.
Towards the end of this chapter, Al references Joel Plaskett Emergency. The chapter was inspired, in particular, by a line of the song:
“Crawling into bed was easy… getting out’s a little harder to do.”
This story was inspired, in part, by a taxicab driver I met in Las Vegas. The driver was a former school teacher who remained bitter by the American school system and how he was treated as an employee. “There’s a lot more dignity in driving taxi than teaching, I’ll tell you that,” he told me.
A much earlier version of Tell Me What You Want was published by Punchnel’s Online Magazine.
Readers will recognize many characters in Tell Me What You Want: Patty, Mrs. Simperson, Mariam, and Garrett & Susan all make appearances.
The chapter also introduces new characters who will become important, later. Pay attention to what is learned about Al and Patty’s child, Zoe, and the aggressive Mr. Hamilton.
Like Al’s “Clan O’ Nerd” students who organize a walkout in support of their teachers, in 2002 I was a grade 10 student who helped organize a school-wide walkout in support of our teachers.
To Traci Cumbay, then-fiction editor at Punchnel’s, for finding the worth in the first version of this story and helping bring it to life. Also, special thanks for Nicola Ramsey, who provided firsthand details on what it was like to teach through the Klein government and Alberta Education’s tumultuous early 2000’s.
Set in the urban 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.