A child of mysterious provenance is born with supernatural powers. He has “followers” that he loves unconditionally. He provides his followers passage—shepherds them, if you will—from the earthly sphere into death. This messianic oddity is outcast, worshiped as a healer by some and scorned by others as heretical. You can probably see where this metaphor is going, but the strength of A Kid Called Chatter is that you’ll never guess where it ends up.
Alberta author Chris Kelly’s second novel follows a hard-luck youngster, whose quietude earns him an ironic nickname, as he’s herded from one orphanage to another. Chatter’s uncanny gift is attracting dying jackrabbits, who approach him only to breathe their final gasps. “When she was close to where he sat in the grass, her forelegs failed, and she collapsed between the kid’s feet,” the novel begins. Conflicted and confused by his abilities, Chatter flees the orphanage to fend for himself in a fantastic prairie wilderness during the Great Depression. He roams a patchwork of ruins called Farrow, battles bloodthirsty youth in rival gangs, colludes with a moonshiner who pimps him out as a faith healer and conspires with an offbeat ringleader who tries to make martyrs of orphaned children. But wherever Chatter goes, the dying jackrabbits find him.
A fresh entry in the genre of prairie magical realism, A Kid Called Chatter shares a knack for aberrant horror with What the Crow Said by Robert Kroetsch, a paragon of the style. Both novels interrogate frontier masculinity, but the nightmarish frontier in Kelly’s book has little precedent. Kelly writes of “the ancientness of the piled spines, ribs, tusks and limbs of proud bulls and hardy cows, their cycloptic skulls peering down from the painted frieze of the background.” Magical realism often confounds literal and linear comprehension, but Kelly grounds his story in vernacular dialogue and unpretentious narration.
Yet the religious motifs—faith, disbelief, fellowship and power—illuminate the novel most radiantly. Kelly blurs the lines between healing and dying, salvation and cruelty. Is Chatter sending these jackrabbits to a better place, or just killing them? Is death somehow a gift? In one scene, the moonshiner Lou asks Chatter if he can heal animals. “No,” Chatter says. “Animals come to me to die.” Lou responds that it “sure looked like healing, kid.” Chatter’s foil, Greaves, kills animals with enthusiastic cruelty, contrasting Chatter’s passive resignation. Greaves’s shadowy presence forces us to ask if the ideas they embody are discrete or dialectical. This tension creates the book’s strongest moments: unanswerable questions of mercy, fear, doubt and grace. At its core, Kelly’s daring novel holds both mystery and clarifying light.
Robbie Jeffrey is a writer in Edmonton.