Northern Alberta author Katie Bickell sets her debut novel, Always Brave, Sometimes Kind, mainly in Fort McMurray, Edmonton and Sherwood Park. Her characters travel the Yellowhead Highway, cross paths on farms and an unnamed reserve, and visit, work at or end up in the Royal Alex and Grey Nuns hospitals. Interlaced with the setting and characters are the political realities of this province—dependence on oil and gas, funding cuts to healthcare and education, the opioid crisis, missing and murdered Indigenous women and the ongoing ramifications of the Sixties Scoop.
Yes, it sounds like a lot for one book. And yet Bickell makes it work. Never didactic, the novel places characters in situations that show how a government decision, or lack of decision, can adversely affect individuals. A teacher suffering from work overload and financial stress is the lead-in to a story about his secret new job. A doctor drives to a rural home to administer methadone to a pregnant woman and meets a disapproving, homicidal mother-in-law. A Kohkum (grandmother) raises a musical granddaughter after the mother disappears.
Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character, with intriguing links among some of the characters and their diverse stories. For instance, Rhanji, a doctor, and his daughter Yasmin, introduced in the prologue, have relevant walk-ons later in several chapters. And Miranda, first seen in the prologue as a child crying “Nikawiy” in a hospital and later seen as a 17-year-old thumbing her way to a Canada’s Got Talent audition, eventually gets her own full chapter and, near the book’s end, shows up en route to a Tragically Hip concert.
Those links between chapters are perhaps why this book is categorized as a novel. But it is best read as an excellent collection of linked short stories. Bickell has had success as a short story writer, with at least three of the chapters here previously published as prize-winning stories (including Alberta Views’s 2014 short fiction contest)—and there are no quibbles to be had with the writing. While it’s a potentially risky authorial decision to inhabit the perspectives of racially diverse characters, Bickell’s writing feels gritty and real. The actions of her young female characters ring especially true—stealing the ashes of their teacher’s son, getting into a vehicle for a ride to Calgary with two sketchy men, or deciding to forever sacrifice their own identity for the perceived benefit of family members. Bickell treats all her characters, regardless of their imperfections, with respect, and shows us ways—big, small, barely perceptible—that humans are capable of being brave and kind. And also, not so much.
—Barb Howard’s new novella is forthcoming from U of C Press.