'Quiet, thoughtful stories will shake readers.'
THE PIOUS ROBBER | SASKATOON STAR PHOENIX
In the blandly titled Sometimes it Seemed, the second story in Saskatoon writer Harriet Richards's latest collection, the story opens with that very phrase: "Sometimes it seemed that every day was the same thing." It then goes on briefly to tell of a crisis the main character, Mary Jane, is experiencing.
"A garden variety depression is a lovely phrase. It could be sold in salt-glazed wood-fired pots at farmers markets, bought by bewildered customers either for gifts or for themselves, to set on previously cheerless windowsills." This tongue-in-cheek nod to a case of depression is easily breezed past, just as the title is, and the writing that so casually acknowledges such a crisis in a woman's life is the achievement at the heart of these highly readable stories, Richards's third collection, The Pious Robber.
Nothing in the story is solved. The woman continues through the murk, bewildered by her own inabilities to grasp simple things. No one is robbed, dies or is even threatened, but to the woman, whose story this is, the crisis is real, and the humane way in which Richards treats her character, solving nothing but acknowledging all, is at the heart of compassionate care.
Richards shows this same quiet care in the opening story, Bagatelle, in which a woman who can't have a child listens on the long-distance phone to an old friend, a woman who is pregnant with the child of a man with whom she is in and out of love. Olivia, who can't conceive, listens as her beautiful friend complains again of "listening to some guy's nonsense and putting up with his clever, rank insults in hopes that he would stay with her, and her alone. That he would not wander again into another woman's bed." Ah yes, garden variety immaturity and adultery, but it still hurts, and someone is still there to listen.
The stories Tangible Reminders and One Day are similarly devoid of drama but quietly caring. The woman in the first story is full of "nameless worry," her sleep "dream-bothered and restless." Her husband has left her and no one notices her anymore. In One Day, the reader might almost miss that the main character, April, lost her sister to suicide. April is worried about her brother, about the rest of the family, about cleaning up after her elderly mother. People go on, quietly bearing their burdens.
The gentle listening that Richards brings to these quiet, understated stories becomes that much more vivid, then, when she takes on three dramatic tales, including that of the collection's title.
Sheer childhood innocence seems to protect two young girls on summer vacation as they help a hurt and seriously deranged robber to food, drink and protection from the elements. While posters in local stores warn of a criminal on the loose, the focus of the story is the girls' summer project, their own little pet to feed, their own little dress-up game.
And in the remarkable A Great Wrong, another innocent, this one a 15-year-old girl, is raped by a boy she liked and trusted. When the boy goes missing the RCMP comes calling, but the family has little to tell. A letter written 60 years later is both so sure of its rightness in dealing with the problem, but also so generous in spirit to those who helped deal with the wrong, that readers can only gasp their astonishment as they read over the retired police officer's shoulder.
Suicide, murder, rape, death by fire, alcoholism, mental illness, adultery, depression: This is the stuff of life in the land of Richards's stories, but humane kindness coupled with a bit of common sense and a few good personal boundaries is the coinage of the realm. Beneath story titles that wave no banners, Richards's words quietly move little mountains.
— Bill Robertson
The Pious Robber |