Jan Thornhill at Cat Sass Norwood Reading Series June 6 2012

Drought & Other StoriesDrought & Other Stories by Jan Thornhill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every time I think I’ve uploaded all my book reviews from print publications I think of one I missed. It should be noted, as it wasn’t in this review, that Jan Thornhill is one of my best and oldest friends. She and her artist husband Fred Gottschalk live in the woods one village east of me in rural Ontario. We are urban expats who shared art college era adventures; Jan and Fred moved to the country a year after Doug and I did, as the adjacent apartment in the farmhouse we were renting became available. That’s over 20 years ago now, amazingly enough.

Drought & Other Stories
Short Story Collection by Jan Thornhill
Cormorant, 2000

Review by Ursula Pflug
Reprinted from The Peterborough Examiner (2000)
477 words

Jan Thornhill is best known for her award winning children’s books, such as The Wildlife ABC, and A Tree In The Forest. Those familiar with the sharp sense of detail evidenced in her illustration will find it matched in the texts of her first collection of short stories for adults, Drought & Other Stories.

A transplanted Torontonian, Thornhill has been living in rural Peterborough County for over ten years. The stories in Drought have both urban and rural settings, but even on the city streets the colour of the sky at dawn, the Latin names of weeds, and the life of our fellow-creatures loom large; Thornhill’s status as amateur biologist and tree-hugger by vocation is beautifully displayed. Even when her people are at their saddest, most broken, they take heart in the shape of a cloud, a mourning dove’s murmur. In one story a suicidal goldfish is a central character, while in another it is three white doves, drawn both to the protagonist’s offerings of stale donuts and, she is sure, to her obsession with an aluminum screen door bearing a St. Francis motif.

Thornhill’s characters are a mixed lot, displaying plenty of cracks and quirks, exuding wry, dry humor and an often stunning lack of self-awareness. They lead often untidy lives as they surf whichever behavioral edge is nearest. Concisely written and tightly plotted, these stories are rich with small acts of violence and larger infidelities we’d find hilarious if they weren’t so disturbing. Her characters are just a bit too mad to be pathetic, a little too much like ourselves to be beneath us. Their complicated often hopeless and certainly hapless searches for love with completely inappropriate, or just equally demented partners are a little too familiar to deride.

In a tiny village, children misinterpret a single woman’s hirsute baby for a new pet monkey, bringing a gift of bananas. Sounds implausible, but Thornhill’s deft language makes it believable, and heartbreaking for the already isolated young single mother. The girls are powerfully drawn as they plan and skirmish and whisper, their schemes bisecting with their first mission of avoiding the arm-twisting neighborhood boys they’ll be dating a few years hence. These rural girls’ names change from story to story, yet many of them could be the same, collecting bugs in one, parking at the swimming quarry in the next, music blaring out of the pick-up’s windows. One swain’s father, caught in the predictable downward spiral of alcoholism and unemployment, takes his own life. The boy, in reaction, turns quickly to the violence he witnessed all too often as a child. But Thornhill’s tales are neither didactic nor dogmatic; any literary excursion into the obsessive, extremist margins of the populace, written with compassion, sheds light on the whole. You. Me. Us. Bravo Jan, for the courage to look, and to record.

Drought & Other Stories

View all my reviews

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *