Arts featured Poverty

Book review: Through the elephant ears, by MJ Dominey

“For anyone already living there the categories were pre-set and you were born into them. Normal people knew they were normal, poor people knew they were poor, and the stupid people knew they were stupid because they were told. The uppity people didn’t know where they belonged, although everyone else did. If you wanted to change your category you had to leave town. That’s just the way it was.” 

Marla Dominey has dug deep into her small town Cape Breton roots to give us Kat, a keenly observant  girl evolving into a woman. We meet her as a child on her knees among the weeds in front of her house, creating an imaginary world of “landscaped yards around pebble mansions and swimming pools dug with  old spoons … snuck from the cutlery drawer.” When we part with her, she is a mature woman living elsewhere. She reconnects with a man she briefly admired across the town’s class divide when they were  teens and discovers “that old feeling of less-than came back just as if it had never left.” 

Through the fourteen stories in Through the Elephant Ears we become very familiar with Kat’s voice as  we accompany her along her rough road to adulthood. We feel her guilt when a child she is supposed to be watching is seriously injured, resulting in a vicious campaign to run a neighbour out of town. She encounters other puzzling and sometimes frightening neighbours, including the local witch, and has her  first experiences of death – a neighbour drowned at sea, a classmate hit on the road and a seagull  pointlessly shot by her brother at the local dump. She is fascinated by an exotic new girl from away while  she is relentlessly drawn into the disastrous slipstream of her rule-defying friend Stacey. Through Kat, we  feel the terrifying vulnerability of young women navigating their own blossoming sexuality surrounded by predatory males and without access to sex education or birth control. Tension comes, too, from the  precarious livelihood of a family dependent on the income of a father who is repeatedly brought ashore from his trawler for his drinking and a mother descending into mental illness. 

Fiction writers are told “show don’t tell” and Dominey does it brilliantly, building up layer upon layer of  detail until the reader can see, feel and smell the never-finished house or the filthy backseat of the local  drug dealer’s low-slung brown car. The people, too, become vividly real this way. It is impossible not to  keep turning the pages. It is also impossible not to care deeply about Kat, with her keen eye for the comic  and ironic, and the cynicism nurtured by deprivation and despair. If you grew up in a small town, anywhere, but particularly in Cape Breton, and particularly on the wrong  side of the tracks, Through the Elephant Ears will go straight to your heart. If you grew up elsewhere, it will open your heart to the scary and complicated path young women living in poverty must travel on the way to adulthood and how it sticks to them for life.

Through the elephant ears, by MJ Dominey, is available at as paperback in KIndle format

See also: Anne Bishop about writing Under the Bridge: ‘There is this idea out there that you can’t write fiction about social justice issues’

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