In this collection of short stories written in the vernacular language of working class Canadian women living and working in the shadow of the Windsor car plants, we meet a community of women whose voices are rarely heard in fiction. Industrial Roots tells tales of lives punctuated by violence and addiction, but it is more than that. It takes some adjustment to tune your ear to the anecdotal, the interrupted, and I sometimes found it hard to get into the stories as they jump between events – sometimes starting or finishing in unexpected places and with multiple changes of voice.
One story, ‘The Two Stellas’ is particularly confusing in that two characters (both called Stella) get involved with the same man. At times I lost the trail of which Stella we were talking about but having read all the stories I started to wonder if that confusion says something about the patterns of that life – lives of hard living and hard working repeated over generations. With lack of economic freedom comes compromise, putting-up-with, and having to make the best of things. The conversational/collaborative tone is important – and on reflection I feel that the stories have to be told in a slightly non-traditional way which jumps between past and present in order to show the ways in which these women resist. And these women are tough.
‘The Next Shift’ is good at asking how women’s lives are measured. Lillian, an experienced worker at Walmart, is being pushed out by young manager, Don. ‘I’ll be depressed if I quit…feel like I’m not good anymore, useless. What am I supposed to do? Stay home and knit?’ Lillian wants everyone at work to have a fair slice of good and bad shifts and yet no one will listen. Where Don represents the bully that is Capitalism, how do women’s lives measure up when they can no longer work? I liked the way Lillian thinks about time and there are nice details which reinforce her feeling of increasing limitation like, ‘a row of red hibiscus lines the four-foot chain link fence that the landlord put up last year’. So how is time marked for women? Is it in rows of knitting, in the continuity of generations and births, or is it in the next shift?
My favorite story is, ‘At the Resale Shop’ – a deftly executed story of an older woman who goes to the charity shop and finds her own dress which has been given away by her children. The story addresses the reader directly, ‘Well, did I tell you yet ‘bout when we went down on Ottawa Street?’ and goes on to relate how she finds not just her clothes, but her knitting patterns and other things, even her apartment, are being downsized without her knowledge or consent. She repeatedly stands up to the family and friends doing this to her and they ignore her. And as she protests to the reader, more things are negotiated away and then the story suddenly ends.