In “The Train,” the opening story of Wayne Curtis’s new collection, Homecoming, 12-year-old Jack, fascinated by locomotives, dreams of the world beyond the family farm. Determined that “the land does not own me, not like it does my father,” he buys a return ticket to the nearby town of Bradford. The journey becomes more complicated than he anticipates: trains do not run according to his schedule and not all the adults he meets are as honest and kind as those he knows from home. A dark tone underlies the quiet pastoral story as the world-weary preteen remembers ordering a rope from the Eaton’s catalogue half a lifetime ago as a six-year-old, convinced that “lassoes save lives.” The rope becomes a more sinister presence when Jack ropes a pregnant heifer, trips her, and causes her to miscarry her calf.
“The Train” sets up motifs that permeate the collection: travel to and from home, running to and/or from experience, the malevolent preying on the innocent, dreams threatened by of circumstance and inheritance. Filled with detailed descriptions of the land and environment, these tales are set mostly in New Brunswick but range into southern Ontario, particularly the Niagara region and St. Catharines.
Many of the stories are linked by two couples: Sean O’Riley and Amy Black, and Floyd and Beverly Harris. In “Night Riders,” troubled teenagers Sean and Amy escape from an orphanage in downtown Fredericton, having stolen the vehicle of church elder, Mr Dennis, who has abused them physically and emotionally for years. Confident their predator is unlikely to turn them in, the two set off on a fugitive road trip, conning and stealing their way to St. Catherines, where they remake their lives but remain haunted by their origins.
Curtis frankly confronts the issue of child abuse and its pernicious aftermath. Amy is troubled by nightmares and Sean becomes addicted to alcohol to escape the pain of his memories. In “Country Lanes,” the adult Sean picks a fight in a bar to exorcise the still palpable rage he harbours against Mr Dennis. Although they never fully resolve their childhood traumas, the pair shares a deep symbiotic bond.
Home is both a memory and an elusive goal in these stories about moving and settling, trying to connect and missing connections. In one of the finest pieces, “At Mount St. Joseph’s,” Floyd travels back to Bradford, NB to visit his elderly, ailing ex-wife and make peace with the place where their marriage ended painfully. In her state of dementia, Beverly fails to recognize Floyd, but is happy to converse about the past with her “strange” visitor. Floyd, a poet, is drawn into her memories: “There were things that I could remember that she could not, and there were things that she could remember that I could not, so our conversation was a patchwork of one-sided memories that either of us could make contact with. It was hit and miss, like dancing with a giraffe.”
While most stories are convincingly told from the view of young narrators, Curtis also writes honestly about the relentless downward spiral of old age. At times Curtis posits home as a place, at times home is found in another person: nearly all male characters are emotionally attached to women friends or former lovers. In “Brothers and Sisters” Sean laments his 50 years of unrequited love for Amy, who feels a sisterly affection for him: “Some would say mine has been a meagre existence, but I didn’t see it that way. I had learned years ago that the human body and soul could adapt to any condition. I thought of those old Wallace Stegner lines that Amy used to quote: ‘Home is a notion that only the nations of homeless can appreciate, and only the uprooted comprehend.…What else would one plant in a wilderness…? What loss would hurt more?’”
An award-winning novelist and poet, Curtis’s mode is realist and his observations perceptive and detailed. Although nostalgic in tone, these stories do not romanticize the past or idealize the idea of home. These are quiet, reflective stories of flawed survivors. Although Beverly assures Floyd, “It’s never too late to come home,” that “home” is always a shifting and ambivalent idea.