Where it Hurts, by University of Northern British Columbia associate professor Sarah De Leeuw, details (among other things) the author’s life and times as a restless yet perceptive resident of remote outposts in northern B.C., on Vancouver Island, and on Ontario’s Belle Island. The essay collection is by turns sombre, tragic, and darkly comic.
The title essay, which opens the collection, comprises a discordant set of anecdotes loosely connected by the theme of loss. The emotional pain rebounds throughout the essay; De Leeuw is a sensitive witness to multiple tragedies and the losses recombine as one hurt. That said, the fractured nature of the anecdotes – which variously focus on a drowned child, domestic assault, a dead stranger at an airport, a homeless man set on fire, and rape – make it hard to get a fix on the essay as a complete unit. De Leeuw doesn’t provide any textual linkage between the unrelated stories, and the resulting ambiguity and disorientation risk losing the reader.
The collection picks up steam with the second essay, “Belle Island Owls,” which finds De Leeuw settling on a single, humid locale. This is a melancholy story of the author’s failed marriage to a man she has known since she was a teen: “We should have known, right then, my love, that we could not outrun the things that haunted us, the things we could not name.” De Leeuw’s razor-sharp prose cuts to the bone.
In “Soft Shouldered,” the 33 missing and murdered aboriginal women of B.C.’s northern stretch of the interprovincial Yellowhead Highway are eloquently re-imagined. “Think of this highway like a cut,” writes De Leeuw. “A slice through darkness or wilderness or vegetation or the towns from which we all run.” In true Canadian gothic style, nature is both revered and feared, and De Leeuw deftly evokes the terrors and perils of solitary hitchhikers who occupy this lonely section of northern road. “So may you never think of your daughter as roadside prey, shoulders soft as dawn, shattered in a ditch overlooked when we travel at highway speeds.”
“After Paul Auster Spoke about Lightning” explores the stultifying existence endured by misguided ex-urbanites who move to the city of Terrace in northwestern B.C. to be closer to nature. The essay centres on the abrupt realization that an educated woman may not have the inner resources to cope with northern life. This painful yet comic epiphany – which De Leeuw so knowingly describes – takes place during Terrace’s bi-annual film festival. An unnamed English teacher decamps the northern outpost and returns south following the festival, “during which she cries while sitting alone in the theatre’s back row.” This essay, which shifts to Prince George’s slightly more sophisticated cultural scene in the second half, perfectly captures the gasping gills of the fish out of water.
The sense of compounded suffering piles up throughout the pieces in this collection, yet De Leeuw makes it endurable by filtering it through careful narration. In her poignant prose, those who suffer are honoured and memorialized.