Brief encounters

Blue Runaways
by Jann Everard

Victoria: Stonehewer Books, 2024
$23.95 / 9781738993307

Reviewed by Bill Paul

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Margaret and Wyatt are getting acquainted, making awkward conversation. Wyatt’s a cattle farmer and Margaret writes for a living. Both are cordial, a little nervous but forthright. The two have just met through a dating site. After a quick meet-and-greet at the airport outside of Regina, Saskatchewan, they head out in Wyatt’s truck. The plan is to camp overnight at a nearby provincial park.

The meeting at the airport is part of the opening scene in “Force Field,” a short story in Jann Everard’s debut collection, Blue Runaways. The story is memorable because of two strong main characters, some top-notch dialogue, and a specific setting that draws the reader into the lives of Margaret and Wyatt. Here’s a conversation between the two during a break for lunch:

Thirty minutes later, as we near the park boundary, the sky pinks up. The truck rumbles over a cattle guard and then another.
…. In the distance, a combine plows a long row, leaving straw in tidy places to be baled later. I measure the number of rows, the distance the farmer has covered since daybreak, the distance yet to be covered. It must be boring work, that zigzag to infinity.
We sit on the fence’s top rail…. “What do you suppose he thinks about all day,” I ask, gesturing at the farmer. 
“I don’t know about him but I listen to podcasts—lectures and fiction that I download to my phone. I need to be able to have the stuff for a conversation at the end of the day.” 
“A conversation with whom?” I ask. 
“Well, Maggie,” he says, tipping back his grubby Stetson and taking his first close look at my face before he winks. “There’s the rub, eh?”

The stories in this collection focus on the emotional lives of middle-class women grappling with difficult choices and indecision. Each story follows a certain pattern. A main character is introduced. She may be unhappily married or about to fall into a relationship or recovering from the death of a close family member. Issues from her past need straightening out. The author is asking the question: what are the values that these women want to try to live by?

Vivid, dramatic incidents occur in different stories. Each incident contributes to the atmosphere of uncertainty. A northern flicker crashes into a window pane and falls to the ground. A woman is frightened by a squatter living in her back yard. A young hiker talks in her sleep dreaming of the Temagami and Magnetawan rivers. The tension that develops in each story is released at the end. At times the resolution feels strained due to the author’s over-reliance on symbolism.

The unnamed narrator in the title story is a young painter, an only child who lost her left arm in a car accident. Since the accident she’s lost any self-confidence or sense of direction that she once had in her life. Needing a change of scenery, the narrator travels to Iceland to attend an arts retreat. The instructor is Liv, someone who trusts her own instincts, described by the author as “white blonde with eyes the colour of reindeer moss.”

Gradually Liv and the narrator develop a close, intimate relationship. 

Writing in short, spare sentences, Vancouver Island’s Everard is able to get to the heart of the relationship between the two women: “Liv surveyed my body from top to bottom. A flush ignited at my neck, fired up my cheeks. With little more than a glance I felt she understood me, every shade of pain and anger and loneliness I’d felt since my surgery.”

Author Jann Everard

Loneliness and the loss of a loved one are two themes that appear often in the stories. We are introduced to characters struggling with guilt or feeling regret about the past but at the same time these characters are able to offer sympathy and understanding to one another. In “Relative Grief,” Edna is a hard-to-get-along-with mother-in-law visiting Alexa, her recently bereaved daughter-in-law. Edna has a doctor’s appointment the next day and is spending the night at Alexa’s condominium. 

The two could be no more different, and it comes as no surprise that Alexa is finding it hard to warm up to her deceased husband’s mother. At one point during her visit, Edna announces that she’s “losing it.” The more we learn about Edna the more we think that this frail but feisty, elderly woman needs somebody’s attention and care. Is Alexa capable of showing some kindness towards her cranky mother-in-law, or is there too much water under the bridge?

In “An Imitation of Grace,” Everard introduces Grace and her two-year-old son, Ollie, who are vacationing at a small village in Bali. Grace’s life has been upended by the unexpected death of her husband. Overwhelmed by loss and feeling distracted and disorganized, she grows distant from her son, preferring her own company. What will happen to make her return to her old self? Her son needs her.

Similarly, there’s Jill, recently dumped by her boyfriend and feeling sorry for herself, in “The Bus Stops Here.” Jill is backpacking in Alberta when by chance she becomes friends with two male hikers. Acting like a pair of older, wiser brothers, the two men invite Jill along on their camping trip, sharing their dry humour and much needed camping advice. In both stories, the main character discovers a way back or finds a path forward.

The tone of the writing in Blue Runaways is hopeful. In the telling of the story, the author creates surprising storylines in a variety of settings. The often convoluted relationships between the characters is what drives each story forward. Characters comes face to face with situations that offer an opportunity or a possibility for an unknown future. In all of the stories the women characters turn towards the intangible, “something that feels open and endless.”

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East Vancouverite Bill Paul enjoys photography and reading fiction and nonfiction. [Editors note: Bill Paul has reviewed books by Jack Lowe-Carbell, Martin West, Dietrich Kalteis, Suzannah Showler, Curtis LeBlanc, Patrick deWitt, Barbara Fradkin, Dietrich Kalteis, Stan Rogal, Keath Fraser, and John Farrow, and contributed a photo-essay, Trevor Martin’s Vancouver, to BCR.]

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The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (nonfiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie


Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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