Although Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories was published in Canada in 1984, it has just been released in the United States. Critics and reviewers have welcomed this collection of frank, intimate stories; indeed, there is much to praise in the author’s first published volume. The eight stories here range widely in length and structure, but all center on the author’s alter ego, Elizabeth Kessler. Like most protagonists of the Bildungsroman, Elizabeth is sensitive and misunderstood by adults in general and by her parents in particular, but unlike many others, she is often an unlikable, even nasty child. Not until midway through high school, when she blossoms on the basketball court and begins to like herself, does she become a fully sympathetic character. Herein lies one of the clues to the stories and perhaps the central message of the book.
Treating this collection of stories as a kind of loosely structured novel is a difficult trap to avoid, since the stories are arranged in chronological order and form a nearly seamless portrait of the artist as a young woman. The short-story sequence is by no means a novel idea, having been practiced by writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, H. E. Bates, and V. S. Pritchett. Connecting stories this closely, however, pushes the form to its limits and creates some of the stresses that weaken particularly the longer stories.
The shortest and in many ways the most effective story is the first, “Celia Behind Me.” Celia is short, fat, nearsighted, and diabetic, not at all the sort of seven-year-old that other children like to be around. Elizabeth’s mother, however, has dutifully instructed her to be nice to Celia, since “she won’t live forever.” Elizabeth grudgingly tries to comply with what she regards as misplaced sympathy, but Celia is too whining and stupid to like, let alone protect, as Elizabeth’s mother insists. Elizabeth’s real fear, however, is that in defending Celia she will become the next target of ridicule, “For I knew, deep in my wretched heart, that were it not for Celia I was next in line for humiliation.” This is the kind of insight and honesty that distinguishes The Elizabeth Stories throughout, and especially the first one, for at the end, Elizabeth rages against Celia, beating her head against a culvert in rage and exasperation. The righteous anger of adults eventually subsides, but Elizabeth is never able to forgive Celia. “She made me discover a darkness far more frightening than the echoing culvert, far more enduring than her smooth, pink face.”
The cruelty of children, especially that of little girls toward one another, is a constant theme in the earlier stories. There is also enough childhood sexuality to satisfy the most rabid Freudian. The adult measures taken to repress violence and sex are appropriately severe, for this is postwar, small-town Ontario, where social activity revolves around the church and where the virtues of “grace, tidiness and frugality” form a kind of unholy trinity. When, therefore, in “Sawdust” three-year-old Elizabeth is caught doing unseemly things with a teddy bear, she is turned over to grandmother for a talking to. Elizabeth does not stop “greeting” as she calls it, and in fact introduces the practice two years later to her five-year-old friends. Eventually “greeting” gives way to rougher sexual games, in which boys capture girls or vice versa. Unfortunately, Elizabeth and her friend Trudy Shantz are humiliated when the two of them are caught mutually “greeting” on the sawdusty floor of Mr. Shantz’s butcher shop. So complete is their shame that the Shantzes are forced to leave town.
For Isabel Huggan, one of the chief emotions of childhood is humiliation, and one of the book’s most touching stories concerns Elizabeth’s shame at having to dance the part of a boy in the annual ballet. Her mother tries to alleviate the pain by buying Elizabeth her first brassiere, but she does not want a bra, she wants her mother to hold her tight and sympathize. Her father, like many of his generation, believes that toughness is better than kindness and sees the role as a chance for his daughter to develop character. Elizabeth interprets his reaction as betraying his desire for a son. The bitterness of this story is offset by a parallel narrative line in which Mavis Kessler’s sophisticated friend from Toronto comes to visit and, when the Kesslers are out, teaches Elizabeth to play poker. “Aunt” Eadie is Elizabeth’s Auntie Mame—wealthy, worldly, and abominated by Frank Kessler because she is safe from him and his kind. This visit ends in Eadie’s humiliation, however, because she nips from her whiskey bottle while teaching Elizabeth to play poker and falls asleep on the couch. At least Elizabeth has seen that it is possible for adults to be shamed, too, though...
(The entire section is 2005 words.)